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.