Why I’m standing up to the police

December 17, 2015

In January, after speaking at Seattle's Martin Luther King Day rally, educator and activist Jesse Hagopian was walking past a line of police blocking a public street when an officer doused him with pepper spray at point-blank range and continued to spray several other people. Despite the unprovoked assault, Seattle's police chief reduced the recommended disciplinary action against the officer.

Hagopian is now being represented by former Seattle NAACP President James Bible in a lawsuit against the city as he seeks to hold the officer and local officials accountable. He spoke with Ryant Taylor and Kathryn McGhee about his case and the fight against racism and police brutality.

WHAT HAPPENED on the day that you were pepper sprayed?

IT WAS a going to be one of the happiest days of my life because I was invited to give the final speech of the Martin Luther King rally, and I've been going to that rally since I was a little kid. It's one of the biggest gatherings of social justice organizers and activist every year, so I was really honored to be asked to give that speech.

It was also my son's second birthday party that day, so I was like, "This is going to be an incredible day."

We had over 10,000 people marching in the streets chanting "Black Lives Matter," and I gave the final speech where I talked about how there are so many hypocrites who like to celebrate Dr. King's legacy, but then disparage the protesters in Ferguson or Baltimore. We know that King would have been in the streets with them. We know he got arrested over 30 times, and that he knew it took direct action challenging power to make any change.

It was only a few minutes after I gave that speech that I was pepper-sprayed in the face by a white officer who likely didn't like my comments. I was completely peaceful. I had been on the phone with my mom. She was coming to get me to go to the birthday party.

A Seattle police officer douses Jesse Hagopian (on phone) with pepper spray at point-blank range
A Seattle police officer douses Jesse Hagopian (on phone) with pepper spray at point-blank range

It was completely uncalled for. It was a violation of my civil rights. I think it's really a terrible situation when people who are calling for Black lives to matter and organizing the struggle for police accountability are then targeted and pepper sprayed by the police. I think what's worse than what happened to me is the chilling effect it can have when people see what police do to those who speak out.

WHAT PUSHED you toward community organizing and being an educator?

I GREW up in a family of activists and organizers. For that reason, I never thought I would be one. My parents were always debating politics at the dinner table, and I was always trying to tune out and do something else. But the reality of oppression can't be escaped, especially for young Black men in this country. I started to see that a lot of what my parents were talking about was directly applicable to my life.

I think I was first politicized during the World Trade Organization uprising here in Seattle in 1999. I wasn't able to make it back from college to that event, and I forever regretted it. All my friends were talking about it, and it was such an exciting moment to see people challenging global corporate rule. That was an early political experience that radicalized me.

Then I became a teacher, and I started teaching in Washington, D.C. The experience of driving past the White House and, 15 minutes later, being in one of the most impoverished ghettos, completely segregated, was very intense. My school was 100 percent Black, and the building was falling part. We didn't have a playground beyond blacktop and one climbing structure. There was a hole in the ceiling of my classroom, so it just rained into my ceiling and flooded the classroom on a regular basis.

To know that this is how poor people and Black people are treated in the nation's capital, the seat of world power, opened my eyes to why we have to be in the struggle. To see police officers roaming the halls of that school--jacking elementary school students, shouting at them, bringing those kids into the back of their cop cars--it was horrific to see on a regular basis.

I knew that there was a deep problem in this nation. Especially because I started teaching in 2001, and I saw that our nation could mobilize a vast amount of resources to go bomb other countries, but didn't have the money to fix the hole in the ceiling of my classroom that I taught in. I think that experience made me know we needed fundamental, revolutionary change in this country.

YOU SAID the pepper-spraying on MLK Day had a "chilling effect."

I'VE HAD different negative experiences with the police in terms of being pulled over and profiled, like so many Black people in this country have--from high school to my time in D.C. to being at rallies and seeing how the police treat people who raise their voice for justice.

So when I was sprayed in the face by the cops this year, I wasn't surprised that I was being brutalized for being peaceful and demanding change. But I was definitely angered and further motivated to change our police system in this country.

My mom did come pick me up, and she was with a friend of hers who is a physician. So he examined me, made recommendations and talked to me about how to deal with the pain--he suggested I use milk. I was really lucky to have a doctor immediately on the scene helping me out.

