Bree Newsome reminds us that modern activism demands 'radical faith' in confronting age-old problems

Two years ago this week, Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole on the South Carolina state house grounds and physically removed the Confederate flag that still flew more than 150 years after the end of legal slavery.

It was a brave thing to do, inspiring in its simplicity and its directness. I’ve thought of it many times since when problems have started to seem overwhelming. Is there a way to cut the crap, climb the flagpole and just take down the problem?

Newsome came and spoke at a UW event called “Tearing Hatred from the Sky: An Evening with Bree Newsome” back in February, and I was lucky to be in attendance. Here are three memorable lessons from that night:

 

“In the biography for social change-makers, you’ll find that there’s probably some moment in their life where they had a shift in their consciousness. If you’re an activist, you can probably point to that point in your life.”

 

I think this is an important, rarely discussed truth that most activists have in common. Something along the way wakes you up — a moment in time, an event or series of events that literally activates you. It’s a personal thing, an individual transformation on a fundamental, often spiritual level. Afterward, nothing is the same.

 

 

“I was on my sofa just trying to figure out, can I go down there and just hop the fence? I didn’t know how to climb. I had no climbing skill yet at that time. That’s just how strongly I felt that the statement needed to be made of how unacceptable it was for this flag to fly.”

 

This represents another universal truth of activism: that it’s often driven by an irrepressible urge to do something impossible. The key here is that Newsome knew what needed to be done. She knew that flag needed to come down, so she set about to figuring out how to do it. It’s within each of us to do what needs to be done. We just have to decide to do it.

 

 

“There was a time when the idea of a United States without slavery was inconceivable. You have to understand, that’s part of why our nation had a civil war over this issue because it was the economy. There were people who could not conceive of how you could have a prosperous United States without chattel slavery. And the only reason that we are sitting here today in this lovely space with all these lovely faces as we are, is because there were people at that time that had faith that things could be different. In order for the future to be better than it is now, we have to have that same kind of radical faith today.”

 

There was a time when not enslaving people for financial gain was a radical idea. What about our time will people look back on with disbelief?

The truth is that we may have to change everything to solve anything that’s plaguing our nation right now. But don’t lose hope. Remember that the economy is an idea, but people are real. Capitalism is a concept, but liberation is a state of being.

Be brave. Today’s radical is the leader whose courage we honor tomorrow. Have faith in your vision for the future.

With largest #NoDAPL camps evacuated, Standing Rock picks up the pieces

I drove back to the #NoDAPL camps at Standing Rock this week.

The Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with Morton County Law Enforcement issued a deadline of 2 pm Wednesday (Feb. 22) to clear the Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin), which sits on contested land, as well as Rosebud camp and part of Sacred Stone, both of which are (were?) on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation but below the flood plane.

I wanted to be present for the deadline, to do what I could to help, and right at 2 p.m. I found myself in the Oceti camp in a pickup truck trying to find two kids who we’d been told needed to get out (and they did).

Two water protectors look out over the evacuated Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin) as the 2 p.m. eviction deadline ticks past on Feb. 22, 2016. Photo by  Matt Halvorson .

Two water protectors look out over the evacuated Oceti Oyate camp (formerly Oceti Sakowin) as the 2 p.m. eviction deadline ticks past on Feb. 22, 2016. Photo by Matt Halvorson.

 

The strange thing, though, was that the police were not particularly aggressive in clearing out the camp. They arrested either nine or 10 people Wednesday, depending on which report you read, and I’m told that something like 50 more were arrested the next day when the police came back through and fully cleared the camps.

The police tried to intimidate and definitely inflicted some physical injury, but all in all, the eviction was surprisingly peaceful. It only takes one police officer responding with too much force too quickly, or one person reacting too strongly to seeing his grandmother being handled by the police for violence to erupt and turn a situation like this into a disaster.

Instead, it was peaceful-ish, as policing goes. Or if peaceful isn’t the right word, well, nobody died. The police were not startlingly violent toward the water protectors who chose to stay in camp and pray until the end, which is what I was afraid of. But then, the #NoDAPL movement has never been characterized by fatal violence.

