NEA EdJustice Features

March for Our Lives means black lives too

By Jesse Hagopian

Spurred by shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, a new student movement has risen up to challenge gun violence and the political power of the NRA. On Wednesday, March 14, tens of thousands of students around the country walked out of school to honor the students and educators who were killed at school.

This movement started by students has become a mass phenomenon and hundreds of thousands are set to join the “March for Our lives” on Saturday, March 24th. As this youth fueled movement grows, we need to truly listen to what the students are demanding. And if we listen to students we will hear that they are making important connections between the March for Our Lives and the movement for Black lives.

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The National Rifle Association, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and U.S. President Donald Trump have all called on teachers to arm themselves as a response to school shootings. But this new student uprising has countered that guns are not school supplies and are demanding a comprehensive approach to safety that can get at some of the root causes of violence in our society.

As 17-year-old Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg put it, “I don’t want to see another teacher with a gun. I don’t even want more school resource officers. Do you know the racial discrepancies they have against African-American and Latino students? We’re going to create a system where we widen the school-to-prison pipeline.”

This statement of solidarity with students of color from Hogg, a white student, is a powerful recognition that armed guards and police in schools has led to a dramatic increase in students arrested for small infractions. Predominantly Black and Brown children are being arrested and brutalized for scribbling on a desk, having a cell phone in class or violating the school dress code.

These commonplace behaviors are far better handled by a counselor than an armed officer. However, new studies show that school security officers outnumber counselors in three out of the biggest school districts in the country, including New York City, Chicago and Miami-Dade County. This is also true of Houston, the seventh-largest school district in the United States.

A mighty solidarity is being forged right now between students of color and white students who are connecting the many issues related to gun regulation and safety.

Recently several of the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School–Emma Gonzalez, Sam Zeif and Evelyn Schentrup–flew to Chicago to meet with Black students there who have long been speaking out against gun violence, police brutality, and student safety—but have received much less attention.

At a press conference in Chicago, Rie’Onna Holmon, 15-year-old Black student at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, said, “What happened in Parkland is injustice, and there is injustice here. We’re too young to be here right now fighting for our lives, when there are people who are over us that were put in office to be fighting for us. But what are they doing? We should be living our lives because we are youth.” Zeif told the Chicago Tribune of his meeting with Black youth, “[It’s] heartbreaking to know they’ve been feeling this pain and fear for nearly their whole lives.”

During the school walkouts in solidarity with Parkland, Chicago students issued demands that redefined what it means to be safe at school. They made important connections between the movement for gun safety, the movement for Black lives, immigrant rights, education funding, opposition to corporate education reform, and more. Here are some of them:

  • Keep all schools open in Chicago #NoSchoolClosings
  • Fund Schools in Black and Brown communities equitably
    • More counselors (ratio of at least 1:200 students)
    • Full time social workers in every school
    • Drop in therapy at every school
    • Full time nurse
    • Librarian at every school
    • More after school programs
  • Invest in Schools and make banks and the wealthy pay their fair share
  • Support Black and Brown businesses
  • Reopen mental health clinics
  • Fund community centers and community schools
  • Stop charter expansion
  • Make Chicago a real sanctuary for all
  • Jobs for youth
  • Improve language access and culturally relevant curriculum
  • Fully fund special education and bilingual services
  • End the criminalization of youth
  • Student Committees for hiring school staff
  • Restorative justice trainings for school staff and a focus on building trusting relationships with students so that schools become a family connected to the larger community
  • Sixteen and seventeen year olds should have the right to vote, as well as non-citizens

These brilliant demands from Chicago’s youth should serve as guide for people across the country that are getting ready to join the March for our Lives –because we can’t have a march for our lives if we don’t recognize the particular ways in which Black lives have been targeted for violence in our society. And we can’t truly increase the safety of students at school if we don’t take care of the social and emotional needs of all students.

It’s time for our country to sit up straight and listen to the youth who are providing a master class in social change by building a mass multiracial movement to redefine safety and challenge structural racism.

Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies at Garfield High School. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, The Seattle Fellow for The Progressive magazine, and blogs at www.IAmAnEducator.com. Jesse is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Teaching for Black Lives. You can follow Jesse on Twitter at @JessedHagopian.

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