Tag Archives: Black History

The Power of declaring #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool

ghs_blmThe hallways of Seattle schools were packed as always on Wednesday, October 19, but the difference was that thousands of teachers, students and staff were wearing similar t-shirts affirming Black lives. The Black Lives Matter at School day originated among teachers committed to social justice and was ultimately endorsed by the teachers’ union, the NAACP, the Seattle Council PTSA, and event supported by school district.

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle and editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, answered questions from Brian Jones about how the day came about and what can come of it in the future.  This interview was first published at Socialistworker.org.

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Brian Jones: THE WEDNESDAY of Black Lives Matter at School was pretty special. How did your day start?

Jesse Hagopian: IT WAS an incredible day–like none I’ve ever experienced before. It started with getting dressed and putting on my own Black Lives Matter shirt, and my older son’s shirt, and then my 3-year-old’s shirt.

I began by taking my second grader to school. We get to school, and on the front door is a letter from the school’s PTA stating why it fully supports teachers wearing BLM shirts to school.

That put a smile on my face that only got bigger when I opened the door and saw all the faculty in the building wearing BLM shirts. And then the principal wearing a BLM shirt. And then the school counselor wearing the shirt.

I talked to my son’s teacher about the plans for the day, including showing the students a picture of Colin Kaepernick and asking them what they thought his “taking a knee” protest was about. So I knew right away that this was going to be much bigger than just wearing a T-shirt–that the lessons were going to be deeply meaningful to challenging injustice. It was really breathtaking from the beginning.

Then I went to drop off my younger son at pre-school, and all of his pre-school teachers were wearing the BLM shirts. It was just a celebration. We were all so thrilled that we could come out and say what we all believe, and not be afraid.

Brian Jones: YOU WROTE on your blog that this has never happened in an entire school district. How did the Black Lives Matters At School day spread to more than 2,000 teachers?

Jesse Hagopian: IT STARTED with a couple of brave elementary schools, Leschi and John Muir, which at the very beginning of the school year wanted to have a celebration of Black lives by having African American community members come to the schools and celebrate the students on their way in by giving them high-fives, and then holding dialogues during school.

At John Muir Elementary, a group called Black Men United to Change the Narrative helped organize the action, and teachers designed a Black Lives Matter shirt. The media got a hold of the design, and they freaked out, attacking these teachers for having the audacity to declare that their Black students’ lives are important.

Then some hateful individual made a violent threat against the school, and the school district announced it was going to cancel this celebration of Black lives at John Muir.

But to the teachers’ and the community’s great credit, they carried on–many of the teachers wore their shirts and many of the community members showed up anyway. It wasn’t as large as it would have been without the threat, but these teachers showed real bravery.

Those of us in the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file organization inside the Seattle Education Association, reached out right away to those teachers and invited them to our meeting to share their story.

People were so moved by their work that we decided we needed to show solidarity, and that the best way to do that wouldn’t be to just pass a resolution saying we support them, but to take it a step further and spread this action to every school.

When we brought it to the meeting of the union’s Representative Assembly, we weren’t sure what to expect. But we’ve been building SEE for a long time, and we’ve built up a lot of respect and credibility. So when my colleague Sarah Arvey, one of the leaders in SEE, put the resolution forward to spread the action to every school, a couple of us spoke to it, and it passed unanimously.

That was the first thing that caught me off guard. It was a sign that this was going to be a significant event.

blmshirt_2-jpgWe went to work on a couple designs for shirts teachers could order. The first was a version of the shirt that John Muir wore–it was designed by their art teacher, Julie Trout, and featured a tree and the words “Black Lives Matter. We Stand Together.” The second design also said “Black Lives Matter,” but featured the solidarity fist and added “#SayHerName,” the hashtag created in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death to highlight police violence against women.

After that, we moved on to figuring out how to organize a t-shirt distribution operation for an entire city–thousands of shirts of various sizes had to be ordered and distributed.

But over the course of the next few weeks, we ran out of our orders for more than 2,000 t-shirts. Plus many schools made their own t-shirts. So when you factor in the number of parents and students wearing their own shirts, many thousands of educators and public school families made this declaration to affirm Black lives.

Brian Jones: SEATTLE TEACHERS have been through a few struggles in the past few years, whether it’s the MAP test boycott or the strike at the start of school last year. I’ve heard you talk before about how these mass collective struggles are really the best teacher of all–about how people change in moments like this. Does that apply here?

