Black Lives Matter and the teacher strike wave

February 22, 2019

The second national Black Lives Matter at School week of action took place at the beginning this month. A movement that started with a simple event in 2016 in a Seattle elementary school and was expanded into a week of action by Philadelphia teachers has now grown to a movement in over 30 cities, during which educators teach lessons about the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and school communities hold forums and protests to raise four demands: 1) End “zero tolerance” discipline and implement restorative justice; 2) Hire more Black teachers; 3) Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum; and 4) Fund counselors not cops.

This year, the week of action featured a range of locally organized events: Philadelphia organizers held a forum on gun violence and trauma; the Black Caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) hosted student performances at the union hall; in New York City, activists organized a forum featuring teachers, students and Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has helped expose the depth of school segregation.

Black Lives Matter at School has grown both in numbers and content. This year, the week of action added the fourth demand about counselors not cops — and put an increased emphasis on organizing rallies outside the classroom in addition to lesson plans inside it. The movement has also been influenced by — and influenced — the wave of teacher strikes that started last spring and continued this year in Los Angeles and Denver.

The week of action won endorsement from many teachers unions, including the National Education Association, United Teachers Los Angeles and the CTU — as well as the Philadelphia City Council and Howard County School Board. It has notably not been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City — a continuation of the UFT’s long history of alienating Black teachers, students and families.

Ronnie Almonte is a teacher in New York City. He spoke with Danny Katch about this year’s Black Lives Matter at School events, how the movement is connected to the teacher strike wave, and why the fight against school segregation needs to be a top priority in public education.

WHAT DID your school do this year for the Black Lives Matter at School week of action?

A FEW weeks ago, there was an incident here of a student wearing blackface and that being posted on social media. As you can imagine, that produced a really strong response from students, especially our Black students.

Our school is majority white, so that incident made a strong impact. The students responded to that, but also to years of racist incidents, like swastikas appearing one year on bathroom stalls, and also general frustration with the lack of diversity among students and faculty.

Students and teachers fight for Black lives at North Division High School in Milwaukee
Students and teachers fight for Black lives at North Division High School in Milwaukee (Joe Brusky | MTEA)

That incident — and then the recent blackface incident at an elite Brooklyn private school Poly Prep — made a really strong impact on everyone here. What came out of that tension on the part of both students and faculty was a determination to create some kind of organization to combat racism on this campus.

So the students founded the Black Lives Matter club, and its first meeting had over 50 people show up. At that meeting, they planned some of the things that some of us teachers had already been planning for the week of action.

We worked with the Black Lives Matter student club to orchestrate a walk-in, and about 250 students participated in all. We met outside during lunch and then we picketed in front of the school, with chants like “Black Lives Matter!” and “Two, four, six, eight, we need to integrate!”

Also, some teachers opted to teach lessons that are connected to Black history and that celebrate Black culture.

And the next day, there was the citywide rally at the Tweed Courthouse [home of the city’s Department of Education]. Maybe 400 people showed up to that, and about 20 of us from my school — mostly students — went down. I spoke, and they spoke about the blackface incident at our school and how we responded to it.

Now I think we’re moving into a process where we’re starting to figure out what our demands are and what the students’ demands are. Some of the things that we’re pointing to are increasing the free and reduced lunch enrollment as a way to increase diversity. Also teachers have been talking about creating a hiring committee here of teachers and students to monitor diverse recruitment and hiring.

ONE OF the demands of Black Lives Matter at School is the hiring of more Black teachers. What are the numbers around Black teachers, and why is this an important educational demand?

HAVING MORE Black teachers breaks stereotypes that non-Black students might hold. It also heightens expectations of those who look like their teachers and share the same background.

Also teaching has been a means of upward mobility for Black communities, so tackling the systemic obstacles that prevent Black people from becoming teachers would broaden the labor market for Black people that is already restricted by the historically accumulation of disadvantages.

It’s scary enough that Black teachers are underrepresented. There was a study by the Albert Shanker Instituteironically enough — which found that in nine major cities, teacher diversity is actually decreasing, and in particular, the proportion of Black teachers.

HOW HAS the week of action grown in size and scope over the past three years?

THIS IS my first year at this school, but the rally here in New York City this year was much bigger — maybe three times as big — with a lot of students.

This makes a lot of sense considering what’s been happening in the past year and since the election of Trump in general. You have the recent incidents in New York with blackface — just like across the country with the Virginia governor — the image of the MAGA boys confronting the Native American man, the Kavanagugh hearings, and the tensions at the border.

