Archive | July, 2013

The Speech I Gave at the Youth for Justice Rally

24 Jul
Youth for Justice Rally

Youth for Justice Rally

The Youth for Justice rally today was amazing!  Over 100 high school students in Seattle came together in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  They also expressed solidarity with the ongoing prison hunger strike, and  demanded an end to ICE Holds. (ICE holds are when  the King County jail holds prisoners to be deported; inside their chambers, the County Council was debating whether to drop this policy, while we rallied outside).

The students were better organized than many adult activists, and they spit some powerful poetry expressing a sharp analysis of the system we live in, including the education system.  Their solidarity and care for each other was moving, especially since it crossed racial lines.   The mainstream media coverage doesn’t really do it justice – if the youth share their experiences, poems, speeches, or videos of the rally, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, here’s the speech I gave, calling for teacher-student solidarity in the struggle against white supremacy:

I am a public school teacher.  And there are some politicians out there who think that my role should be to stand up in front of you and list a bunch of  facts about history.  They want me to make you write these  down so you can regurgitate them back  on a standardized test.  If I don’t do that, they will try to get me fired.  What  those people don’t understand is that truth is not in a textbook or a test, it is out here in the streets.  Truth is here in your poetry and your courage and your unity. It is here in the fact that you are not simply learning history, you are making it.

So I am not going to stand up here and lecture you.  In fact, you are the teachers, and I am and the student.  Because what I’ve learned from you today is that solidarity is alive.  It is not just an idea or a slogan, it is here in your words and your actions.

  In the California prisons, the Black and Latino gangs have declared a truce so they can strike against the prison guards who deny them an education and torture them in solitary confinement.   You have taken that spirit of solidarity from the prison yards into your neighborhoods, your classrooms, and here into this park.   I see  non-Black youth here supporting Black youth who are being targeted by the George Zimmermans of the world.  And I see non-immigrant youth here supporting immigrant youth who are being targeted by La Migra, and the ICE holds that the politicians up there enforce.   This is the kind of solidarity we need to tear down white supremacy and to replace it with freedom.

You’re giving me hope that we can build that kind of solidarity between students and teachers. We all know that Black youth are 3 times as likely to be expelled from Seattle public schools as white students.  If you all decide you want to fight that, some of us teachers will get your back.  We all know that they are cutting funding for education and youth programs, while they’re spending 210 million on a new juvenile detention center to lock ya’ll up.  If you want to fight that, we will get your back.    We all know they are trying to deport immigrant youth who they label gang members, and we know that they put that label on you simply because of who you kick it with at school.  If you want to fight that, we will get your back.

Teachers across the country are fed up with this system.  Seattle teachers successfully boycotted the MAP test this spring and defended a teacher at the Center School when he was transferred for teaching anti-racist curriculum.   So if they try to  get us fired for teaching about the Black Panthers or the Chicano movement, will you get our backs?    If we demand smaller class sizes and enough time to build caring relationships in the classroom, will you get our backs?

This, right here, is where the real learning happens, not on some scantron bubble test.   We make the road by walking it.  We write the story by living it.  And together,  we can tear down all the borders and prison walls that divide us.

Trayvon Martin and the Badass Teachers Association

22 Jul

I recently joined the Badass Teachers Association.  The BAT Facebook forum exploded rapidly over the past few weeks, drawing together thousands of teachers who want to fight back against the corporate education “reformers”.  These politicians and think tanks, who should be called “deformers”,  are setting us up to fail by imposing new centralized standards while  at the same time cutting crucial resources we need to teach.   I’m happy to see that teachers are tired of this, and that we are starting to organize ourselves to fight back.  I’m happy to see we’re done playing the role of passive, obedient professionals, and instead we’re ready to act like badass workers.  This puts us in good company:  it puts us on the side of badass truckers, longshore, warehouse, and fast food workers who have been fighting back recently.

