Friday, June 05, 2020

This is Not About Peace: This is About Power and Control

For several nights this week, Seattle has had a curfew. It started with 5 p.m., then 6 p.m., then 9 p.m. On each of those nights righteous protesters violated the curfew making the determination that, in the balance of things, Black lives matter more than some ad hoc law. They remained in the park where they had gathered, they remained in the street. By all accounts, including what I've seen with my own eyes, they have been peaceful. A few were arrested, most, however, were violently attacked with pepper spray, tear gas, explosives, and the hands and feet of police officers.

When one engages in the long tradition of civil disobedience, like staying out after curfew or inconveniencing motorists by marching in the streets, the calculation one makes is to "take the consequences." When participating in a protest, I always advise people to know in advance what the consequences of certain actions will be and to likewise know in advance what consequences one is prepared to accept. The consequence of blocking traffic, according to our laws, is a citation. The consequence of disobeying a legal order by the police, like an order to disburse, is arrest and trial. I'm not certain of the legal consequence of breaking curfew, but I am certain that it is not to be attacked with gas and explosives. I am certain that being beaten by cops is not a legal remedy. What has been happening in Seattle, across the US, and around the world is an extralegal, meaning an illegal, attack on our rights to assemble, speak, and protest, carried out by the police, and now, in the case of Washington DC, the military, and sanctioned by our elected representatives, Republicans and Democrats alike.

There are some who respond to these illegal attacks on peaceful protesters by saying, "They had it coming," which is to advocate for a "law" that exists beyond the written law. This is the mentality of lynch mobs. This is the mentality of people who believe it's okay to track down and shoot a black man out for a jog. As Senator Kamala Harris said yesterday on the Senate floor, quoting Ida B. Wells:

"It represents the cool, calculated deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an unwritten law that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make a defense and without right of appeal."

She was talking about lynching and thankfully the extralegal acts of the police have not gone that far, but the mentality is the same, this mentality that because they have power they have the right to be judge and jury and to impose harsh consequences on otherwise peaceful protesters, prepared to face the legal consequences of their actions, but naively believing that our police, that our elected representatives, would uphold their oaths to abide by the actual law.

This is not about peace, this is not about protecting people, this is about power and control. These extralegal actions were not undertaken to keep citizens safe: indeed, they manifestly do the opposite. No, the goal is submission. The goal is obedience. So what if a few streets are blocked for a few extra hours? There's a curfew in effect, there's no traffic anyway. So what if there are people in the park after hours? So what if people break a curfew that was imposed only minutes before they started enforcing it? Cite people. Arrest people. Those are the consequences we are prepared to accept in the name of a higher good. But violent attacks? There is never an excuse for the police to attack anyone, ever.

I can't help but draw a connection to the day-to-day lives of our children in our schools, how we attempt to control them with rules that adults have imposed upon them. We say "it's for their own good," but I've learned to doubt anyone who uses this argument because most of the time the opposite is true. We compel them to sit quietly in their chairs. We compel them to think about what we determine they must think about, no matter how dull and irrelevant. We compel them to march in lines, to color within the lines, to stay behind the lines. They can't in many cases even use the toilet without our permission. None of this is for the children's own good. Children, as citizens, should be free to move, to speak, and to pursue their passions. Children should decide for themselves where the lines are. Children should be permitted to listen to their own bodies about such basic things as using the toilet. It's our job to teach them, not to control them. No, their obedience is required for no reason other than this anti-democratic urge for those with power to compel submission.

This is the same Hobbsian mentality we are seeing from the police and their handlers right now. It made me physically ill to see the video of a cop, dressed in full battle gear, repeatedly urging his troops, "Don't kill them, but hit them hard!" He was saying this about a line of my fellow citizens, peacefully standing shoulder-to-shoulder, chanting for racial justice. This is their extralegal, illegal, mentality. Damn the law. Everything short of death is on the table. We must exert our control, we must make them submit for no reason other than to show them who's boss.

From Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":

"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represents a massive act of civil disobedience."

As educators, we have been given great power over the lives of the children we teach. It is important that we think deeply about what this means, especially for the young Black citizens in our care. To the degree that we must have rules, it is our solemn obligation to ensure that they are both reasonable and just: that their purpose is peace and safety, and not an arbitrary exercise of control. Right now, we are being given the opportunity to witness in real time how power over others is so easily and readily abused. I hope that we take these lessons back to our classrooms when we finally return to them.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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