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Faced with recent events around the country in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and elsewhere, Stoneleigh-Burnham students are raising their voices in protest and in solidarity. During lunch yesterday, a group of students stood in the center area and suddenly yelled “I can’t breathe!” and then clearly and firmly shared their thoughts on racism and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases as they held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Several faculty made a point of telling them they were proud, and Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, added a note on the school’s Facebook page.
Last night, Seniors emailed their Little Sisters to ask them to wear black today to signify that black lives matter. Those faculty who happened to have been aware of the event joined in. One senior followed up with an email to the whole school community in which she spoke of the power of that sea of black and the importance of choosing to stand up to racism and inequality.
As it happens, I was at the March in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13 (the title for this article is a quote from one of the speakers). I woke up at 4:00 the next morning unable to sleep, picked up my phone, and wrote the following reaction to the experience:
The man about ten feet away from me bent his head and laughed as he put up his hand. He was not alone in laughing, and certainly far from alone in putting his hand up. All black men present at the March on Washington had just been asked to raise their hands if they had ever felt nervous when stopped by the police, and in a crowd where it could safely be assumed most everyone present if not every single one of us knew in advance that every single hand would go up, it was possible to laugh at that question.
My wife and I had arrived at the March early in the afternoon, when the podium was being shared by member after member of families whose husbands, fathers, sons had been shot to death, taken too soon. And while I felt some of the same crushing weight I’ve been feeling ever since the accumulation of news about Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there was also a sense of healing. These families were grief-stricken, and they were equally determined that we could not rest until no one else, ever, had to go through what they did. Many opened by saying “No justice,” and the crowd responded, “No peace.” And maybe it’s just because I’m a pacifist, but to me it came across as a feeling our souls could not be at peace until true justice was achieved for all in this country.
Meanwhile, on my Facebook timeline (as I would discover afterwards), some of my friends and family were posting messages in a sort of counterpoint. Two guns aimed at the viewer with a caption asking which one is the cap gun and which one is real, noting that making the wrong choice could lead to your death. A picture of a police officer captioned “Police Lives Matter.”
The thing is, I don’t think most if any of the people in attendance at that March would argue that police lives don’t matter. Of course there were signs all over that Black Lives Matter. But to say that is not to minimize the value of other lives (any more than saying Police Lives Matter). It is simply to affirm that when black people are many more times likely than white people to be shot during a tense situation, that is wrong. That is not justice as it should be. That is not how our country should and can be. Indeed, several speakers followed “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and that seemed to be what our collective soul was feeling.
One speaker noted our goals have to extend beyond working with police departments to learn about community policing and building relationships. They have to extend beyond reforming our justice system so that people can expect police misconduct, should it occur, will be handled fairly. They have to extend beyond the elimination of racial profiling (all of these goals, it should be noted, held by many police officers as well). They also have to include equal pay, equal job opportunities, equal schooling, and more. Regardless of race.
My Twitter timeline spoke of the immense numbers present in New York and elsewhere, of signs people were holding seeking peace through unity, of arrests and people being beaten up. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the media’s version of the day, fearing it would focus on the negative, on anything that would create and exacerbate tension.
I am writing this at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, and I know I will have to dive in to media reports later today in case my students bring up events of the weekend, tomorrow or later on. I don’t believe for a second teachers should be telling students what to think, but I do believe we owe it to our students to be able to guide them in thinking critically. And if what I saw and felt can contribute to that, I will not hold back. I won’t pretend for a second it’s the whole story. I won’t pretend for a second that my voice matters more than anyone else’s. I know and recognize this can not and must not be about privileging white voices yet again. But if using my voice helps students see nuance and layers of complexity, I will not hesitate to do so.
As the final speakers were coming to the podium, a black woman near us turned to my wife and asked if we were from around here. My wife shook her head and said, “No.” A few moments later, a blonde white woman stepped up and asked if she could help, and gave directions to 7th and Independence. The black woman gave the blonde women a hug and thanked her for coming, and then did the same for my wife, and me.
Somebody on Twitter wrote that evening that for them, the day was about a movement finding its soul, and my own experience mirrored that.
Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
No justice, no peace.