Hoodies Up! Black Lives Matter!

By Moé Yonamine

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“I don’t understand why people talk about him like he’s a criminal. He was a 17 year-old kid,” Kiana said. Kiana was one of more than 100 students in my Mock Trial classes at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. As the most diverse high school in the state, our students brought in stories and connections to the criminal justice system that could not—and should not— be ignored in critically analyzing the justice system.

Many of my students have expressed feeling excluded by the legal and criminal justice system in talking about what is truly “just.” From the first day of class, students made it known that they were hungry for the real education—one that was relevant to their lives, that empowered them with learning about fighters who looked like them, and that gave them tools to change systemic injustices that they have seen in their own lives. Learning about Trayvon Martin was an important example.

Many students who are now juniors and seniors, brought up Trayvon Martin’s name when offering examples of injustice in the criminal justice system. Even some of the youngest 9th-grade students could recall where they were as middle schoolers when they learned about George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.

Students could see themselves in Trayvon or in someone they care about. The heartbreaking question that continued to surface was: If this can happen to Trayvon, what does it say about society’s love and value of our lives? We read, we wrote, and we shared about each other’s stories of a time they or someone they know or watched experienced racial injustice. Several students gave recent examples of being stopped or harassed as they wore their hoodie. Dave, a white freshman student chimed in compassionately, “But it’s not like everyone gets stopped,” he said. “I could probably walk around with a hoodie on all day long wherever I go and not get harassed. It’s just wrong.”

Through these first months of school, we continued to hear on the news about Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice. We watched Usher’s new music video, “Chains” and Janelle Monae and Wondaland’s recent performance in Portland of their song, “Hell You Talmabout,” that sings through a painful list of unarmed African Americans who have been killed nationally, and in the Portland area.

“Why don’t we know about any of these people?” asked Reanna. “What can we do? I just want to cry.” Over winter break, many watched the news, and learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice would not face trial. At the chime of the bell to begin class on the first day back, Myia began, “I could not wait to come back to school and talk about this. What was so reasonable about shooting a 12-year-old kid?”

As a teacher, I want to create a community where students can feel embraced in their sense of justice and injustice, to be able to imagine a more just world, and to learn how to be agents in making change. We had to learn how to organize for action and it needed to start in our own neighborhood. I encouraged students to go back to the questions that we started the year with as we began to educate ourselves on the criminal justice system and the prison system: What is the problem? What is the solution? Whose voices are included? Whose voices are missing?

Our Mock Trial classes watched a speech by Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who spoke at Maranatha Church in Portland last April asking the community to remember her son on his birthday with a special message to youth to be a part of taking action to creating a more just community. The students quickly reflected that their voices as youth from their North Portland neighborhood were missing. Our neighborhood is comprised of immigrants and refugee peoples with historically underrepresented African American and Latino groups, as well as low-income white families. Students were inspired to target February 5th, Trayvon Martin’s birthday, as a day of action to address systemic racism and racial profiling.

The students busily designed not just one project, but six projects leading to their day of action: creating fliers calling on a school-wide wearing of hoods, drafting letters to teachers and administrators, developing a student survey to ask about peer experiences, reaching out to the media about the day of action, and organizing a panel of prominent fighters from the African American community. Students in my three classes composed this letter:

Dear Teachers,

When we learned about Trayvon Martin, a lot of us were very impacted by his story. He was 17 years old from Miami. He, like us, had many dreams; one of which was to attend the University of Miami to study aviation and become a pilot. He was known for wearing his hoodie all year round even on the hottest summer days and was wearing a hoodie on his last day. What got to us also was the way that he was described in the trial and in a lot of the media as if he was “suspicious” or bad because he, as a young Black man, walked around wearing a hoodie. This is something that many of us can relate with and we want it to stop.

We put on a trial back in the fall and learned a lot about what happened on that last day. We also have been paying attention to reactions from around the country and learned about how “Black Lives Matter” began as a response by one of the founders in hearing about the verdict of George Zimmerman. Even since that verdict, we still keep hearing stories like Trayvon’s and we want to take a stand… We ask you, our teachers, to stand with us by wearing your hood. We also ask you to support your students in keeping their hoods on during class. It is a silent statement but a loud statement we hope to make together. He could have been someone we know or someone we care about.