Badass longshore workers face down EGT, a company pushing for corporate waterfront reform (aka unsafe working conditions, and more corporate control of workers on the job)

Badass longshore workers face down EGT, a company pushing for “corporate waterfront reform” (aka unsafe working conditions, and more corporate control of workers on the job)

However, to build a movement of badass teachers,  we will need to break through the wall that has held back so many  labor movements in the past: the wall of institutionalized racism, or systemic white supremacy.  White supremacy  divides working class people, giving some of us unearned advantages over others, and making some of us complicit in the oppression of others.  This weakens the overall struggle of the working class for freedom and creativity.  Instead of fighting back against the capitalist system that is controlling us, white supremacy prompts us to go home at the end of the workday thinking “at least I’m not Black” (or Latino, or Native, or…. )

White supremacy can only be broken down through action.  When a mostly white jury found George Zimmerman not guilty for the murder of  Black teenager Trayvon Martin, thousands of people took to the streets.   Imagine what it would be like if workers built off of this energy by  shutting down business as usual, saying “if you are going to kill our youth, we will refuse to work”.   This is how the West Coast prisoners have responded to  injustice; why can’t we do the same?  Of course, a strike action would take serious coordination and organization, and I hope that networks like the Badass Teachers Association can start laying the groundwork for that within our schools.

However, judging from the Facebook debates, not all of the Badass Teachers are on the same page about the need for this kind of solidarity.  Some suggested that talking about race, rather than racism itself, is the source of the divisions among us.

The whole discussion about Trayvon had started because some  teachers were posting heartfelt questions about how they could help their students process these traumatic and racially charged  current events in the classroom.  Others were emphasizing that many of their students could be the next Trayvon if we don’t take action to challenge the racism that lead to his murder.  However, in response to these genuine expressions of solidarity, other teachers argued that talking about Trayvon or about the underlying racial issues is a distraction from fighting the corporate education reforms.

I strongly disagree with that last perspective, and I posted this statement explaining why:

 Some people on here are asking why issues of race are relevant to badass teachers. Here’s one answer. Teachers are under attack by corporate education deformers like Gates, Broad, the privatizers, etc. One of their main strategies is to rally working class communities, including working class Black communities, against teachers. They do this by pointing out how the public schools reproduce class and race inequality in society – what they call the “achievement gap”. The thing is, our schools DO reproduce inequality and everyone knows it. The corporate “reformers” have no effective solution to that problem – they will simply scapegoat us for it, in order to deflect popular anger away from them. But they will succeed at doing that if we remain complacent in the face of all the inequality in our schools. So if teachers want to defeat the corporate attacks on us and our schools, then we can’t simply defend public education as it currently exists . We need to fight to transform it. We need to directly confront institutionalized racism and white supremacy, in our schools and in the larger society. Joining our students in making sure they don’t become the next Trayvon Martins is part of that.

That’s one more reason why I’ll be out there on Tuesday joining with students who are rallying to make sure they are not the next Trayvon.  If we are going to be badass teachers, we need to act like badass fighters against all forms of oppression, including the white supremacy that is devouring the lives of our students and communities.

Youth Rally For Trayvon and the Prison Strikers

18 Jul

This week people have taken to the streets in mass protests across the country, furious that George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager in Florida.   High school students in Seattle are moving this struggle forward by organizing their own rally on Tuesday, the 23rd, at 1:30 in front of the King County Courthouse.   They are pointing out that Trayvon’s death is part of a racist system, the same system that denies them a meaningful education.  By taking action they are learning through practice, and making history instead of just taking tests about it.  They are also teaching the rest of us that this generation is tired of being imprisoned, miseducated, and gunned down.  Like the prison hunger strikers, they are showing it is possible to come together across racial, communal, and neighborhood lines.

1003150_1394139197472221_1337673584_nHere is the call to action they posted on their Facebook page:

We the youth are deciding to come together in solidarity to protest on the behalf of trayvon martin and against the other injustices of the system. We the youth of color are profiled by police, we are more likely to get arrested and go to jail then finish high school, and our families are scared for our safety. We are tired of every obstacle that stands in our way. We are looked down on as the minority but together we are the majority. We are asking for other youth and adults to come together in solidarity to help protest with us. Not just for trayvon martin but for other youth that may have lost their lives. All races, ages, and neighborhoods are welcome to come!! We were inspired by the strike at the California and the Green hill prisons and we participated in the rally at the King County prison.

It is significant that students are making connections between the West Coast prison hunger strikes and the struggle against racist vigilantes like Zimmerman, seeing both the prison system and violence by individual vigilantes as obstacles to their growth.  I have been surprised that more people are not making these connections.  One of the students involved in organizing this rally also did her own hunger strike last week, in solidarity with the striking prisoners.