Jesse Hagopian: IT REALLY does. It’s incredible to see the transformation that people go through when they take these bold steps and struggle collectively.

At Garfield High School, the faculty voted unanimously several years ago to refuse to administer the MAP test, and then we were threatened with suspension without pay, but the school district ultimately got rid of the test altogether. The lessons of that emboldened the staff over the course of the past two years in ways that I’ve only read about class struggle teaching people their own power.

When they threatened to get rid of a teacher at Garfield a couple years ago, the entire building emptied out to rally and say we need more teachers in the building to lower class size, we refuse to allow the district to remove a teacher. And we won that battle.

But you saw these lessons spill out across the whole Seattle School District in the strike last fall, when the union stood up to fight for an end to standardized testing in our evaluations, largely inspired by the actions of the MAP test boycott–but also more recess time for kids, and race and equity teams in every building.

lowellreaderboardI think it was social justice teachers in the union demanding that race and equity teams be part of the contract fight–introducing a discussion about the necessity of educators to confront institutional racism–that laid the groundwork for this incredible day we had of Black Lives Matter at School Day.

Brian Jones: I KNOW the SEE caucus has been putting out some specific ideas about further demands to make about changes in the schools. What were some of these?

Jesse Hagopian: WE’VE BEEN working for some time on issues of undoing institutional racism in our schools.

One issue where we would like to go further in this new moment is trying to end disproportionate discipline in Seattle public schools. The Department of Education came in and did a study that shows Black students are suspended at four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions in Seattle schools.

So we would like to fight for an end to zero-tolerance discipline and move toward restorative justice practices, which instead of pushing kids out of school actually try to solve the problems that they face.

We want an end to the rigid tracking system that has so deeply segregated our schools and classrooms, largely excluding Black students and other students of color from advanced classes.

We also think it’s vital that Black students be able to learn about their own history–their struggles and their successes. And we want to have a new fight for ethnic studies programs in our schools.

Those things were really validated when we had an evening rally as the culmination of Black Lives Matter at School Day. It was standing room only and packed to the rafters with families who came in their BLM shirts to hear from a wonderful lineup of performers and activists and organizers–and, most importantly, students.

We held a roundtable discussion with students from several high schools and middle schools, and they really laid out what the problems are–the way racism manifests in our schools, the steps they’ve taken to challenge this, and what they would like to see different in the schools. A lot of what they expressed were problems that SEE has been working on.

So I imagine we’re entering a new era in Seattle around education. Our city will never be the same, because we have an emboldened core of teachers and students and parents who I think will be more readily mobilized around these kinds of issues.

Brian Jones: I SAW that the Garfield High School football team was making headlines for kneeling during the national anthem, following the example of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and you mentioned that students spoke out at the forum at the end of Black Lives Matter at School Day. So there’s already a pattern of students in Seattle, and at Garfield in particular, taking a lead on these issues. What do you think comes next?

Jesse Hagopian: THE FIRST thing to say is that critics of our movement say “don’t politicize the school”–but the students are already talking about the BLM movement every day, in all of our school buildings. And they’re taking action, whether it’s on the football field or the volleyball court or at rallies.

They’re having deep discussions about the systemic inequalities, the realities of racism that they face every day–and then they get to school, and they’re supposed to stop talking about the issues that matter most to them.

That’s a bizarre disconnect. School is supposed to be a place to talk about the things that matter most, and now they’re being allowed to do that. So I think that a lot of what the teachers did in wearing that shirt was inspired by the actions of students who are protesting all around the city.

The most powerful experience of the day for me was the rally we had at Garfield. On the steps of our school at lunchtime, we had a speakout, with the coaches and the counselors and the teachers and many students on the steps. People were sharing why they wore the shirt, and I saw one of my colleagues, Janet DuBois, with tears streaming down her face.

She beckoned me over, and she asked me, “Should I tell everybody?” I knew exactly what she was referring to because she had revealed this secret to me a year ago, but hadn’t told anybody else.

So right there, in front of all the media assembled to document our rally, and in front of all the students and staff, she let everyone know about the pain she’d been carrying for years because the police had murdered her son in a city in the south of Washington state. She had to leave the teaching profession for many years until she could bring herself to come back. When she did, she got a job at Garfield, but nobody knew about that trauma she was dealing with.

If nothing else comes out of the Black Lives Matter at School Day, at least this wonderful educator won’t have to suffer with that pain by herself–now, she has the support and solidarity of her community.

