Last week I heard a story that was supposed to be good news. Various school districts across the country announced they would sever ties with the police. Let us first take a moment to contemplate where in the annals of batshit crazy ideas does a school/police partnership fall? It must at least rate a solid, “Are you fucking kidding me?” At what point is it ever okay to criminalize children? Because let’s be clear, adding police is adding an entire administrative and institutional layer of criminalization. Why were we not all rioting in the streets to protect our babies? How does society even reach the point where they consider let alone successfully follow through on such a horrific idea? Is white supremacy a drug? Does it not only erase history but your damn whole mind? Inquiring minds are dying to know. I am livid that we slept on this institutionalized child abuse.
We have all seen the stories. Perhaps you were like me thinking they were extreme cases. The high school student who was dragged across the floor by a police officer and the subsequent arrest of the student who recorded it. Or what about the Florida police officer with a history of arresting temper tantrum throwing six-year-olds. Somehow these alarming stories were so outrageous they could only be some sort of anomaly. We would watch a TV journalist get upset, indignant even and the story disappears. A police officer in school? At the ready to arrest students? This is unheard of.
By now it should come as no surprise that over-policing extends to every aspect of Black life including schools.
Sometimes children behave badly, even terribly. They throw tantrums, scream and cry and roll on the floor. Or they talk back to a teacher. None of this is a reason to bring the weight of the juvenile justice system on the student but that is exactly we do. In the 1990s policymakers crafted a zero-tolerance policy. If you will remember, the late 90s was the height of the inner-city school movie craze. Films such as “Stand and Deliver”, “Dangerous Minds”, and “The Principle” shaped our perception of these schools as lawless and troubled. People were horrified. Many threw up their hands in despair. Inner-city violence was out of control! Along with metal detectors, zero tolerance was part of a set of policies and practices developed in response to that violence. However, instead of addressing the underlying issues of violence like poverty policymakers chose to fight violence with more violence. Zero-tolerance policies were written to deter students from bringing weapons to schools but somehow went on to include possession of unauthorized substances like aspirin, teacher insubordination, and desk graffiti. The policy was inspired by the now-discredited “broken windows” policing theory that small crime leads to more serious crime. Under this policy, a minor crime such as panhandling landed the offender in jail. In schools, minor offenses such as a preschool tantrum or a uniform infraction could lead to suspension or time in a juvenile facility.
Black youth go from being over-policed in the streets to being over-policed in school. There is no space where they are safe from the long arms of the law. In underfunded school districts with overcrowded classes, overwhelmed, inexperienced teachers rely on the police to intimidate and subdue Black students. Teacher Karen just like citizen Karen can and does use the police at will. Zero Tolerance is part of a set of policies and practices that funnel students into the juvenile justice system. The school to juvenile justice system channel more widely known as the School to Prison nexus has been operating like a well-oiled machine since 1997.
This revelation is not unlike the disturbing secret at the heart of the movie “Snowpiercer”, the 2013 film from Oscar-winning director Boon Joon-ho. In that film, a runaway train in a climate damaged world was the setting to examine social and economic inequality. Just as the film reaches its exciting climax we find out the terrible secret of the train’s power. Child slaves are worked to death to keep it running.
The other pillar of this nightmare is for-profit policing. Cutting taxes has been a political rallying cry since the 1980s. These tax cuts put an economic strain on public necessities such as schools, housing, mental health facilities, and the police. Once public monies became scarce police departments began looking for other ways to generate income. Police quotas are formal and informal systems that require officers to write a certain number of tickets or make a certain number of arrests each month. Cops simply turned to the Black and Latino neighborhoods they were already harassing for revenue. We assumed the cops were doing their jobs keeping the streets safe when they were actually shaking down poor Black & Latinos for change. Using the money from those arrests and fines to keep their departments running. Residents forced to choose between eating and paying fines, suddenly found themselves swept up in the criminal justice system. Or becoming the latest victim of a fatal police encounter, like Sandra Bland and Philando Castile.
The term mass incarceration refers to the shocking number of people currently tied to the criminal justice system. The numbers are so mind-boggling that it begs to question how so many people got into the system in the first place. The School to Prison Nexus and for-profit policing reveal how poor Black communities are targeted to provide the bodies to power that system. It is the horrifying problem that no one saw because it has been taking place in isolated and forgotten Black communities too often labeled as dangerous and unredeemable.
Except that the protests we are seeing are the fruits of an incredible grassroots organizing effort. An effort that has been taking place for decades in those forgotten communities. Black Lives Matter became the focal point of hundreds of local Black and Latino organizations that have been dedicated to fighting issues such as police brutality and the war on drugs. They understood how both school policing and community policing were part of an organized system of mass incarceration. A system that sends unprecedented numbers of their neighbors, family, and loved ones into the criminal justice system. In the late 1990s right around the same time of those beloved inner-city high school movies, I worked with local groups in Oakland, Denver, and Portland on police brutality/harassment. I am thrilled that decades of work has turned into real conversations about how to dismantle that system.
Commitment to ending state-sponsored violence against Black lives must do more than end police brutality or even defund the police. It must begin with a commitment to support the most vulnerable members of our society, by sharing resources equitably. Martin Luther King, Jr decried by many for his outspoken stance against the evils of militarism, racism and poverty was doing just that when he was assassinated in Memphis, TN. He was there to support Black garbage truck workers. Poverty he had concluded was the next evil to tackle on the road to justice. In doing so he stepped beyond Civil Rights and into the realm of Human Rights. He was in the process of tackling poverty head-on by creating a Poor People’s Campaign which centered the lives of the poor, in a multiracial campaign for social and economic justice.
That movement while receding from public consciousness never quite faded away. Rev. Dr. William J Barber, Jr has picked up the mantle. The North Carolina pastor helped to spearhead a successful multiracial grassroots movement in his home state. In reviving the Poor People’s Campaign he has taken that work to a national level. This Saturday, June 20th there is a digital mass march to recenter our political conversation on the moral imperative to help the most vulnerable.
What remains abundantly clear is that we as a society turned our backs on poor Black communities while they were being harassed, incarcerated, and killed at unprecedented rates for decades. Better late than never. Joining this movement could be an important step in healing that pain by restoring justice.