By Sabrina Stevens. She is executive director of Integrity In Education and a former teacher and now education activist.
Though some may view the police as “community helpers” who “protect and serve,” members of communities of color simply do not have that luxury. Within our communities, the reality of racialized mass incarceration and a growing prison-industrial complex manifests in truly terrifying ways.
In the United States, someone dies at the hands of police every few days. Men and boys of color are routinely stopped and frisked — physically harassed– even when they’re not suspected of crimes. Beatings often follow these initial interactions. Women and girls of color are frequently beaten, sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted during police interactions. Our Constitution specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and guarantees all people a right to due process. Yet from Los Angeles, to Ferguson, MO, to New York City, this abuse occurs daily, usually with impunity, even for those who have committed no crimes.
[Example of a social media meme highlighting injustice around Garner’s killing.]
The killing of husband and father Eric Garner during a sidewalk encounter with the New York Police Department (NYPD) is just one of many incidents that sparked outrage in New York City and beyond. The medical examiner ruled the death a “homicide,” resulting from police using an illegal chokehold restraint on Garner. Video footage of the unprovoked police attack went viral. In the months afterward, family and community members organized peaceful protests and calls for justice, including the March Against Police Brutality, in the face of this and so many other wrongful assaults and deaths.
It is within this emotional context that a group of mostly white New York City teachers decided to show their solidarity with the mostly white NYPD by wearing NYPD t-shirts to school, schools attended primarily by students of color. Despite warnings by their own union, the United Federation of Teachers, who alerted them as to how the shirts might be interpreted, they proceeded to make their statement– sending a disturbing and hurtful message to students and families of color, and outraging education advocates of all colors nationwide.
Because children depend upon the care and often subjective attention of a teacher, and because that relationship is rooted in trust, anything that undermines that trust will harm the relationship between child and teacher, and harm the trust of parents who entrust those children to those teachers. When students and families see authority figures like teachers siding with the very organization that harasses, beats and even kills their loved ones and community members, how can they trust those teachers to treat them fairly and with understanding? How can they assume that those teachers have their best interests at heart, when they have sent the clear message that they are either willfully ignorant of, or deliberately hostile to, their daily struggles to remain physically and emotionally safe?
Many teachers have made significant attempts to restore trust and faith among the communities they serve. Yet these attempts are swiftly undermined when teachers like those who wore the NYPD t-shirts demonstrate to everyone watching that they have heard and learned nothing of what students and communities have tried to teach them. Trust is broken when some teachers refuse even basic attempts at compassion and cultural competency.
The teachers who chose solidarity with the NYPD over their students must repair the harm they caused between themselves, the students they teach, and the community they serve. They must recommit to proving, with words and deeds, that they are there to nurture all of their students — not just the shrinking number of students who look and live like them.