An interview with Minneapolis student leader Nathaniel Genene about the uprising for Black lives, the victory of removing police from public schools, and the need to rethink what school looks like.
On June 2, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the Minneapolis Public Schools school board voted to terminate the Minneapolis Police Department’s contract, removing all police from their schools. The board also directed Superintendent Ed Graff to come up with a new plan for school safety by August 18, the date of the board’s next meeting.
While the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd was the immediate catalyst to the removal of police from MPS, many youth had been working toward this goal for years. A 2018–19 survey by Minneapolis Public Schools survey showed that school cops had more interactions with black students than with their peers. MPS will save $1.1 million annually by not contracting with the police department.
On June 7, Seattle high school teacher and author Jesse Hagopian interviewed Minneapolis Public School student Nathaniel Genene about the uprising in Minneapolis against police violence and the movement to remove police from the schools. Nathaniel is the current student representative on the Minneapolis Board of Education and an officer on the citywide Youth Leadership Council for the Minneapolis public schools.
A version of this interview was originally published in The Nation magazine.
Minneapolis Public Schools Expel the Police!
Jesse Hagopian: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Nathaniel. I know with the uprising at your doorstep, you have a lot going on. I want to talk with you about the dramatic victory to remove police from the Minneapolis schools. But before we get there, let’s start with your experience as a black student in the school system. Can you talk about how you have experienced racism at school?
Nathaniel Genene: We can start by looking at what happened even just
two days after the murder of George Floyd—these are nights where I wasn’t going to bed. I couldn’t get my mind off his murder. And I had a teacher message me, the only black man in class, “Nathaniel, if you are an IB diploma candidate, it is not reasonable to skip these exercises. I understand if you’re struggling, but if it’s simply because you have already passed, well…”
Instead of finding out how I was doing, he assumed I just wasn’t trying. But I was hurting. And I knew a lot of students of color were hurting as well. And that was definitely really frustrating. This kind of experience, of teachers not understanding the impact of racial violence on students or taking the time to really understand me, is not new for me or for black students across the country. I did say something back to the teacher to let him know what I was going through, and he did send an apology out to the class. But that was really frustrating.
As far as encounters with school resource officers, I’ve never personally had an encounter with the school resource officer at Washburn [High School]. In fact, I never even got to know his name—which shows you that he certainly wasn’t a helpful or supportive presence at our school. And I know many students who felt uncomfortable and intimidated by having him there. But especially now, I just can’t imagine a climate or culture where MPD officers would be beneficial to a school’s climate after the incidents that occurred last week, with students literally witnessing and recording a white officer putting his knee on an unarmed black man’s neck, students getting pepper-sprayed, teargassed, shot with rubber bullets in the streets by MPD officers.
JH: I’m truly inspired by the bravery of the youth in Minneapolis who took to the streets and helped lead a movement against police terror. It would have been outrageous to have to return to school and have to walk by a cop in the hall who had assaulted you. Can you tell me about how you got involved in struggles to change education, and how you came to serve as the student representative on the school board?
NG: I have always believed in student voice and in amplifying and uplifting the voices of the most unheard students. I think that is really the most valuable thing a student rep can do. I started interning at an educational nonprofit last summer. Our goal was to redesign schools so that students lead lessons—and they’re at the center of education. That made me think more deeply about how to engage students and what student voice really means. So going into the school year, I was thinking about: How do we engage students in their own education? And it’s usually very tokenizing, or it’s just about checking a box. I wanted to make sure that we did it differently this time. And I thought the easiest way to do that would be running to be the student rep on the school board. And here I am today.
JH: How did you come to see the video of George Floyd, and how you have been since then? How are you coping with the horror of the video? Have you been to the protests with your classmates?
NG: Tuesday morning I woke up to the video of George Floyd’s murder, like a lot of people. I had a Zoom meeting that morning, but I literally couldn’t get off Twitter. I couldn’t get off the news. I literally just kept watching it. It got to be too much, so I just left the meeting. I actually drove down to 38th and Chicago where George Floyd was murdered. At that time there were only 25 or 30 people down there.
I actually never got out of the car. I just kind of went to see the scene and pay my respects and reflect. I’ll be honest, I literally couldn’t believe it, so I had to go down there and see that corner for myself to believe it. I have also gone to a couple of the demonstrations.
But to watch the struggle explode into what it has become across the city and across the country has been inspiring. It’s been very motivating—but it’s also been quite terrifying at times. There were times last week, there were days last week and nights where you go on social media and there were threats of white supremacists in my neighborhood. I have gone entire nights without sleeping. So, last week was really hard, but it was the first week in a while where I actually got to see and talk to my friends in person, and it did help a lot to reflect on all of this with friends.
JH: I am so glad you are finding ways to stay emotionally connected with your friends.
