School may be out for the summer, but events continue and teachers are constantly thinking of how to address them when they return to classes in the fall. Racism and racial tension in the United States, their causes and consequences, are not going away. Each police shooting of an unarmed, non-threatening, or mentally ill Black man highlights racial injustice and the victimization of Black people in this country. Teachers have to figure out how to address this, especially as rightwing media and political candidates, seek to place the problem on Black Lives Matter protesters, not police forces or systemic racism.
On July 8, 2016, the day after five Dallas police offers were shot to death by a lone disturbed army veteran the all-caps headline in the New York Post declared "Civil War." The shooter, Micah Johnson, was Black and a social media follower of some extreme Black rights groups. Johnson told the police who captured and killed him that he wanted revenge on White police officers for the murder of Back men. For Post editors, this lone gunman was evidence of an impending Black-White civil war in the United States.
But the Post was not alone in its incendiary claims. Rush Limbaugh used the attack on the Dallas police to brand the entire Black Lives Matter movement a "terrorist group" fighting a nationwide "war on cops." Limbaugh also speculated that Micah Johnson probably voted Democrat and accused the Democratic Party of "seeking to advance their agenda with every one of these unfortunate incidents." The "unfortunate incidents" being the national epidemic of highly publicized killings of Black men by police.
Limbaugh's guest, Heather MacDonald, charged that the Dallas shootings, rather than being the actions of one individual, were actually part of something she calls the "Ferguson effect." MacDonald blames Black Lives Matter protests against police violence for a rise in crime. MacDonald also accused President Obama's sympathy with Black victims of police shootings of leading to the Dallas attack. According to MacDonald, "President Obama lied to the nation last night and he embraced the Black Lives Matter myth that there is a racist war by white officers against black civilians in this country, and we see the results."
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in an apparent effort to resurrect his defunct political career, joined in the rightwing harangue. In a television interview he accused the Black Lives Matter movement of being "inherently racist" and an unspecified but clearly implied Black "they" of "singing rap songs about killing police officers."
Rightwing "news analysis" was partly fueled by sloppy mainstream reporting and the original police announcement that four snipers positioned rooftops attacked Dallas police officers in a coordinated military-style assault. At a press conference on Thursday night, Dallas Police Chief David Brown announced "We believe that these suspects were . . . working together with rifles, triangulating at elevated positions in different points in the downtown area" and "planned to injure and kill as many law enforcement officers as they could."
Mainstream media contributed to "civil war" fears by focusing on Johnson's virtual reality rather than the actual reality of his life. Too much attention is giving to his Facebook "likes" and not enough to how a troubled man with a history of threatening behavior while in the army was able to legally purchase military-style weapons. Johnson had at least two weapons with him when he attacked Dallas police, a rifle and a handgun. According to a law enforcement official, the rifle was an SKS semi-automatic. Other officials confirmed that Johnson legally bought multiple firearms in the past.
Johnson was able to get his guns because Texas has some of the most permissive gun laws in the United States -- laws that need to be changed. Federally licensed weapons distributors selling guns in Texas are required to conduct background checks, but private sellers are not. There is also no waiting period on purchases. We do not know at this time whether Johnson passed a Texas background check. In addition, in Texas, and unfortunately in most of the United States, legal gun owners can openly carry shotguns and rifles in public. Texas also permits the open carry of handguns. Opponents of gun control argue that the best way to prevent mass killings is to allow more people to carry guns. Apparently their theory did not work in this case.
You would think police officers, concerned with their own safety, would support rigorous gun control laws. But police organizations often lean too far to the right to take a stand protecting their members. In 2013 the Major County Sheriffs Association came out against efforts by President Obama to pressure Congress to pass a ban on assault-style weapons and restrict high-capacity ammunition magazines. A 2013 survey of 15,000 law enforcement officers reported that over 90% opposed a ban on assault rifles. More recently, the largest law enforcement union in California opposed gun regulations proposed by Governor Jerry Brown.
The New York Times reports that part of the problem the Dallas police had responding to the attack by Micah Johnson is that at the Black Lives Matter rally "Twenty to 30 of the marchers showed up with AR-15s and other types of military-style rifles and wore them openly, with the straps slung across their shoulders and backs." After all, this insanity is Texas and open-carry is legal and according to the Times, it is "commonplace."