I think it was one of the most incredible moments of my life to see somebody look around and have an entire faculty wearing BLM shirts–and feel like in that moment she could finally tell her truth.

I hope this action spreads across the country so other communities can experience the power of collectively declaring, “Black Lives Matter!”

Transcription by Sarah Levy

 

What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party—but Should

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By Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian, first published at the Zinn Education Project

Fifty years ago this month, the Black Panther Party was born. Its history holds vital lessons for today’s movement to confront racism and police violence, yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Black Panthers.

bpp_newspaper_collage-501x550The first issue of the Black Panther newspaper, which at its height had a weekly circulation of 140,000 copies, asked, “WHY WAS DENZIL DOWELL KILLED?” Helping Dowell’s family demand justice in Richmond, California, was one of the first major organizing campaigns of the Black Panther Party. Anyone reading the story of Denzil Dowell today can’t help but draw parallels to the unarmed Black men and women regularly murdered by the police. The disparity between the police’s story and the victim’s family’s, the police harassment Dowell endured before his murder, the jury letting off Dowell’s killer, even the reports that Dowell had his hands raised while he was gunned down, eerily echo the police killings today that have led to the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet when we learn about the early years of the Panthers, the organizing they did in Richmond—conducting their own investigation into Dowell’s death, confronting police who harassed Dowell’s family, helping mothers in the community organize against abuse at the local school, organizing armed street rallies in which hundreds filled out applications to join the party—is almost always absent. Armed with a revolutionary socialist ideology, as the Panthers grew, so did what they organized around. They fought in Black communities across the nation for giving the poor access to decent housing, health care, education, and much more.

This local organizing that Panthers engaged in has been erased in the textbooks, yet it is precisely what won them such widespread support. By 1970, a Market Dynamics/ABC poll found that Black people judged the Panthers to be the organization “most likely” to increase the effectiveness of the Black liberation struggle, and two-thirds showed admiration for the party. Coming in the midst of an all-out assault on the Panthers from the white press and law enforcement, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s claim that the Panthers were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” this support is remarkable.

The Textbook Version of the BPP

A few of the major textbooks don’t even mention the Black Panthers, while most give the organization only a sentence or two. Even the small number that do devote a few paragraphs to the party, give little context for their actions and distort their ideology.Textbooks often associate the Panthers bpp_sicklecellenemiatesting-335x224with violence and racial separatism. For example, Teacher Curriculum Institute’s History Alive! The United States reads,

Black Power groups formed that embraced militant strategies and the use of violence. Organizations such as the Black Panthers rejected all things white and talked of building a separate black nation.

While ignoring that the Panthers believed in using violence only in self-defense, this passage also attempts to divide the Panthers from “nonviolent” civil rights groups. The Panthers didn’t develop out of thin air, however, but evolved from their relationships with other civil rights organizations, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The name and symbol of the Panthers were adopted from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an independent political organization SNCC helped organize in Alabama, also called the “Black Panther Party.” Furthermore, SNCC allied with the Panthers in 1968 and while the alliance only lasted five months, it was a crucial time for the growth of the Panthers.

The passage from History Alive! also incorrectly paints the Panthers as anti-white, erasing their important work building multiracial coalitions. Most famously, Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton organized the Rainbow Coalition including the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Young Patriots—a group of poor Southern white migrants. The Black Panthers helped the Patriots set up their own community service programs. In California, the Panthers made an important alliance with the mostly white Peace and Freedom Party. The Peace and Freedom Party ran Eldridge Cleaver for President in 1968 in an attempt to provide an antiwar, anti-racist alternative to the Democratic Party. An editorial in the Black Panther explained: “The increasing isolation of the black radical movement from the white radical movement was a dangerous thing, playing into the power structure’s game of divide and conquer.”

Some textbooks erase the socialist character of the Black Panther Party. Holt McDougal’s The Americans, reads, “Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded a political party known as the Black Panthers to fight police brutality in the ghetto.” While the textbook later acknowledges other things the Panthers advocated, by reducing the reason for their founding to fighting police brutality, The Americans profoundly diminishes the important ideological basis of the party. More clearly than any other national civil rights organization, the Panthers linked the fight against racism with the fight against capitalism. As Newton explained in The Black Panther, reprinted in The Black Panthers Speak, “We realize that this country became very rich upon slavery and that slavery is capitalism in the extreme. We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy both.” The Panthers understood that Black people could not achieve socialism on their own and their work building multiracial anti-capitalist coalitions flowed from that analysis. In fact, the Panthers developed an education requirement for joining the party that consisted of reading 10 books relating to Black liberation and socialism.