NG: For sure. I have also gone back to 38th and Chicago about four times to go see the memorial. I took my family and I even got to take my little cousin. I also went with friends. I keep going down there thinking that it’ll make me feel better, but it really hasn’t. And I don’t know if this feeling that I have right now will ever go away, but it still has been nice to go with family and friends and kind of reconnect after being so isolated and disconnected the last couple of months.
JH: Let’s talk about how the youth in Minneapolis organized this effort to get police out of schools. I understand that there’s been a movement for some time to remove police from schools, that this didn’t just start after George Floyd was killed.
NG: I think it’s important to point out that this has been a generational struggle. We’ve had cops in schools since the ’60s. So this movement definitely did not start last week. And groups today such as Young Peoples Action Coalition [YPAC], Our Turn, and Youth Out Loud have been working on this issue for some time.
But watching the protests, I knew we had to make this struggle the number one priority. It was last Wednesday, one of those nights where I couldn’t go to sleep, watching friends of mine get shot and teargassed, and I was thinking: There’s no way that when we come back to school we can have those officers in our schools. This is not how we are going to want to set up our school climate.
So that’s when we really got started talking, we had some very good leadership on this at MPS, and they actually decided to have a special session and to vote on this on June 2. We had to prepare for this important vote in a matter of days. So I sat down with a student from CityWide, our student leadership board in Minneapolis, and talked about how we could gather student testimonies, about their views on police in schools, in just a week. I knew I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence just by telling students, “Go e-mail your directors.”
We decided we needed to make a survey form about police in schools and school safety—and we actually borrowed this idea from the teachers’ union. We reached out to students through many advocacy groups, such as Our Turn and YPAC, and through our citywide student government. And it ended up spreading a lot quicker than I had thought. We ended up getting over 1,800 responses, which is crazy, because that was in a matter of about three days.
We could have gotten even more if we had just made an online petition that anyone could respond to, but we really wanted to know what the students had to say. We asked students questions like, “If you had the funds to make changes, and if you had the funds to make yourself feel safe and secure, what would you use that money for?” And I think those received the most meaningful responses. So we made a summary of the responses and presented that to the board. Hopefully over the next couple of months, while we start working on how to make sure that students feel safe next year, we can start using those responses to help craft a plan.
JH: Actually asking students what they would need to feel safe and then funding it—seems so straightforward but so rarely happens. Can you tell me about what happened during the vote to remove police from the Minneapolis Public Schools?
NG: On June 2, we held a virtual meeting because we’re actually not allowed to be in person yet. But there was a huge protest at the Davis Center, which is our headquarters at MPS. Our teacher’s union organized the rally, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was there. She spoke at the rally and many students did too. In the end, the vote to remove all police from Minneapolis Public Schools went 9-0. I think the vote going unanimous really sent a clear message to the MPD and to institutions across the country.
JH: As I’m sure you have seen in the days right after your vote, Portland also voted to remove police and Denver is now considering it. I am working with youth and other educators to remove the police from schools here in Seattle. There are also several important national organizations that have been working hard to remove police from schools such as the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools, and Black Lives Matter at School.
NG: Yes, and there was a student group, Students Deserve, that reached out to me from Los Angeles.
JH: I want to end with the vision of the students in the survey. What did they say about how police-free schools could make them safer, and what kind of alternative programs could be put in place to support students’ overall well-being? What would it look like if black lives mattered in school?
NG: Students came up with many important alternatives to police in schools, like increasing access to mental health services for black, indigenous, and students of color; promoting restorative justice and the use of restorative justice practices; hiring more social workers, counselors, and teachers of color; increasing the salaries of adults who already mitigate conflict, and security provided through community outlets.
In terms of what more we need to do to make black lives matter at school, I believe we need to hire more teachers of color. And we must make sure that we have a curriculum that reflects our students, especially our black and brown students. This uprising is showing us that we can make those changes and so many more. We have to make these changes because our lives are at stake all around the country. If you think that the MPD just happens to be one bad apple, you’re not that much different than the people who think that those four cops who murdered George Floyd were four bad apples. It’s not just a Minnesota problem. It’s a nationwide, systemic problem that people have been fighting against for years.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks, it’s that there are a lot of really good people who continue to hold up some really bad institutions and policies. And I think it’s finally time for that to change.
Nathaniel Genene is currently a Junior at Washburn High School. He has been with MPS for almost twelve years, also attending Field Middle School and Hale Community School. He believes every student should have equal opportunity to enriching extracurriculars, post-secondary preparation, and a rigorous curriculum.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and ELA at Seattle’s Garfield High School and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse is the director of the “Black Education Matters Student Activist Award,” the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Black Lives Matter At School: An uprising for educational justice, and co-editor of the book, Teaching for Black Lives. Jesse is the recipient of the 2019 “Social Justice Teacher of the Year” award from Seattle Public School’s Department of Racial Equity, the Seattle NAACP Youth Coalition’s 2019 “Racial Justice Teacher of the Year” award winner, and the 2013 national “Secondary Teacher of the Year” award winner from the Academy of Arts and Sciences.