Teaching Against Terrorism

BWW presentation class

Ferguson discussion

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Now that the grand jury in Staten Island has desecrated Eric Garner’s dying breath and re-confirmed fascism in the U.S. what Black person has confidence in the justice system? What descendent of slaves has “faith” that speechifying, praying, and pleading for the system to recognize Black life will have any demonstrable impact on the United Terrorists of America? Who believes that the rule of law means anything other than a jack boot and a lynch rope around the neck of African-descent people who built this country brick by brick?

As progressive educators many of us enter the classroom every day with fierce expectations of change and redress. Working against textbooks that obliterate poor and working class people of color, we teach our students about social history to enlighten, inspire, transform and enable them to think critically about the similarities and differences between past and present. Even among those of us who push back against grand narratives that pimp the obscenity of Western exceptionalism there is an implicit assumption about progress; a secular faith in “advancement” despite the face of insidious institutional racism.

Today, we go into the classroom with that secular faith blown to bits yet again. Today, some of us will tell our students that the Garner decision makes it important to amplify that people of color have always fought terrorism on this soil. Some of us will say that the U.S. has a history of using the Orwellian language of freedom and justice to vilify the non-Western other while waging terrorist war against its own. During World War II black activists fought the hypocrisy of the U.S.’ campaign against fascism in Europe. These interventions were the legacy of 18th century revolutionary war era protests and legal resistance that free and enslaved Africans mounted against the tyranny of “democratic” empire. Social justice pedagogy is designed to empower young people to critique, question and ultimately organize against these contradictions. When we teach we try and lift up these brutal contradictions and show how they inform the present. In an age of wall-to-wall corporate media it’s one of the last bastions of decolonization for youth of color who are told that race is no barrier but see white supremacy at work every day. But in the cold light of unrelenting state criminality and savage indifference to black life it’s difficult to remain hopeful.

Discussing racism and discrimination with South Los Angeles students in a new multiracial leadership group before the Ferguson decision, some were initially hesitant to unpack their experiences. Yet in the same school students reported that some teachers divide their classrooms by seating “smart” Latino students on one side and “underachieving” African American students on the other. In the same school black boys are led away in handcuffs by school police every week. In the same school “out of control” students of all genders are physically restrained. In the same school, and in schools just like it across the district, black students are grossly under-represented in Advanced Placement and Honors classes but pack special education classes and detention halls. Unlike the murder of Eric Garner, these are the routine, everyday acts of state violence that are never captured on videotape but also signal that breathing while black remains a punishable, lethal offense. Our challenge as activist teachers and mentors is to keep pushing students to see that the system doesn’t want them to see these terrorist violations as the same.

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Teaching Against Terrorism
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4 thoughts on “Teaching Against Terrorism

  1. 1

    During World War II black activists fought the hypocrisy of the U.S.’ campaign against fascism in Europe. These interventions were the legacy of 18th century revolutionary war era protests and legal resistance that free and enslaved Africans mounted against the tyranny of “democratic” empire.

    Or their opposition to IS, which is a lot more like the early “United States” than they would ever admit. Same system, different players, whether it’s the Arab-Islamic State in the Levante or the White-Christian State in North America.

    But in the cold light of unrelenting state criminality and savage indifference to black life it’s difficult to remain hopeful.

    Precisely this. You teach these kids knowing it could all be over in a moment because some piece of Nazi shit with a gun and a costume has the power to decide that it should be over. Whether that costume belongs to the United States I or the United States II that’s now forming in Syria and Iraq.

    In the same school black boys are led away in handcuffs by school police every week. In the same school “out of control” students of all genders are physically restrained.

    Ethnicity & color make all the difference. A white child who doesn’t conform just needs a more challenging curriculum. Those “other” children need to be carted off, humiliated, expelled, and dumped in juvie or special schools. Because they’re not children in the eyes of whites. To be a child, you have to be human. There was a white Latino store owner in my childhood who said openly about gypsy children from the camp what mainstream whites think about “other” children, but don’t have the guts to say: “they’re the larval stage of something we don’t want.” At first I thought he’d said something nice because I didn’t know what a larva was, until one of the social workers explained it to me. The African American and darker skinned Puerto Rican children at school had all encountered some variation of it at one point or another. Once you hear it, you’ll never be completely sure that you’re a real child again. Even when you’re old enough to know rationally that it’s just racist bullshit, you’ll always keep wondering on an emotional level whether there might be some truth to what they say. Nothing can undo that. The only thing we can do is try to protect the next generation from this.

    Unlike the murder of Eric Garner, these are the routine, everyday acts of state violence that are never captured on videotape but also signal that breathing while black remains a punishable, lethal offense.

    It’s not just the state, Sikivu. This is pervasive throughout society, the state is just a tool that concentrates the power necessary to act on those sentiments. In the eyes of whites (make that Arabs & Turks in the world my family comes from), the human race is really two races – a master race and a servant race. The master race decides who may continue to breathe while black (/Romani/Kurdish/Kabyle/…) and who may not. Even people who are outwardly allies have a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement to making that decision. They’re just better at keeping it under control than others. Things like “respectability”, the Black Church, etc. assume that there are rules by which they decide who gets to live, and we’ll live if we just follow them. The truth is, those rules are completely arbitrary, and until we either raise a generation of white children who no longer see themselves as superior, or miraculously become strong enough to defend ourselves, some of us won’t live.

