Tag Archives: la migra immigration

High School Students Self-Organize

2 Aug

Here is a video of the Youth for Justice rally that high school students in Seattle organized last week, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This video shows some great spoken word poetry and hip hop; in several of their poems, students spoke about the school system and how it needs to change.

Unfortunately the video only covers the beginning of the rally, not the end where students lead an un-permited march through the streets and a blockade of a major downtown intersection. They defied several police dispersal orders and engaged a crowd of onlookers coming out of their jobs and out of the mall. There were no arrests, probably because the police realized that to arrest such a defiant group of people, they’d have to mace them – and it would look really bad to mace a bunch of youth of color in front of a crowd of onlookers with cameras, especially in the midst of all the anger about Trayvon Martin’s murder.

This rally was unique because it was youth led and it was militant. It wasn’t simply a matter of adults organizing and facilitating it, then prioritizing youth voices. It was a matter of youth organizing and facilitating it, and deciding which adults they would allow to speak during the open mic. Often when there are defiant actions like this, some activists will claim that those who disobey police orders are putting youth of color at risk. Noone said that this time around, because the action, from beginning to end, was clearly lead by youth of color themselves.

Several of my friends were remarking how the youth were better organized than many adult organizations, and they were able to invite the crowd to participate without letting adults take over or talk down to them.

Teachers: how can we teach in ways that support this kind of student self-organization, instead of thwarting or coopting it?  I am out of town right now visiting family, but I will share my insights on this question when I get the chance.  In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments.

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.

“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.

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