The last week has been a whirlwind of information and events all across the country. I’ve been moved by businesses – first the Target in Minneapolis and joined by a slew of others – who are putting out statements saying essentially “we’ll be ok, we can rebuild, lives cannot be replaced.” They’ve been joined by hundreds of other businesses standing with the movement. This is a radical shift from even last year. I’ve applauded those businesses, thinking we are going to remember this!
Then I remembered I have a business. It’s a tiny business, but a business nonetheless. But I set it on autopilot a week or two at a time, and I hadn’t changed anything last week. That was an oversight and I apologize.
On my personal Facebook and Instagram pages I have put out several reflections and have circulated a petition around police accountability. I’ve stayed engaged. But I realized last night I also need to put out a statement here because as teachers we have a social, moral, and spiritual obligation to speak out against injustice, especially when it concerns our students of Color.
George Floyd was murdered through a disgusting, vile, state-sponsored lynching. This murder of a Black man is distinctly different than most we have seen in the news over the years, because the police cannot grasp at the weak threads of self-defense. “He might have had a gun.” “I felt threatened.” “He was combative.” The worst part for me as a teacher right now is that I cannot sit with my kids in their pain. I cannot look at them while they express their frustrations and fears. I cannot hug them. I love them.
Regarding the demonstrations, I believe the post I wrote yesterday on my own Facebook page sums up my perspective and doesn’t need much elaboration.
What is a broken window or a destroyed car compared to a human life? Property is nothing. Each life is of infinite value. I believe this both as a mathematician and a Jew. The Jewish tradition teaches that G-d created Adam alone to show us that a single person is the entire world and one who would destroy even one life is doing the equivalent of destroying the entire world. How many worlds have been taken from Black mothers, Black fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, sons and daughters by the government entity of the Police, who supposedly protect and serve? How many infinities have been lost? Some infinities are larger than others, and the destruction of Black life over the past 401 years in this country cannot be understood as a cardinal quantity. The value is infinitely infinite. So if you dare to feel incensed by looking at images of the destruction of property, check yourself and remember this is a response to the theft of something of infinite more value. There is no comparison.Reflection on George Floyd Protests, May 31, 2020
In my own city, demonstrations began Saturday and I did not participate. I have been too afraid to join any group of people because of COVID-19. The fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic illustrates just how critical this cause is right now. People are choosing to forgo safety precautions to raise their voices and let their presence be seen to say “enough is enough.” It’s that important.
My partner’s preferred method of participation is to donate money to organizations that support Black businesses and to political candidates whose platforms include criminal justice reform and generally display empathy for Communities of Colors. I respect her perspective as a Black woman and support her plan. She supports my efforts to advocate from home.
My final goal in this post is to share a few of my own experiences working in an inner city school, just to bring to light some injustices that many white teachers and white people in general have no awareness of. These experience represent regular reality, not any extraordinary circumstances.
- My first year teaching the security guard (I know not police, but same line of work) was incredibly abusive. He taunted students all of the time and it often provoked their behavior to become violent. He basically backed them into a corner to be suspended. I witnessed this all the time and reports to higher levels in the security department seemed to fall on deaf ears. During the fourth quarter, this security guard – a 6’2″ 300+ pound white man – forcefully pushed one of my students – a 4’8″ 85 pound 14 year old Puerto Rican boy – across the hallway into a locker. It was vile and violent. I reported it to my principal verbally and in writing. When no discipline was brought the next day, the student’s mother advocated persistently and the school police (we have our own police department) were called in to investigate. My union representative went with me to my meeting with the investigator. This was a precaution she wanted to take given past experiences with the school police; take that for what you think it means. The next year he was transferred to another building.
- My third year teaching, we were doing fall NWEA MAP testing and students have to turn in all of their belongings to the front of the testing room. Testing ended and all students were gone. During fourth period a girl went to the room next store and asked the teacher where her book bag was. The teacher wasn’t sure but said she would help her find it. She became very upset. She stomped her feet and yelled. A student’s book bag is their whole word. It contains all of the belongings the bring to school and quite possibly all of their important belongings. It had her phone and laptop in it too. The district police were in the building for an unrelated check in with a student. They heard this girl yell and they came toward the room. They saw her stomping her feet and heard her yelling so they apprehended her like a violent criminal. Why? She is Black. They handcuffed her and slammed her face-down on the radiator. This girl couldn’t find her book bag, the teacher was managing it, and they escalated it from a 4 to a 100 in 2 seconds flat. They forced her down to the school office. During all of this, the girl’s brother was in the room and saw his sister being beat up. He understandably started to panic and hit the lockers as they moved down the hall. Yelled to let her go, etc. The police were not going to listen to a young Black man yell at them. The police reported whatever story they wanted to tell to the principal and forced him to suspend them both for 10 days.
- My fourth year of teaching the police showed up in the building in a similar scenario as above. Some students got into a fight, as they often do. Security guard was handling it. Police stepped in and ended up arresting the girls. Luckily, the principal had the foresight to put the building on lock down as we were approaching a class change. He knew what would happen if hundreds of students flooded the halls seeing their friends and classmates being manhandled. I was two floors above where all this happened and became aware of the situation as the lockdown started. Had no clue what was going on. Lockdowns often indicate a threat in the building, like a shooter. The threat was the police. Just so people are clear – students get in fights, security guards break it up, and principals suspend. This happens literally on a daily basis across a district as large as ours. We don’t need police to handle 99% of it. But they show up and escalate the situation.
Police certainly provide an essential service in a society. My problem is when they don’t serve the purpose, when they insert themselves in a situation they don’t belong in, escalating the whole thing, or when they can’t communicate like basic human beings to handle a situation. We as teachers cannot touch children. We have no other tool than our voices. Yet we are able to manage 20-30 students in a room, many of whom have truly traumatic histories. Why are we able to keep the peace but police can’t?
So anyways… this is reality. But it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t need to be. I love all of my students. My black and brown students live in a different world, an unsafe world, and I am not OK with it. I support the Black Lives Matter movement and believe it with all my heart. I pray that change will come this time around.