Several textbooks also blame the Panthers for the end of the Civil Rights Movement, while ignoring or downplaying the role the FBI played in destroying the party. In a later section in The Americans, the authors write, “Public support for the civil rights movement declined because some whites were frightened by the urban riots and the Black Panthers.” What textbooks like this fail to mention, is the decline in public support was a result of the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) of the FBI. According to scholar Ward Churchill in Agents of Repression:

. . . the Black Panther Party was savaged by a campaign of political repression, which in terms of its sheer viciousness has few parallels in American history. Coordinated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation . . . and enlisting dozens of local police departments around the country, the assault left at least 30 Panthers dead, scores of others imprisoned after dubious convictions, and hundreds more suffering permanent physical or psychological damage. Simultaneously, the party was infiltrated at every level by agents provocateurs, all of them harnessed to the task of disrupting its internal functioning. Completing the package was a torrent of “disinformation” planted in the media to discredit the Panthers before the public, both personally and organizationally, thus isolating them from potential support.

With minimal and problematic coverage in the history textbooks, there is little curriculum for teachers hoping to provide students with the crucial history of the Black Panther Party.

Teaching the Panthers Through Role Play

To try to give students a fuller picture of the party’s history, we wrote a mixer activity in which each student takes on a role of someone who was in or connected to the Black Panthers. The roles give students a thumbnail sketch of that person’s biography along with details that help illuminate aspects of the party. We tried to emphasize why people joined the Black Panther Party. For example, the role of Kathleen Cleaver begins:

As a young Black woman growing up in Alabama in the 1950s, you wanted to challenge injustice. You were inspired by powerful women leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). . . . These women were creating a social revolution in the Deep South and all worked with SNCC. . . . In 1966, you went to organize in SNCC’s New York office and then to Atlanta. You had joined SNCC at the time it took up the slogan “Black Power,” and you saw the Black Panther Party as taking the positions SNCC was headed toward. . . . You decided to move to San Francisco and join the Panthers.

Students also meet Ruby Dowell, Denzil Dowell’s sister who joined the party after the organizing the Panthers did in Richmond.

We also tried to highlight the repression the Panthers faced along with some of the lesser known, but important stories of Panther community organizing. The role for Lumumba Shakur, founder of the New York Black Panther Party chapter, explains how the entire New York Panther leadership was arrested on flimsy evidence. The role continues:

. . . you spent two years in prison while the trial proceeded. You organized prisoners to fight for better living conditions and at one point took control of the jail from the prison guards. You demanded and received bail hearings for every prisoner. Hundreds of prisoners were released as a result of the new hearings.

Students also encounter Panther allies in the Young Patriots, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords. They also meet Panther “enemies” like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Los Angeles police officer Pat McKinley.

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Children at the Intercommunal Youth Institute.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Panthers we tried to highlight was their role in the struggle for anti-racist education. In Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, historian Donna Murch details how the Panthers had their origins in “Agitation for Black Studies courses and debates about the ‘relevance’ of education,” and describes the membership of Panthers as “Composed largely of Southern migrants under 25, including many students recruited from local high schools and community colleges. . . .” The Panthers were formed out of a study group at Oakland’s Merritt College. The Panthers’ belief in the need for an education beyond what was being taught in the school system led them to develop a network of liberation schools for youth.

We hope the mixer we wrote, Wayne Au’s lesson on the Panthers’ Ten Point Program, and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca’s lesson on COINTELPRO, can be starting points for educators who hope to arm a new generation with the story of the Panthers. As the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party draws new attention to the organization, these lessons should be just a few of many to come that help teachers and students explore this rich—and too often ignored—history.

Adam Sanchez, Zinn Education Project Organizer and Curriculum Writer | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryJesse Hagopian | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryAdam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian are editors of Rethinking Schools magazine. Sanchez teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, and works as curriculum writer and organizer with the Zinn Education Project. Hagopian teaches at Garfield High School in Seattle, and is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014).

Editor’s note: The mixer role play will be posted on the Zinn Education Project later this school year.

Gentrifying Black History

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Originally published at The Progressive magazine
By Gerald Lenoir and Jesse Hagopian

Thanks to a long history of redlining, formerly black neighborhoods in cities around the country are continuously disappearing under the rapacious churn of financial real estate interests. But city blocks in prime locations aren’t the only things being lost. Gentrification is also happening in our classrooms and books, pushing out the past, erasing the lives and struggles of African Americans from our collective memory.