One student also wrote:

Youth in my community are devastated about the many injustices of our system. people think that just because we are young we have no say or even care about what goes on in our justice system, we are labeled as a minority but together we are the majority. I believe that if we come together and make our voices heard we will make a bigger statement of how serious we really are. Treyvon Martin, john t Williams these are not the only injustices. if you want to stand up for human rights don’t be afraid to fight. There is going to be a cypher session and poetry will be read. This page is for youth to organize, adults we would like for you to stand with us because this is not over we demand justice. come support us justice for everyone.

Please spread the word, and if you can, please print out the flyer above and pass it out.  Thanks!

 

Seattle High School Student On Hunger Strike In Solidarity with Striking Prisoners

12 Jul
Prisoners at Green Hill youth prison in WA state are on strike.  This banner was hung on the prison fence during a solidarity demonstration on Monday 6/8

 This banner was hung on the Green Hill youth prison fence during a solidarity demonstration on Monday 6/8

I received this letter from a high school student who attended this week’s rally in solidarity with the California and Green Hill prison strikes. She told me she shared it with King 5 News but they never responded to her. I am posting it here with her permission, to make the public aware of her courageous action and her insightful critiques of the school and prison systems. Please share this widely. 

Hi,

My name is Alondra Garcia. I’m 16 years old, from Evergreen High School (AAA). I wanted to share that I’ve been on hunger strike since Thursday morning, July 11th, in solidarity with the prisoners who are on hunger strike in California prisons and in the Green Hill Youth prison here in Washington State. I had also fasted on Monday the 8th and Tues the 9th for the same reasons. I decided to restart my hunger strike on the 11th for religious reasons.

I want to say that I believe that everyone should get an education; as long as we don’t get it out here in our population, it causes people to go through the wrong things and get into bad situations. The bad situations cause them to get imprisoned, and when they are imprisoned most of the prisoners want to change but don’t get the chance to change because we are not supporting them. When we, the people, don’t give them any chances, then they have a great chance of going back due to the fact that we are constantly telling them they don’t belong with the outside population and we’re telling them they have no opportunities to work with most jobs.

The “prisoners” are treated as lesser than the rest of us, and it’s not right to judge someone who had to do what he had to do to survive. If people and the system really want there not to be so much violence, they need to stop putting them down and support them on their way to change, and give them the proper education they didn’t get and they now want to learn.

Please hear me out when I say that the public schools only teach us how to be a worker, but in private schools they get taught how to be the boss. There is so much injustice in the justice system and the schools that we, the students, go to. If they want us to graduate then the school system should at least try to help improve, but instead they just talk and talk but never help as much. They don’t clarify what we need to do and don’t actually give us an explanation of why we need to learn it. They give us tests on subjects we didn’t learn about. To make it worse, they base their decisions of how many jails to build on those test scores.

The system is manipulating the youths’ thinking and decreasing their mentality so that they think they are never going far. We are the future, and the prisoners got a right to get treated better. They should have a chance to change and become a better person.

THANK YOU

Sincerely,

Alondra Garcia

Pen Tapping Beats in the Age of Austerity

10 Jul

Austerity:

– Cuts to education, health care, housing, and everything else we use to regenerate our lives.

– A state of bare life: no roses and barely enough bread.

– When capitalism goes into crisis, and can save itself only by cutting our lives.

Pen Tapping:

-An art form created by youth in schools.

– A complex rythmic process produced with the simplest means of production:  no studio, no computers, just pens on a desk.

It looks like this:

My students introduced me to pen tapping, telling me they used to have tapping battles like this in their middle schools.  They said they’d often have to evade school authorities and teachers to make this happen.  I thought it was telling that the student who uploaded this video felt the need to specify that “this was done in Yearbook NOT detention.”  How many students start tapping when they get bored in some drill-and-kill standardized test prep class?  How many get disciplined for it?

Pen tapping strikes me as a form of creative resistance to austerity.  The system cuts the music programs in working class / inner city schools across the country, and yet students keep making music, turning their pens and desks into instruments and creating a Youtube trend with millions of followers.

Think of all of the complex cognitive skills that go into this next video.  The rhythm, the lyrics, the rhymes, the flow, the shifting tone and volume.  It would probably be difficult to teach all of this; it certainly runs the gamut of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  And yet students are teaching this to themselves and each other:

Is this  creativity something that school makes possible,  or is it a rebellion against school?

