By Jesse Hagopian, first published at The Progressive.
The Jocks.The marching band. The cheerleaders. The Black Student Union. The teachers. And the administration. These disparate high school groups rarely come together.
But at times of great peril and of great hope, barriers that once may have seemed permanent can collapse under a mighty solidarity. The crisis of police terror in black communities across the country is just such a peril—and the resistance to that terror, symbolized by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem—is just such a hope.
On September 16th, the entire football team of Garfield High School, the school I teach at in Seattle, joined the protest that Kaepernick set in motion by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. While the Garfield Bulldogs were among the first high schools to have an entire team protest the anthem, it has since spread to schools around the nation. Their bold action for justice made headlines around the country. Their photo appeared in the issue of Time Magazine that featured Kaepernick on the cover CBS news came to Garfield to do a special on the protest. And in the New York Times, Kaepernick himself commented on the Garfield football team saying, “I think it’s amazing.”
It was a rejection of the rarely recited third verse of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which celebrates the killing of black people, the ongoing crisis of state violence against black people, and an affirmation that black lives matter. As the Garfield football team said in a statement they later released,
“We are asking for the community and our leaders to step forward to meet with us and engage in honest dialogue. It is our hope that out of these potentially uncomfortable conversations positive, impactful change will be created.”
And those conversations led them to analyze the way racism is connected to other forms of oppression and the way those forms of oppression disfigure many aspects of their lives, including the media and the school system. Yes, football players publicly challenging homophobia may be rare, but the bulldog scholar athletes aren’t having it.
Here is the teams’s six-point program to confront injustice and oppression:
1. Equality for all regardless of race, gender, class, social standing and/or sexual orientation—both in and out of the classroom as well as the community.
2. Increase of unity within the community. Changing the way the media portrays crime. White people are typically given justification while other minorities are seen as thugs, etc.
3. Academic equality for students. Certain schools offer programs/tracks that are not available at all schools or to all students within that school. Better opportunities for students who don’t have parental or financial support are needed. For example, not everyone can afford Advanced Placement (AP) testing fees and those who are unable to pay those fees, are often not encouraged to enroll into those programs. Additionally, the academic investment doesn’t always stay within the community.
4. Lack of adequate training for teachers to interact effectively with all students. Example, “Why is my passion mistaken for aggression?” “Why when I get an A on a test, does the teacher tell me, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could pull that off.’”
5. Segregation through classism.
6. Getting others to see that institutional racism does exist in our community, city, state, etc.
The rebellion didn’t stop with the Bulldog’s football team.
The Garfield High School girls’ volleyball team all took a knee. At the following football game, the marching band and the cheerleaders joined the players on bended knee for justice. At the homecoming game—a space that is more associated with mascots and rivalry then with protest and solidarity—Black Student Union members lifted a sign during the national anthem proclaiming,
“When we kneel you riot, but when we’re shot you’re quiet.”
The sign references death threats directed at Kaepernick as well as cowardly wishes of harm made against the Garfield football team for their actions. One Black Student Union officer told me:
“The anthem doesn’t represent what is currently happening in the U.S. and what has happened in the past—from slavery to police brutality and mass incarceration. Don’t be mad at us for protesting against these issues, be mad at the people who caused them.”
Our school has a long tradition of combating injustice. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s only visit to Seattle he delivered his speech at Garfield High School. One of the young students at that speech was Aaron Dixon, who would later see Stokely Carmichael go on to graduate from Garfield and help found the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Since my time returning to teach at my alma mater I have seen Garfield continue this tradition. In 2011, Garfield high school students lead a walkout against the state legislature’s plan to cut $2 billion from healthcare and education. In 2013, the teachers voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, helping to ignite a national revolt against high-stakes testing in what commentators have called the “Education Spring.”
When a grand jury failed to indict Darrin Wilson for the murder of unarmed African American Michael Brown, the Garfield BSU lead a walkout of some 1,000 students, joining with the NAACP rally, and help launch the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle. In January of 2015, Garfield High School’s Quincy Jones Auditorium (named after our celebrated musician alum) was packed with some 600 students, parents, and community members to hear from political sportswriter Dave Zirin and the legendary 1968 Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos—the Black track star who joined teammate Tommie Smith in raising his fist to the sky during the medal ceremony playing of the national anthem.