Having our school united on this day with our hoods up will send a message that Black Lives Matter and our lives matter here. Our school may be the first one to have a school-wide Hoodies-Up Day in Portland and can lead our community by making this an annual reminder. We hope to inspire our neighborhood to take action by taking this stand against racism and racial profiling. If there is one thing we have taken away from this organizing for this day, it is that we will be active participators in making history and not passive bystanders watching it all happen.

Their statement was read over the intercom the morning of the Hoodies-Up day this past Friday. As students and staff flooded the halls in hoods, students boldly sought solidarity in their stand to end systemic racism and racial profiling.

In the afternoon, the students were met with a dynamic presentation on “Justice Is…” by educators, activists and community organizers: Julian Hipkins of Washington, DC’s Teaching for Change (via skype), Nyanga Uuka and Llondyn Elliott of the Portland Urban League, Kayse Jama of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, CJ Robbins of the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights and Black Male Advancement, and Renée Mitchell, a prominent slam poet of Spit/WRITE who teaches journalism and storytelling at Roosevelt. Panelists spoke passionately about their own experiences with racial injustice, sharing stories of taking action individually and collectively, while commending this day of action and students’ courage.

As more than 120 students leaned in hungry to take in the panelists’ every word, a sophomore student of mine, Miley, leaned over to me and said, “This is just the beginning.” She smiled proudly, adding: “We’re never going to forget this day.”

To the media, the students had a strong message. “A hoodie doesn’t define me,” said TJ, signaling his resistance to the prejudice and discrimination he sees around him. “Know the person under the hood,” echoed Carter, demanding the world to see the humanity in the child that Trayvon was. Roosevelt’s Mock Trial students hope that this will be the first of many events where they as youth will be central in the vision and action for the changes they want in our community and society.

Roosevelt students

Roosevelt Black Lives Matter Panel–View more photos from the day of action on Portland Public Schools flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/41430185@N08/albums/72157664399122315

Moé Yonamine teaches at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor.

Black Students’ Lives Matter: Building the school-to-justice pipeline

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Read the full article on our website: rethinkingschools.org.

David Bacon

We’re at a tipping point. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride—and far too many other African Americans—have put to rest the myth of a “post-racial” America. In death, these Black youth—shot down with impunity because of the color of their skin—have provided a tragically thorough education about police terror and institutional racism, and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was originally created by queer Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as a call to action after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in July 2013. Their battle cry went viral and then turned into a national uprising when Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. The movement exploded when Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for choking to death Eric Garner.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, Black students have played a pivotal role. For example, at Seattle’s Garfield High School, some 1,000 students, led by the Black Student Union (BSU), walked out the day after the non-indictment of Wilson was announced. As 17-year-old Issa George, vice president of the Garfield BSU, told the Seattle Times: “This is our time, as youth, to speak. . . . The waking up that America has done in the past couple of months—something that us as youth get to witness and get to be a part of—has been extremely powerful.”

College, high school, and even middle school students have staged protests and school walkouts in cities around the country. According to reporting by the Nation’s George Joseph and others, student activists of the Baltimore Algebra Project held a die-in when their local school board voted to shut down the first of five schools. The board fled, and the students took over their chairs to lead a community forum on the closures.

Black students take these risks because they know their lives and futures are at stake—from police violence on the street; from the dismantling of their communities through foreclosures, gentrification, and unemployment; and from the destruction of their schools through corporate reform.

The School-to-Grave Pipeline

For the past decade, social justice educators have decried the school-to-prison pipeline: a series of interlocking policies—whitewashed, often scripted curriculum that neglects the contributions and struggles of people of color; zero tolerance and racist suspension and expulsion policies; and high-stakes tests—that funnel kids from the classroom to the cellblock. But, with the recent high-profile deaths of young African Americans, a “school-to-grave pipeline” is coming into focus. Mike Brown had just graduated from high school and was preparing to go to college when police killed him. According to a 2012 investigation by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by law enforcement, security guards, or vigilantes every 28 hours. A recent ProPublica report found that “Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

The Black Lives Matter movement inspires us to fight the school-to-grave pipeline as an example of structural racism, after decades in which anti-racism has been defined in excessively personal terms through anti-bias or diversity training. Anti-bias work focuses primarily, and often exclusively, on internal and interpersonal racism. In other words, if you strive to not be racist in your personal relationships, that’s good enough.

