"Never met a wilderness she did like."
Eric Garner Protest in Chicago Dec 4 2014 by Samantha Lotti
“Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society”-Yuri Kochiyama
These words from human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama are never far from my mind each morning as I think about my students. I plan our lessons as just one tiny sliver of a great, historic justice movement.
So much of the debate in education is about how poverty and other outside forces impact kids in school, but in many classrooms students are learning to use their education to fight poverty and systemic oppression. With a nod to Dr. King, if we are to win, we must focus all of our energy on tilting the moral arc of the universe toward justice and to counter those who are actively pushing in the opposite direction.
For many across the country right now, this idea is contained in the image of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old executed in a short minute by 16 shots from a Chicago police officer’s gun. Laquan didn’t need more academic rigor, he needed a city that valued his life.
But if the Laquan McDonald shooting is a wake up call to the nation, it reflects something we in Chicago have known all along. We live in city ruled by people who do not value the lives of black youth. Chicago Police rank third nationally in shooting and killing residents, and disproportionately shoot African Americans. Chicago police harass residents, especially youth of color, with a stop-and-frisk rate nearly sixty times that of New York police.
In Chicago, groups like Black Youth Project 100, STOP/FLY, VOYCE, and Project NIA have been fighting this battle for years. These young folks are very clear about the systemic nature of this deadly oppression. The Chicago Teachers Union and its social justice unionist caucus CORE (of which I am a member) have joined the students to take vocal stands against racist oppression both in the streets and within our schools.
We all agree that mayor Rahm Emanuel and the powerful people who worked to get him elected don’t care, or know how to care, about kids afflicted by poverty in our communities. We see this in the Laquan McDonald video and those of the killings of Ronald Johnson and Philip Coleman and others. The mayor and his cronies drop crocodile tears, apologies, and promises to change, even as they fight the release of news about the murder of another Chicago youth. We see the same callousness in the systemic protection of Dante Servin who murdered Rekia Boyd.
Thousands of people who poured into the streets demanding the resignations of Rahm Emanuel and other city leaders responsible for these injustices will not be placated by apologies and spin doctoring.
The Chicago Teachers Union has announced that 88% of its teachers voted to authorize a strike. Only 4% voted against. We have even invited parent and community groups to the bargaining table to voice their own demands, much to the board’s chagrin. Those opposed might paint our demands for more libraries, nurses, and social workers as unfeasible given the school district’s financial crisis. But our students’ lives matter, and they deserve the same services that Mayor Emanuel’s own children receive.
In this context, Kochiyama’s quote seems to me a deep universal truth to embed in the heart of every student. When a young person knows he or she might die in the street at the hands of a police officer who is supposed to be there to protect all kids’ safety, the respectability politics of “no excuses,” “academic rigor,” and “college and career ready,” add insult to a desperate, injurious reality.
Why waste precious class time doing a close read of a technical manual from a Pearson reader when we can read local newspapers and community blogs? Why should students learn docile obedience in class when the times call for us to civilly disobey and march in the streets? What does “College and Career Ready” matter when the bodies of students of color are being obliterated?
Kochiyama’s quote is not so much a directive, but a brilliant guiding light.
For the last month at my school, our 7th and 8th grade students have studied the Laquan McDonald case as part of a broader look at race, justice, policing, and violence in 21st century Chicago. The students have participated in actions of their choice, and built their own campaigns, for example a push to amend the uniform policy to allow all black dress for #BlackoutTuesday in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
They ask me each morning, “When’s the next protest? “Has Rahm Emanuel resigned yet?”
Students at Roosevelt High School are boycotting the unhealthy lunches served to them; at Dusable Campus students launched a sit-in to protest the closing of one of the few remaining libraries left in primarily black high schools. Student leaders are joining community activists for a walkout calling for Mayor Emanuel’s resignation.
Our youth are not failing. They are reacting with their whole hearts to what they feel and witness in their communities. For too long, school has been a place where righteous youth rebellion is smothered and placated. Too many teachers put a halt to social justice in their classrooms with the phrase: “It’s good you want to act, but don’t disrupt the teaching and learning here."
Let’s make school a place to plan, build skills and plot to smash injustice. Let’s teach our students that it is not only permissible, but desired for them wake up every single day with their minds set on justice, and that they can use their schools to fight for their own and our communities’ survival.
As Grace Lee Boggs put it, “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
In that sense, this isn’t just Chicago’s struggle. Yes, we have a particularly oppressive leadership. But the reality is the same elsewhere. If you are an educator, join us with your own students. Create a space for students to develop into leaders of this movement. If you are not a teacher, help us by recognizing that our communities need to stop waiting for outside leadership. Let’s grab the future!