Despite what the Post, Limbaugh, and MacDonald say, there is no Black war on police in the United States. Between 1990 and 2010, an average of 164 on-duty police officers where killed annually. This number dropped to 114 police deaths in 2013, 133 in 2014, 129 in 2015, and 58 in the first six months of 2016. While any police deaths while on duty are unacceptable, these numbers clearly show there is no ongoing war against police in the United States.
However, there may well be a war by police against young Black men, a war that led to the Black Lives Matters movement and a war now being overshadowed by events in Dallas. According to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian, in 2015, "young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers." A Guardian study found "1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers" in 2015 alone. Despite being only 2% of the total population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 accounted for more than 15% of all deaths caused by police use of deadly force. Overall about 25% of the African Americans in all age groups that were killed by police were unarmed. Almost 250 police involved deaths in 2015 were Black people who were known to be mentally ill. Another 29 were military veterans who might have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most of the video of police-on-Black violence was taken surreptitiously. The murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota was filmed by his girlfriend who sitting in the car next to him while a police officer shot him four times. Eric Garner's death by police in New York City and Walter Scott's murder by a police officer in South Carolina were filmed by bystanders. Houston Police claimed Alva Braziel pointed a gun at them before they opened fire, but surveillance footage from a nearby gas station shows his hands were in the air when the squad car arrived.
A number of steps are needed to stop police violence against Blacks, including, but not restricted to better training. Police must be required to wear and effectively use video camcorders. If they are not on, not working, or fail to adequately record police actions, the assumption must be police malfeasance until proven otherwise. Police departments should better reflect the communities they are supposed to serve, but they must also actively remove officers with histories of violence against civilians, racist affiliations or patterns of behavior, and officers who are afraid of the people and communities where they are supposed to work. Police officers who cover for other officers should automatically be suspended and subject to dismissal. If someone can't do the job, which means treating all people decently and as innocent until proven guilty, they shouldn't be a cop.
Three excellent commentaries on the police murder of Black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of Dallas police officers appeared in the New York Times. I strongly recommend them.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow described his fears for his children and for the "country I love." He worries what we are witnessing now "is not a level of stress and strain that a civil society can long endure."
Sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson accuses White America of willful ignorance about conditions faced by Black people in a racist society. For Dyson, "Whiteness is blindness." He wrote: "We, black America, are a nation of nearly 40 million souls inside a nation of more than 320 million people. And I fear now that it is clearer than ever that you, white America, will always struggle to understand us."
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer described his experience as a Black man in uniform who supported protests against police violence. He called for "common-sense gun reform" and denounced the do nothing Republican controlled Congress. He also endorsed community policing and movement away from the militarization of police to build ties between police officers and the communities that they patrol
Common Core reading standards demand that students critically examine text, identify the point of view and purpose of an author, and use evidence to support analysis. A good place to start classes in the fall is deconstructing rightwing propaganda that blames Blacks, Muslims, and immigrants for the problems facing the United States, promotes the idea that there is a Black civil war against police, and minimizes or ignores the extent of racism and police violence in the United States.
Follow Alan Singer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8
I asked teachers that I work with to respond to the issue raised in this post. Some of their replies are included here. Not surprisingly, some of them are very angry about the events taking place.
Michael Pezone, a Queens, New York high school teacher who works with a large minority student population recommends articles from Chalkbeat where teachers, parents, students, and school administrators discuss having conversations about racism and violence. This fall he plans to involve students in research and dialogues on the whether the NYPD is racist. He wrote: "In addition to involving students in higher-order discussion and writing, I hope to help students perform as journalists, activists, and social scientists. I am toying with the idea of having students design, administer, tabulate, and analyze school wide surveys that elicit information from our largely Black and Latino student body about their experiences with and perceptions of the police. Survey results and analysis would be published in our school magazine, along with student essays that contain supporting evidence, including data from the survey. Because our school is linked to the NYPD, students would write and send letters to Police Commissioner Bratton, inviting him or a representative to visit the school to participate in a round table discussion with students. I also would like to involve as much technology as possible, so student might be required to create videos about the topic that they can stream online and show to the class. I have done this type of project several times. In addition to promoting in depth analysis of an important social studies issue, it addresses ELA skills (essay and letter writing) and math skills (computation, percentages, etc.). Student can complete some or all of the required tasks working in differentiated groups that include at least one good math student, a good writer, and someone with an outgoing personality to take the lead when administering the survey. Most importantly, I hope to create a classroom community wherein all different opinions surrounding this volatile issue may be expressed respectfully and comfortably.