All of these are motivating both students and teachers to stand up to injustice. And we just can’t underestimate how young people in particular are being affected by the protests, the movements, the Bernie Sanders campaign and even celebrities they look up to — like Cardi B amplifying the movement, 21 Savage being threatened with deportation, Meek Mill being targeted.

This has shown kids even more that the system is rigged against oppressed peoples and especially Black people.

In terms of scope, the new demand this year was more counselors and not cops. I think it’s an obvious connection to a lot of people — that police are funded, but schools aren’t. Even within the school budget in New York City, more money goes to security personnel in the schools than counselors.

In public schools, you always see incidents of police harassing children at school while they’re trying to learn. This past month, there was that incident in Binghamton of four 12-year-old girls being strip-searched for “acting giddy” or something, and then being suspected of having used drugs or something.

In a lot of ways, the Black Lives Matter at School campaign was a little behind in that respect, given all the connections between policing and schooling that the Chicago Teachers Union had made very clear in the course of the 2012 strike.

So it was refreshing to see that demand added, which I think was the work of pressure over the past few years from grassroots groups like Dignity in Schools promoting this idea that are threatening our kids and their families in neighborhoods that they live in — especially in gentrifying neighborhoods — and they’re used for similar purposes in the schools.

What hasn’t changed is that the movement could have been broadened this year. For the second year in a row, the largest urban school union — my union, the UFT — didn’t endorse the BLM week of action. So a lot has changed for the good, but we’re still running into similar stumbling blocks that, if we were to remove them, could really amplify the movement and involve hundreds of thousands of more people.

BLACK LIVES Matter at School started as a protest in Seattle, where many of those involved were part of the Social Equity Educators caucus. It became a week of action in Philadelphia in part through the Working Educators Caucus. So this initiative has originated and has grown from many of the same rank-and-file teacher networks that have initiated or supported the teacher strike wave across the country. What are the connections between the growth of teacher union militancy and the movement for Black lives in schools?

FROM COAL country to the City of Angels, these strikes are labor community actions to improve not just the quantity of pay, but the quality of education — issues like overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, abusive administrators, crumbling buildings, moldy classrooms. These are teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions.

And especially in the urban school district, you just can’t help compare what urban and suburban education looks like, and the obvious differences in terms of what the students look like.

So this militancy has been really social justice-oriented, and that’s why you see a lot of the same people who are supporting or involved in these teachers strikes also supporting the demands of the Black Lives Matter at School movement.

We’re living in a time where people are connecting the dots, and I think the Trump administration lends itself to that quite well.

IT WASN’T too long ago that “education reformers” like Eli Broad in LA or Michael Bloomberg here in New York City were able to get away with promoting charter schools and privatization as a civil rights crusade — that they were the ones who cared about Black and Brown children, as opposed to self-serving unionized public schools teachers. Why has that popular narrative has changed?

A COUPLE things. One, the Trump administration is just tremendously unpopular. People are reconsidering the things that the Trump administration chooses to get close to. Think about Trump moving the embassy to Jerusalem. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s also been growing and much welcome anti-Zionism.

There’s a parallel there with schools. Betsy DeVos is so obviously in love with charter schools and school choice, and I think people are seeing that and at a minimum having questions about charter schools because of its association with the Trump administration.

But more importantly, the “red state” rebellions have really changed the entire narrative around teachers and teacher strikes. It’s very hard now, after seeing those strikes, to accuse teachers of not caring for kids when they’re buying pizza and tacos to feed kids, but also making it so clear that the people accusing them are the ones who don’t care about kids.

When you’re keeping the education budget the same as it was 10 years ago, and you’re trying to avoid taxing these multibillion-dollar companies, it’s very clear for people who exactly it is that doesn’t care about the kids. And there’s the fact that these strikes have been explicitly calling out charter schools.

WHAT ARE the ways you’d like to see increasing convergence between the Black Lives Matter at School week of action and the teacher strike wave?

I’D LIKE to see the campaign be more considered as union work, something that’s central to the work of the entire year. In our city and my union, we’re not even there yet. You can’t even get a fucking commitment on paper to supporting the week of action.

One way to put it is that segregation in general has to be a central focus for social justice caucuses across the country. The entire education system is as segregated, if not more so, than it has ever been.

To overcome that segregation, you’re going to have to pursue the civil rights tactics that ended Jim Crow. That includes not just education and walk-ins, but walkouts and even things like strikes, which are risky especially in New York City because they are technically illegal. I think it’s very feasible to pull off national walkouts in protest of segregation like last year’s march against gun violence.

That’s what it’s going to take, but in order to do that, we have to democratize our unions and transform them from service institutions that act like insurance companies to the weapons we need to improve not just education, but the society that our teachers and our students come from — and all the baggage that they bring with them into the classroom.

Further Reading

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