We grow up from an early age knowing that the police are very dangerous--that they could injure and cause harm to your family, and it's really scary. What happened to me happens so often. The fact that I had video proof of it is the only reason we're talking about it.

When I got home, I was sure that was going to be the end of it. We didn't have a video. We could complain to the police, but they wouldn't do anything. It wasn't until a few days later when someone contacted me and said they had video footage that I knew we might be able to challenge the police. But so many people have no evidence of what was done to them, so they have little recourse.

You can look at the Ferguson report conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and see how racial profiling is just inherent to how the police operate. It's ticketing Black people and poor people on a regular basis as a revenue source for the city as standard procedure. Not just in Ferguson, but in Seattle and in cities across the country.

The arrests for marijuana were through the roof when it wasn't legal here. Now that it's legal, the ticketing for public consumption of marijuana is still disproportionately used against African Americans. So from the ticketing to the harassment to the brutality to the killing, it's all been documented.

We know that communities of color are being brutalized on a regular basis. It's been shown in studies by the Guardian and the Washington Post. There's finally a source keeping track of police killings.

We know that Black people are disproportionately targeted, and yet the government only talks about terror if it's an act committed by someone who practices Islam--when we know it's actually white supremacists carrying out the greatest scale of terror in the country, if you look at the sweeping arsons of Black churches, the shootings inside those churches and the violence against college students of color.

WHY DID you decide to go public with the video evidence of being pepper-sprayed? What has that been like?

ONCE I knew we had evidence, I knew we had to press forward and fight for justice for my case, but more importantly, to demand accountability from a police force that's under a federal consent decree because of disproportionate use of force against African Americans and people of color.

I knew it was important that we use this opportunity to bring about more police accountability, so we filed a lawsuit. A lot of amazing community allies have stood up on my behalf, but also, more importantly, talked about the pattern that my case fits into, with a Seattle police force that has been brutalizing people of color for too long.

We filed this lawsuit, and I finally heard back from the city of Seattle. We finally got word just a few weeks back who the police officer was that assaulted me--Officer Sandra Delafuente. She apologized, apparently, to the chief of police, but she hasn't apologized to me.

I held a press conference to release the fact that the Office of Police Accountability ruled in my favor, saying that it was an excessive use of force and that it was an unauthorized use of OC Spray--the pepper spray they use. They recommended a one-day suspension without pay, which is very light for assaulting somebody in my opinion. But at least it was some kind of reprimand.

What I find appalling is that the chief of the Seattle Police Department, Kathleen O'Toole, directly intervened and believed that a one-day suspension was too harsh for this officer and downgraded it to an oral reprimand. Not even a written reprimand. So it doesn't even stay in her file.

Now you see the systemic nature of the problem. It went from a problem of one officer assaulting me to that officer being protected by the highest-ranking officer in the Seattle Police Department. You can see how they use this blue shield of silence to protect officers who are out of control.

If the officer was too "stressed" by that situation--of me peacefully walking by her--then that's a very, very sad commentary on a police force that would shield her from any punishment.

What's incredible is that I've been organizing in Seattle for many years and have so much support from all these community organizations, I have definitive video proof of being assaulted by an officer with provocation, I have the Office of Police Accountability ruling in my favor--and even with all of that, the SPD won't put forward a true disciplinary measure against an officer who was clearly out of control.

That tells you the depth of the problem of policing in America. If they can do that to me, with all of the support I have and the video evidence I have, then imagine what they do to my young students that I teach, to people without resources, to people without the support of so many different community organizations. Those people are often just disposable in the eyes of the authorities and that was really, really sad.

WHAT DOES this means for you as an educator?

THE LAST couple years of teaching at Garfield High School, I've actually been the pupil, because my students have been teaching me so much about the depth of this problem--about the way they're treated by police, the way that so often their Black lives don't matter to this system.

When I was assaulted, it just reinforced a lot of what many of us already knew. But it also made the problem very urgent to the community at Garfield that we have to figure out ways to confront a police force that's out of control.

I've been inspired by the students at Garfield High School who are unwilling to see injustice and just let it continue. They led a march against police brutality last year, and then, when there was no indictment of Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, they led a mass walkout from Garfield with over 1,000 students streaming out of the school chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." And more important than those one-off actions, they've built an organization, the Garfield Black Student Union, that meets regularly.