Adeola Tella-Williams formerly taught in Brooklyn, New York and now is a teacher in a suburban school district where the student population is 100% Black and Latino. As she makes clear here, she is also a mother: "I refuse to teach my son that he is not valued. My mother never told me that I was different from "White" people. I was allowed to be human. I always knew who I was and that some people were different, but not in a shameful way. Conversations around the dinner table and in the living room were never really about race. I understood that Slavery happened, colonization happened, that is what I was taught, that it happened. I was brought up to believe that being a Nigerian (Yoruba) was the highest honor and I still believe this. I will bring my son and daughter up to believe the same. But instilling in my children that they are special and honored to be of Nigerian and West Indian background does not negate any other group of people, its just what it is. I am mad as hell about the police shootings. I understand that the world is literally changing because capitalism is under fire, because the lies of the elite are being exposed and because the little guy is beginning to rise up and question the establishment. This is not the first time race has been used to cover up the real issues that plague the United States and the world. We have to be smart enough to beat these people at their own evil game. Boycott! Boycott! Boycott! When the money dries up and we begin to show economic solidarity, then and only then will we as people be respected, and when I say people, I mean all people. To me this is not just an African peoples' issue. Look at what is happening with the EU, NATO, Iraq, China, Greece, France, etc. People are taking to the streets everywhere and the police riot gear looks very much the same anywhere you go. Let's not be fooled. This is an economic issue and we all need to work together to stop the madness."
April Francis is a middle school teacher, but like Adeola, wrote primarily as a parent. April wrote: "This is too overwhelming to discuss for me. It brings me a lot of anxiety and fear. So I really can't express in words how I feel -- being a mother of a black son is a different reality, different set of rules, different level of anxiety than being a mother of a white son in America. I just try to brace myself and prepare him for the worst when he goes out and I hope for the best. But -- to truly understand one must be in the same circumstance. It's like trying to explain to someone who has never been a parent, what parenthood feels like. You can't truly know until you have had a child of your own. In the same way you can't truly know what being a mother of a black son in America feels like until you have a black son in America."
Scott Savaiano teaches social studies in New York City. He wrote; After getting over the shock, horror and disgust I felt over last week's events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and finally Dallas, my very next reaction was to think "here we go, the right wing is going to start in again on their constant obsession with the phrase 'Black lives matter.'" They did not disappoint. They did not fail to exploit the senseless actions of the Dallas shooter, who clearly had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter protests that were proceeding peacefully, to attempt yet again to distort the message of the protestors and the movement as a whole. That message being, as the name says, that BLACK LIVES MATTER. The words of Rudy Giuliani, the Sunday after Dallas, are a perfect example of this obsession, as he drones on about how yellow lives matter, blue lives matter, White lives matter, etc. Giuliani's racist tirade reminded of an experience I had almost a year earlier. As a student teacher my very first assignment was a struggling school in a dense and very poor neighborhood in New York City. As a White guy with a graduate degree, I didn't know what to expect before I got there. All of my students were Black and Latino, and they were all young men with an awesome role model in their teacher (a returnee to his own neighborhood to teach), who had molded them into outstanding gentlemen and inspirations for their peers. I spent one day observing, and the second day I was slated to teach my very first high school lesson ever. The students had just gotten back from visiting a local university to hear Dr. Bernice King speak, and several of them started talking to me about how Dr. King had said she wished the movement had been labeled Black Lives Matter Too. The students didn't know how they felt about that. They were also wanted to talk to me about whether the term "all lives matter" was appropriate, or actually racist.