  2. 2

    I wholeheartedly agree double-m; ethnicity and color — and the denial of the presumption of innocent childhood — are the decisive factors in the discipline regime in U.S. schools where black students are suspended, expelled, arrested and pushed out of school in epidemic numbers for nominal offenses beginning in pre-school. I emphasize the context of state violence because even popular progressive discourse typically focuses on lethal force used by police officers, rather than the educational apparatus that embeds anti-black racist criminalization of AA children early on (AA children are disciplined more harshly relative to non-black students even when they talk back or speak out. Up until recently these “offenses” were classified as “willful defiance” and in most school districts black students were bounced out of school for this more than any other charge). Because of this black children never get to occupy the “sacrosanct” space of childhood innocence.

    1. 2.1

      What’s happening with racism, not just in the U.S., really scares me because as a general rule, when there’s racism against anyone then my people become secondary targets. Usually away from the public eye because we don’t have the numbers or the visibility to get noticed (see Holocaust memorials, almost all of which are for Jews). Hilary can claim we’re integrated all she wants, but growing up in the U.S. taught me the same thing almost every gypsy everywhere has learned: that you can hardly trust anyone outside your own family.

      You’re right about double-standards for white kids and children of color. But at least in Junior High which was heavily mixed (students and staff) and outwardly “culturally sensitive”, the worse part was actually informal punishment against children of color for transgressions like “getting in the way of white vanity”. When I got there, the black girls basically gave me the speech that my parents had never given me because they were immigrants and didn’t know how things worked. They said, “never try to do too well, never stick out, never, never, EVER, try to compete with a white kid, or they’ll make you pay.” And that’s exactly what happened. There were two gifted African American children I was aware of at that school, and they were bullied & ganged up on by the white kids, the white parents, and the white teachers. They were regularly assaulted by mobs of white kids and then punished for “getting into a fight” by the white teachers. And since the harrassment didn’t cause their grades to deteriorate, they were eventually framed for something and kicked out.

      I wasn’t affected by this particular thing because I was the only gypsy child there (my parents selected me to find an educated African or Asian American Muslim and “marry up” for the family’s benefit, and the entire family saved money so I could later go on to high school to become acceptable) which made me the official school pet. I also followed the black girls’ advice and let the whites do whatever they wanted to me, always smiled, hardly said anything when whites were present, etc. That worked most of the time, although it involved letting teachers and students I hated touch me, pat me, try on my clothes so they could “play gypsy” and so on. You could say I survived by being Auntie Tom, and that actually made me the lucky one. The other children from my family weren’t so fortunate. They went to a mostly black and Puerto Rican middle school that had a history with Romani children, and it was a nightmare for them.

      The classes were basically segregated into three groups: white Latino children whom they mentored and tried to mold into acceptable whites; brown Latino children and lighter-skinned AA children who looked aesthetic to the white eye, and who were left alone as long as they were quiet and obedient; and then those AA children who looked distinctly African plus the Romani children. My relatives were automatically assumed to be violent criminals by nature, and they were treated with a cold hatred that really scared me when I visited their class. They raised one group of young adults with hopes and ambitions, another one for whom life is about getting by somehow, and a third group that’s hopeless and sees no point in being compatible with a society that doesn’t want them anyway.

      The striking thing about it was that the local gypsy community apart from us was mostly Anglo-Romani folks who easily passed as Hispanic or something like that (Roma from my family’s region of origin had strict anti-miscegenation rules, so we’re dark Indian-brown and the “I’m half Cuban, half Greek” trick lighter skinned gypsies often use doesn’t work for us). They were settled, devout Evangelicals, and light-brown to white. You’d think those were the gypsies Hilary was talking about. But nothing like that. The children were isolated and easy prey for street gangs and other criminals, the fathers often incarcerated, and the mothers frightened and well-practiced in the endurance of suffering. One of the white community leaders once told one of the Romani kids that there was “something in the way you look that isn’t right.” A very familiar line that we keep hearing all over the world.

      I’m just hoping that your people are gonna accomplish something with the current wave of protests. Because the only decent people I met in the U.S. were black, and I don’t want to see you suffer. And also out of enlightened self-interest. What I’m hearing from my relatives in the U.S. about warrantless raids and that kind of stuff doesn’t sound good. Maybe this time, when someone else gains their civil rights, we won’t get left behind.

  3. 3

    It’s a shame to read about kids being led away in handcuffs for not sitting still and other totally normal kid behavior. I have to question the kind of state thug who is just ‘following orders or policy’ when they criminalizing being Black and behaving in a normal, age appropriate fashion. I’ve worked with kids who were young, sometimes you have to hold a child who might hurt someone, but this is deliberately traumatizing kids and teaching them young that they have no rights.

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