Fellow teachers, if you saw students doing this in your classroom, would you

a) tell them to stop

b) praise them

c) give them time in class to refine their skills, linking this to other learning objectives

d) refer them to the principal’s office?

What would your building administrators expect you to do?  What bubble would they expect you to fill in if this were a multiple choice question on a teacher certification exam?

I worry that the answers to these questions become increasingly ugly as the age of austerity settles in.  That can make it hard to be positive. 

But this art form shows how resilient and creative youth can be.  It also shows why we should fight cuts to music programs, and for access to instruments, studios, mics, etc. If students can do this with two pens and a desk, imagine what they would be able to create if they had control of the full means of production?

Youth Prisoners To Strike, Demanding Education; Solidarity Rally Monday in Seattle

5 Jul

ImageMy students, coworkers, and I have been closely following  developments in the California prisons.   There have been several hunger strikes over the past few years, and because prisoners’ demands have not been met, they are going to resume a state-wide hunger strike on Monday, July 8th.  They are also planning a labor strike that will disrupt the functioning of the prisons.  The leadership of all of the racial groups in the CA prisons, including the gangs, have declared an end to hostilities among inmates, so that they can unite in the strike.

Now,  youth prisoners at a facility here in Washington State are joining the strike, with their own set of demands. One of these demands is for access to education:

3. EDUCATION: Provide relevant and specialized educational programs to all res- idents even after they have graduated from High School. These could include cos- metology, music/multimedia production, library access, law training, culinary arts, and more. There are plenty of rooms that are currently not being used for anything but storage. They should be used.

My students were deeply moved by this when we discussed it this week.   Many of them have been incarcerated, or have loved ones who are currently behind bars.  They were impressed to see youth taking the lead, even under such difficult circumstances.

A number of students were saying “if all the races can unite inside, why can’t we do it here on the outside?”  Others were saying that it is easier to organize in prisons then it is in schools and neighborhoods because out here we are not forced together, there are too many distractions, and it’s easier for the system to turn different racial groups, gangs, and neighborhoods against each other to break solidarity.

Some students also argued that if the prisoners’ demands are met, then people might actually try to go to prison because they will  be receiving better education and social services on the inside then their communities have access to here on the outside.   Other students replied that none of this compensates for a person’s freedom being taken away, and that prison is still terrible and noone would go there willingly.

In any case, everyone agreed  that our committees should have full access to education on the outside, and everyone was inspired by the fact that the prisoners are demanding education.  Some students said that that people will be more likely to fight back against cuts to our schools if prisoners win access to quality education. Instead of saying “why can they have it if we can’t?”, people might say “they are fighting for it, and so should we”.

In any case, these questions highlight the importance of building a movement on the outside to support these strikes in the prisons and to also add our own demands.

To prevent the kind of dynamics my students warned against, we should demand immediate access to quality, relevant, creative education for everyone both inside and outside of prisons.  We should also demand an end to the school to prison pipeline that pushes youth of color into prison, and an eventual end to youth incarceration period, rerouting funding for incarceration into community-based support and educational alternatives for everyone.

There will be a solidarity rally Monday the 8th in Seattle at noon, at the King County Jail to support the prison strikers’ demands.  

Teachers might also want to ask ourselves: if prisoners can get together and strike, why can’t we?  With all of the corporate ed. deform/ privatization agendas being shoved down our throats, we can hardly teach anymore.  Instead of trying to retire, shift careers, or grit our teeth and bear it, what if we came together and took collective action?   In many ways, the prisoners are at the forefront of the U.S. labor movement; they are some of the most controlled, repressed, and exploited workers in the country, whose conditions are basically slave labor.  And yet, they still rise.  That should be an inspiration to all of us. Especially when at least one prisoner (long time political prisoner Mumia Abul Jamal) is rooting for us in our struggles against the daily disrespect we are facing in this age of corporate privatization.

“Do you need a password to become a US citizen?” and other heartbreaking student questions

4 Jul

citizenship-billboard_c-1919_loc_3g03808v1-e1368817317418Every once in a while a student will ask a question in class that breaks my heart because it reminds me of the utter absurdity of our society.

Don’t get it twisted – I’m not heartbroken because  the students’ questions themselves are absurd. I’m not calling them stupid.   I’m heartbroken that we live in a  society where students have to ask these kinds of questions in the first place.