The next day, for my first lesson, which was on voting rights and the Supreme Court's shameful gutting of the Voting Rights Act, I started with a discussion with the students about the meaning of the term racist code. After explaining what it was, we talked about some examples, such as the term "states' rights," which of course has a storied history in terms of disenfranchisement, and generally seems to inevitably be invoked as code for doing something discriminatory or racist. Then we talked about the various "lives matter" iterations, and the class eventually agreed unanimously that straying from the "Black lives matter" language is indeed an example of racist code. After all, it is hard to argue against the idea that all lives matter, but it diverts attention from the reality that Black lives are not valued as highly by American society, and that Black men in particular are much more likely to be shot by the police. So I think when we teach our students about these horrifically tragic events, we have to first and foremost not engage in using racist code by pretending that there is a universal principle that all lives matter, when the clear reality in our society today is all lives do not matter equally.
Saying Black lives matter does not demean other lives; it is not intended to belittle or even "wage war" on the police. It is rather a cry for help from the people who are living in that reality and those who care about them. It is an appeal to the rest of society to become conscious of their experiences -- segregated as we are in 2016 America -- and it is an act of protest. Interestingly, I think it is working because it is changing the conversation in a way that is raising awareness amongst people who maybe weren't trying to fight our racist system, but who do sympathize once they hear of the plight of those suffering from it, at least those who are needlessly gunned down by it.
I think it is working because it gives us teachers a new way to approach talking about this brutality, at least if we stand our ground and keep to the original slogan, the original message, that Black lives matter. I think it is working given the harshness of the right wing reaction to it. If it was not so much like living in the movie Groundhog Day, I could almost find it amusing how truly obsessed they are with just how well the simple phrase "Black Lives Matter" conveys the message, and they cannot stop trying to counteract it by contorting into something else.
I heard an author speaking on NPR today about this, who cogently argued that it is in no way demeaning other lives to say Black Lives Matter. It is not, he reasoned, like we need to be going to HIV-related issue events in order to start screaming "Cancer Matters!" Rather, both issues can share the field, but both need to have their unique messages. This is what we need to support our students in understanding as they grapple with gun violence and police brutality: that the simple words of this historic protest movement are words we must all remain true to, because they are real, and because they are true.
Justin Williams has been an English teacher for sixteen years and a school supervisor for two. He earned a bachelor's degree in English Education while playing American football on a full scholarship at one of the most prestigious programs and universities in the country. He wrote that football is a "violent sport, often compared to fighting in a war by its players. This line-blurring has always and will always be inappropriate, since no one wearing shoulder pads on a football field has ever been mowed down by an opponent carrying an AR-15 rifle. One thing all players learn at the highest levels of high school and college, as well as professionally, is that whether on the practice field or during game day, respect must be earned daily by playing the game the right way. Every play is a test of wills, you versus the player in front of you trying to stop you from succeeding at your job. If you win more struggled than you lose, your team has a chance of winning. The color of your skin doesn't matter, only your ability to perform. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a dream with which Americans are generally quite familiar --- black people and white people living together in harmony. This happens every day on sports teams throughout our country. It happens much less throughout broader society. After 230 years existing under the Constitution, our United States are still not as united as many of us were taught in elementary school. Why? Intense physical and psychological segregation. We separate ourselves by skin color, ancestry, native language, schools attended, religion, and anything else upon which we can think. We give lip service to pledging allegiance to each other, but too many of us simply do not live what they say. One nation, "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Really? Americans would do well to pay closer attention to any good team in their local high school. Pay close attention to the lessons you should be learning when you watch some of our young people competing for their school colors, their communities. Note how they work together, more concerned about the team than themselves. Observe the love and respect they have for each other. Note the joy, the passion, the excellence, the hard work. As a nation, right now, we could learn a lot from our children. We should work to ensure the opportunity to play sports is guaranteed to them all, if they wish to. We should instill in them values we like to call American. But if we spend more time allowing ourselves to be the latest generation almost totally separated from each other in our neighborhoods, schools, and places of worship, King's dream will remain a haunting nightmare for those of us interested in getting to the Promised Land. There's work to be done. The game of life is over before we know it. Let's get busy. Please.