When that student in South Carolina was thrown from her desk across the classroom by a police officer, the Garfield students didn't have to suffer silently in their classroom. They got to come together and talk about the pain and trauma that happens to Black people around the country, and right there at Garfield High School. They got to organize students to talk back against it.

When the students in Missouri began organizing a fight back for their rights, Garfield students can bring an awareness of that struggle to campus. They've been so empowered by their collective struggle. It's been really beautiful to see, and I've learned a lot about what it takes to organize against oppression.

HOW DOES education affect our understanding of and interactions with the police?

THAT'S A really good question. I think education really needs to become a focal point of the Black Lives Matter movement, because I think it's a space where there's a lot of young Black people who are told that our schools are the "great emancipator"--that if they work hard and get their homework done, they can achieve their dreams. But in fact, what we're seeing in schools across the country is that they're becoming a pipeline to prison.

There are so many ways that this is the case: whether it's the high-stakes testing denying them graduation or shutting their schools down, or the higher suspension rates in Seattle. Black students are suspended at four times the rates of white students for the same infractions. Or it's the over-representation of police in schools that serve Black kids. So then what could be disciplinary problems turn into legal problems.

The great contradiction between the promise of what we're told schools should be and what they actually are--which is a great sorting and ranking system--siphons off a very few to good jobs and running society and funnels the majority off into low-wage jobs, and then low-income and students of color into prisons.

Potentially, schools could be quite explosive for social movements, and I think we're going to see that more and more. We've seen that on college campuses, and we've seen incredible walkouts on high school campuses. Making our schools sites of empowerment for our youth, rather than places that degrade them and push them into prison, could be an incredible struggle in the months to come.

I think we'll see struggles for Black studies and ethnic studies programs. I think we'll see more and more communities of color joining the fight against high-stakes testing. I think these are movements that Black Lives Matter activists should actively join and support.

CAN YOU talk about how this connects to being a revolutionary?

AS SOCIALISTS, we have to understand the role that the school system plays in a capitalist society.

There are many different systems in place to make sure the current inequality is replaced generation after generation. You don't just wake up the next day as a 1 Percenter and hope that your power and wealth is maintained. You have to actively guard that wealth, and you have to actively maintain inequality in order to keep your power.

There's many ways that they do that--the police force is one way. We saw what happened to Occupy activists who organized against inequality. Mayors met on one day, decided on a battle strategy, and the next day, cops were sent to parks to forcibly evict protesters who were calling out inequality.

Another important way inequality has been maintained is the school system. Ever since mass public schooling began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it's been used to assimilate people, to sort people into different economic classes. I think it's critical that we connect the fight for public education with an understanding of a political and economic system--capitalism--that uses our schools in a particular way.

With that understanding, you can start to link all the struggles in education--whether it's fights against testing, fights against the privatization of our schools, or the fight for Black studies--into a common struggle to completely transform our education system to not just be a ranking and sorting system.

When you have an understanding of the capitalist system, you know we have to go beyond a fight for public education.

We have to connect that fight with the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, because even if our kids do graduate with high grades, if there aren't living wage jobs, if they can't afford to go to college, they'll also be oppressed and exploited. We have to link the Fight for 15 with a fight against the wars in the Middle East--because if we're spending millions of dollars to bomb other nations we're not going to have the job programs we need here.

It's understanding that all of those struggles have a commonality in that they are rooted in a capitalist system that is built on profit and exploitation rather than human need.

WHAT'S THE current status of your case?

RIGHT NOW, my case is in a status called disclosure, so the police are asking question of my attorneys and the witnesses we have, and we're asking questions about what evidence they have. The next phase is deposition, where there can be interviews of different people who were involved. The case is set to go to trial in October 2016.

That seems like a long way off, and I've been going through a lot of stress for a while on this case. I would like to see this case resolved, so I wish it wasn't so far off. Every time I'm at a demonstration and I see police and know they probably know who I am, my anxiety level rises. I've had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about being targeted by either right-wing racists or disgruntled police. I've had my house targeted, my car windows smashed.

It's been a difficult, traumatic process over the past year, and it looks like we've got another year ahead.

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