All of these events have aided struggles for social justice and have made Garfield a truly fulfilling place to work. But the solidarity exhibited this fall has stirred the deepest emotion in me. This moment was made possible by remarkable support from coaches, educators, counselors, mentors, and administrators.As head football coach Joey Thomas said, “One thing we pride ourselves on is we have open and honest conversations about what is going on in this society. It led kids to talk about the social injustice they experience.” Garfield High School principal Ted Howard also gave his support in a statement that read,
“The Garfield High School Football Team has taken a powerful, united stance with the hope of being a catalyst for positive dialogue and change. The youth and their coaches have put a great deal of thought and heart into their decision to take a knee at their games… I ask our community to support our young people, our team and our leaders.”
One teacher organized the Garfield High School staff for a photo to publicly demonstrate solidarity with the football and volleyball team. As the players approached, the staff broke out in cheers and applause that sent my heart soaring.
And the work continues.
At Garfield this year, educators started a new initiative to combat racial segregation between honors and regular humanities classes by un-tracking 9th grade classes. The Seattle Education Association recently resolved to endorse educators across Seattle wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to school.
Great teachers are important. Yet as history has shown, struggle is the greatest teacher of all. The lessons this movement has imparted on young people today have been truly revelatory. As a member of the Garfield girls volleyball team recently expressed to her teachers:
“I was taking a knee for all of my fallen brothers’ and sisters’ lives who have been taken due to racial injustice and have been taken well before God called them home. I also took a knee because I don’t need to gloriously praise a flag that only seems to praise one class and race.”
Jesse Hagopian is the Seattle Fellow for the Progressive Magazine, a social studies teacher and Black Student Union advisor at Garfield High School, and the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Two weeks ago Dan Beekman of the Seattle Times, a Garfield High School graduate himself, returned to the Bulldog house in search of a story about the Black Lives Matter movement that went beyond forecasting traffic delays that could result from protests or tallying the numbers arrested at demonstrations.
Some ten members of the Black Student Union at Garfield, which I co-advise with Kristina Clark, gave an over 1 hour interview that left me emotionally drained but more determined than ever to act against police brutality. Mr. Beekman and I admitted to each other afterword that we had trouble fighting back tears as the students explained the fear they experience everyday caused by those tasked with “public safety.”
As Garfield BSU Vice President Issa George said during the interview, “We are still fighting oppression and we are still fighting for our lives.” And the students went on to recount the many actions they have taken to build this new movement.
These youth are determined to be part of a force that transforms our country into place that wouldn’t causally dispose of the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many other young African Americans. Their vision of remaking the nations’ institutions extends from the schoolhouse to the courthouse to the jailhouse and beyond. On December 10, The City of Seattle’s Human Rights Commission recognized the Garfield BSU’s powerful voice for justice, awarding them the “Rising Human Rights Leadership” prize at a gala event at Seattle’s Town Hall.
This new civil rights movement that has erupted across the country has shined a light on the horrors of police violence in Black communities. But it has done something else. It has also exposed the corporate education reformers–who often frame their policies of increasing the use of high-stakes tests and privatizing education as vital to closing the “achievement gap”—as being irrelevant to the issues that Black people care the most about. Did anyone see Bill Gates, Eli Broad, or the Walton Family at the last Black Lives Matter protest? The fact is, the richest one percent in this nation, who are using their wealth to make education about rote memorization in preparation for the next high-stakes exam, rather than critical thinking or problem solving, have been silent about the issues that are most important to Black youth.
I don’t want to hear another billionaire say one more word about policies aimed at Black youth or the “achievement gap,” until they have met with the Black Student Union and asked them what they believe is most important.
As Garfield High School Black Student Union Treasurer Elijah Haynes said during the interview, “I have power in my voice and I’m using it.” Are the education reformers listening?
Jesse Hagopian teaches history and co-advises the Black Student Union at Garfield High School. He edited the book, “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing,” which includes a foreword by Diane Ravitch, an introduction by Alfie Kohn, and an afterward by Wayne Au (Haymarket, December).