In an unprecedented display of unity in the face of continued institutional racism, 2,000 teachers and employees across the Seattle school system on Wednesday donned t-shirts that read "Black Lives Matter/ We Stand Together," while students and teachers across the district organized rallies with the declaration, "Black Lives Matter at Schools."
The action, which was meant to draw attention to the school-to-prison pipeline and call for racial equity in education, was done with the support of the Seattle Education Association union, the Seattle PTA, as well as the Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Social justice luminaries, including Noam Chomsky, 1968 Olympic medal winner John Carlos, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, and professor and former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, also signed a letter of support.
Jesse Hagopian, advisor to the Black Student Union and teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, explained that institutional racism extends beyond policing and mass incarceration, and has roots in the education system.
"It's also important to understand that for black lives to matter, black education has to matter," Hagopian told KUOW-FM. "This movement is also broader than police accountability. In a school system as dramatically unequal as ours, it's incumbent upon educators and families to stand up and say something about this."
Highlighting some of the so-called "opportunity gaps" in the Seattle district, The Stranger reports:
According to the mayor's office, ninety percent of white third graders meet math and reading standards, compared with about half of black students. One quarter of African American and Latino students don't graduate on time, compared to eight percent of white students. And black students are suspended at four times the rate of white students. Among the country's largest 200 school districts, Seattle has the fifth-widest achievement gap between white and black students, the mayor said today.
Many educators also took the opportunity to teach lessons and hold discussions "about the ways institutional racism impacts education, our nation, and our world," organizers said.
In an email to Common Dreams, Hagopian said that this is "the first action in the country where teachers across the district will support the movement for Black Lives," adding that he hopes "it could help spark similar action[s] around the country."
The widespread day of action was prompted by teachers at Seattle's John Muir Elementary School, who had initially planned on September 16th to wear Black Lives Matter shirts and hold an event to dispel stereotypes and celebrate black students before they were forced to cancel after threatening phone calls were made to the school.
The original celebration was called "Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative," and would have included more than 100 black men gathering outside the school and greeting students as they walked into the building. In what has been described as "a truly stunning show of courage," dozens of black community members defied the violent threats and showed up anyway, high-fiving students as they entered the building.
In response, members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) voted unanimously to endorse the district-wide day of action, passing a resolution which boldly states:
Whereas the SEA promotes equity and supports anti-racist work in our schools; and,
Whereas we want to act in solidarity with our members and the community at John Muir who received threats based on their decision to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts as part of an event with "Black Men United to Change the Narrative"; and,
Whereas the SEA and SPS promote Race and Equity teams to address institutionalized racism in our schools and offer a space for dialogue among school staff;
Therefore be it resolved that the SEA Representative Assembly endorse and participate in an action wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts on Wednesday, October 19, 2016 with the intent of showing solidarity, promoting anti-racist practices in our schools, and creating dialogue in our schools and communities.
"This response is not only an example of community, sports, teachers, and unions 'laying siege' to racism," sports columnist Dave Zirin wrote at The Nation on Wednesday. "It is also a moment in this dreary fall political season of how hope can blossom when we organize beyond the ballot box."
Throughout the day, images of teachers and others wearing the "Black Lives Matter" shirts were shared on social media with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool.
— Paige Cornwell (@pgcornwell) October 19, 2016
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) October 19, 2016
— Jody Allard (@sendvodka) October 19, 2016