Take A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for example, a children’s book by Ramin Ganeshram published by Scholastic. In it, smiling, happy slaves wrap their arms around their master, the first U.S. president. In a Texas high school geography textbook published by McGraw-Hill, enslaved Africans are described as “workers,” rather than slaves, and placed in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration”—as if they came here looking for a better life.  In Jefferson County, Colorado, the School Board adopted a proposal to avoid the use of materials in its advanced placement high school history curriculum that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law”—banning, of course, any discussion of the lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and other actions causing “social strife” and which are foundational for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), which offers whitewashed classroom lesson plans for teachers across the country, is funded by the infamous Koch brothers, Charles and David, who together have more wealth than Bill Gates.  Educator Bill Bigelow describes how the Bill of Rights Institute “cherry-picks” events to hammer home a libertarian message about the sacredness of private property, and also how it offers “quiet cover” for Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman:

 One section on the website is “Teaching with Current Events,” and includes a lesson, “Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws…” Here’s the lesson’s first discussion question: “Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law states ‘A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.

While black history has long been redlined and ghettoized, the corporate wrecking ball is swinging with a renewed velocity, aiming at cornerstones of black history as part of a broader resurgence of racism in the United States. This gentrification of the contributions of black people to our society is sanitizing white supremacy.

These latest developments are preceded by the icon-ification of many historical black leaders. History books portray the “I Have a Dream” version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never mentioning his radical critique of U.S. society.  You will never see this quote from Dr. King appear in any mainstream history book:

 Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

In 1999, the establishment’s absorption of the image of Malcolm X was marked by the U.S. Postal Service issuing a Malcolm X stamp honoring his contributions to human rights.  Never mind that the FBI surveilled and harassed him and were complicit in his assassination. Meanwhile, civil rights leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer are left out of history completely—no stamps for them.

This paving over of black history, and failure to tell the true stories of black heroines and heroes paves the way for developers who destroy black neighborhoods and push out black people out of their homes.

The historic process of neighborhood gentrification began in the 1960s and has accelerated in the new millennium, as the gap between white and black wealth has become the greatest since 1989.  Today, millions of African Americans are being displaced by so-called “free market forces” and are forced to relocate to suburbs without adequate services or job opportunities.

This transition in Washington, D.C., once known as the “Chocolate City,” is marked by the condominiums built on its historic U Street (one featuring a tanning salon on the ground level).  In Seattle, there is a construction crane on every corner, while the rate of black homeownership has dropped by nearly half since 2000.  The occupation of black neighborhoods around the country by police ready to use deadly force helps fuel the displacement and reassures the returning white gentry that they will be kept safe.

However, the engineers of the movement for Black lives are constructing one of the most powerful resistance movements in more than a generation, which is giving confidence to communities across the country to stand up and fight back.

In response to black community pressure, Scholastic pulled the children’s book from retail shelves and issued an apology.  In the case of the Texas textbook, Roni Dean-Burren and her freshman son launched a successful Facebook and Twitter campaign forcing McGraw-Hill to acknowledge that Africans’ enslavement was not the same as white wage-labor, and to alter their online textbook.  In response to the Jefferson County School Board proposal to effectively erase the Civil Rights Movement from history, hundreds of high school students from 17 schools staged a mass walkout.  And in 2015, three conservative school board members were ousted in a recall.

And while the Koch brothers fund the creation of materials glossing over injustice and trauma inflicted on the black community by the killing of people like Trayvon Martin, social justice educators are occupying the curriculum with powerful lessons that connect his death to long legacy of state sanctioned murder.

Black Lives Matter activists have been demonstrating across the country, demanding an end to police brutality and murder.  As we hit the streets, though, we also must hit the books. The struggle to de-gentrify textbooks is inextricably linked to black people reclaiming their past, present and future.  Online, in neighborhoods, in classrooms, and in the streets, organized resistors are building a new black history on a foundation of equity and justice.

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Gerald Lenoir is the former executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS (now Rafiki Services).  He a member of the Black Lives Matter group in Berkeley, California and is a veteran of the 1969 black student strikes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which led to the establishment of the Afro-American Studies Department.

JesseHeadshotKickoffJesse Hagopian teaches history and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. He is an associate editor for the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine and the editor of, and contributing author to the 2014 book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.  He is also the son of Gerald Lenoir. Follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, on Facebook or Twitter.

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