There is definitely a place for personal reflection and discussion of racist attitudes and beliefs. And there is no doubt that many individual police officers need anti-bias training and to be held responsible for their actions. But that’s not enough, as the statistics on police violence, incarceration, school suspension and dropout rates, inequitable school financing, and school closures make clear. These are all sharp indicators of structural racism. When Michelle Alexander says mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow,” she insists that the racist structures that have existed since slavery have mutated and changed, but they have not been eradicated. We can’t understand, teach about, or change what’s happening in this country if we don’t face this fact. And our students know that. Being an effective teacher in today’s society means taking the Black Lives Matter movement seriously.

For all the “students first” rhetoric of the corporate education reformers—who claim their policies are directed at closing the “achievement gap”—they are conspicuously absent from the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the corporate reform agenda is in direct conflict with the goals of the movement. In city after city, Black students are those most affected by the decimation of neighborhood schools, the “no excuses” discipline and rote teaching of charters like KIPP, the substitution of endless test prep for meaningful curriculum, and the imposition of two-years-and-I’m-gone Teach For America corps members on our highest needs students.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t just mean Black people don’t want to be shot down in the streets by unaccountable police. As anti-racist teachers and students, we need to expand the slogan to include:

  • Stop closing schools in Black neighborhoods.
  • Fund schools equitably.
  • Support African American studies programs and substantive multicultural curriculum.

When activists staged a Black Lives Matter die-in in Detroit last December, Will Daniels, from United Students Against Sweatshops, told the Nation: “As a Black student, my rationale for doing the die-in was that structural racism causes not only police brutality, but also the starving of majority Black schools. This is a subtler form of violence.”

Let Black Children Be Children

The murder of Tamir Rice exposes a connection between individual racism and structural racism with important implications for teachers. Tamir was only 12 years old when police showed up at the Cleveland park where he was playing with a toy gun and shot him down within two seconds of their arrival. When his 14-year-old sister ran over, she was tackled to the ground and handcuffed. The officer who called in the shooting described Tamir to the dispatcher as a “Black male, maybe 20.”

Overestimating the age, size, and culpability of Black children is a widespread phenomenon, according to The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, based on research led by Phillip Atiba Goff and Matthew Christian Jackson of UCLA. One of their studies involved 264 mostly white female undergraduates who were asked to assess the age and innocence of white, Black, and Latino boys. The students saw the Black boys as more culpable and overestimated their age by 4.5 years. “Perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race and, for Black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said Jackson. “Black children may be viewed as adults when they’re just 13 years old.”

It’s not much of a stretch to see how this affects Black children in schools where the majority of their teachers are not African American. Any time teachers or administrators see Black children as older than they are, “just being teenagers” (or pre-teens, or little kids) becomes something threatening that has to be controlled or disciplined. How can children grow and learn if the adults around them see them as older and “guiltier” than they are? What will it take for school communities to eradicate this deeply embedded prejudice?

Why Not “All Lives Matter?”

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, some participants have questioned whether “All Lives Matter” is a more inclusive slogan. Although we recognize the serious impact of racism and other forms of oppression on many groups of people in the United States, we think it’s important to understand and talk with others about the historical and current realities behind this specific demand. As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s originators, explains:

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. . . . It is an acknowledgment that one million Black people are locked in cages in this country. . . . It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families. . . . #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide-reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

A civil disobedience demonstration that closed down the federal building in Oakland during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend highlighted the connections. Behind a banner reading “Third World for Black Power,” protesters identified themselves as Arabs, Filipinas/os, Latinas/os, Koreans, Chinese, Palestinians, and South Asians “for Black resistance.” As Filipina activist Rhonda Ramiro said: “The wealth accumulated through the enslavement of Black people in the United States enabled the United States to go around the world and colonize countries like the Philippines. We see our struggle for independence as linked 100 percent.”

Within that framework, how teachers apply this understanding will obviously vary from classroom to classroom, depending on how old the children are, their experience and knowledge about the issues involved, and the level of community that has been built in the classroom.

How to Make Black Lives Matter in Our Schools

So what does all this mean in individual classrooms and schools? Here are a few ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into our teaching:

>>Read the rest of the article on our website! 

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