For example, students should never have to ask their teachers “what will you do if  la migra [immigration agents] come try to pick me up in class and deport me?”  Students should also never have to ask “can you give me something to read at home, because I don’t think it’s safe for me to come to school anymore.”   These are questions that make me wish a  revolution could start by the end of the class period.

I felt this heartbroken when a student asked “don’t you need a password to become a U.S. citizen?”  His family had moved here from another country and he was  asking this because he  automatically assumed he was not a citizen since he never got his password.

I wondered where this student was coming from with this question.   Was he noticing that he is is denied privileges that others have?  Was he thinking that other people must be  buying access to some password that  unlocks these privileges,  like  purchasing a subscription to Netflix?  Was he thinking that U.S. citizenship is like a piece of software, where you download the free trial but you have to pay a fee to unlock the deluxe edition?

The social studies teacher in me wanted to lament the fact that this student’s misconception was never cleared up in elementary or middle school civics lessons.

But the revolutionary in me recognized  a much deeper problem: that this student’s perception is actually alarmingly close to how U.S. citizenship really works.

In fact, you generally do need a password to become a U.S. citizen, and it looks  like this:

arm

Historically, immigration laws were designed to keep out people who did not have this skin color.   In fact, the  U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 defined citizenship itself as white:

“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.” (quote from here)

It isn’t just white skin that  has historically defined what it means to be American; it is also white behavior.  And white behavior means taking an “oath of allegiance” to the U.S.  It means obeying the rules, staying quiet when you are oppressed, and, most of all, aiding the system in keeping down Black folks, indigenous folks, and people in other countries who are  rebelling against U.S. imperial control.

white male privlege

White skin privilege was the last refuge of the miserable.  Poor, working class white folks might come back to their tenements or homeless encampments, exhausted at the end of a day of back breaking labor, but the system wants them to think “at least I’m not Black” instead of “I want to go on strike.”  The system wants them to think, “I can move up in the world as long as I don’t unite with non-white folks to fight back.”

So in other words, the same password that unlocks the privileges of the deluxe edition of U.S. citizenship also locks us inside of it.  As Noel Ignatiev put it, white skin is a set of golden handcuffs. That’s why my friend Desert Rat wrote a song that goes “White People suck, so be pale pink if you have to.”

Books like Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White document how some groups were historically denied the white password to full citizenship, but they gained access to it over time, usually by positioning themselves as loyal citizens willing to side with the Anglo elites against Black people.

Whiteness is not the only divisive password to citizenship that the capitalist system has created.  Another one is the “model minority myth”.  After decades of racist, explicitly-anti-Asian immigration laws, middle-class East Asians were recruited to the U.S. after 1965 to fill technical jobs.  Racist politicians have tried to pit them against Southeast Asians, working class Asians, Black and indigenous folks,and other immigrant groups; they say that because some Asians can move up in society, U.S. immigration policy is fair and racism is not something we should worry about anymore.  This hurts Asian communities and everyone else. 

This process of divisive “password protection”  is also playing out in the debates over comprehensive immigration reform going on right now.  Congress is aiming to pass legislation that will create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented folks, at the expense of increased immigration enforcement vs. the rest.  This is an attempt to create a caste of so-called “good immigrants” who can be turned agianst a subordinated caste of so-called “bad immigrants”.  It’s a classic strategy of divide and conquer.

This will directly affect our students. While some of them will have access to Deferred Action and possibly the Dream Act, and will be able to go to college and get papers, others will be labeled “gang members” and will be deported because they have criminal records, even if it’s for minor offenses.  Considering the fact that many of our students are labeled gang members simply because of the neighborhood they live in or who they hang out with at school, this will severely divide and disrupt communities, including our school communities.

If this is what Congress means by a “pathway to citizenship” then it’s no surprise that my student is mistaking the process for a “password to citizenship.”

Citizenship may be expanded for certain groups, but many youth will be left asking why they’ve been denied the password to the deluxe edition.

I am a teacher because I want to help my students create the tools necessary to answer these heartbreaking questions.   I am a revolutionary because I want to struggle for a new society where we can spend time asking new questions,  because these ones will have already been answered decisively through collective action.

——–

What kinds of questions break your hearts?  Feel free to share in the comments section, and we can discuss.