Set aside for a moment the grotesque images of water cannons, rubber bullets and explosives used by police in riot gear in Standing Rock.

During the protests in Ferguson of the past few years, militarized police frequently shot real bullets at Black Lives Matter protesters and occasionally killed them. Even when the PR risk should have steadied their trigger fingers, fatalities were commonplace. On the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, for example, St. Louis Police shot and killed another young black man during that night’s protest.

In Standing Rock, on the other hand, through more than 10 months of steady demonstrations and consistent police confrontation, not one water protector was killed. The police inflicted serious injuries and committed atrocities, but everyone survived.

This has been on my mind for months but hasn’t been something I’ve known how to talk about, partly because I was in Standing Rock bearing witness to much of the police violence that has made the news. And it was painful and traumatic and frightening. But I also made an appearance in Ferguson, and I know that the stakes were more immediate there, though no higher in the long run.

I don't know what it means. Our government and law enforcement certainly have a deep and storied history of killing indigenous people. They just haven't done that in Standing Rock yet, even as they're doing it elsewhere. Maybe it just means that our oppression of people of color has been tailored to each specific community.

Whatever the case, just as happened on Dec. 4 last year when the Army Corps under the Obama administration denied the easement needed for Energy Transfer Partners to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a time of change and transition for the #NoDAPL camps. Roughly 600 people remained in the camps from mid-December through mid-February, and only a handful of reinforcements arrived this week.

Now many of them are heading home. Many more are staying and continuing the fight on the ground in North Dakota, and a group of committed indigenous activists have promised to continue finding new sites for prayer camps to continue if needed. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who owns the Sacred Stone land and founded the original camp last April, has vowed to maintain a community on her own land as well, come figurative hell or literal high water.

And everyone who is leaving is leaving profoundly changed, it seems, carrying with them a sense of invigorated spirituality and an empowered sense of capability and responsibility to stand up more fiercely than ever to injustice.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway has been the interconnectedness of movements that had remained, until now, disparate. The issues being raised by #NoDAPL water protectors, indigenous rights advocates, environmental activists, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrant rights groups, education advocates, workers' rights groups and countless others are all symptoms of the same disease, branches of a tree whose trunk contains the sickness of capitalist greed, colonial entitlement and systemic inequity.

I see the possibility for enormous breakthroughs as our passions are shown more clearly to have a common enemy, and as it becomes harder to ignore that our own liberation is dependent on our neighbor’s.

We’re all in this together — even the police officers and DAPL employees who are following orders in order to maintain an income they’re afraid to lose. Even Trump and everyone who voted for him. We are protecting this water for everyone. We are shouting for everyone’s sake that Black Lives Matter -- not just for the Black men and women who face the greatest immediate risk -- because no life is truly valued by a society that declares some expendable. We are demanding equitable access to high-quality public education because its absence leaves a cavity in our country and our communities.

No matter what you hear in the mainstream media, the #NoDAPL movement isn’t ending. It’s just shifting, dispersing, expanding. Water falls from the sky as millions of individual drops, but those beads of water don’t remain separate. They can’t help but combine, to join together as they touch, and in doing so, to become a roaring, powerful body of water.

We, too, seem like millions of individuals, but we come from the same source, whatever that is. We are intrinsically connected. And when we act out those connections, they deepen, and we awaken the potential of our unified power to overwhelm the hate and division that plagues us now.

SPS put Emerson principal on leave after visit from school board rep

Last week was an exciting week in Seattle Public Schools. The city's teachers boldly came together to declare that Black Lives Matter, igniting support from the district and the community.

That all overshadowed a difficult week at Emerson Elementary, however. Parents were informed last Sunday (Oct. 16) that second-year principal Andrea Drake would be going on leave, and it's not clear if or when she will return. For now, Drake will be replaced on an interim basis by Barbara Moore, who will presumably do for Emerson what Frank Robinson did for the Washington Nationals a decade ago: come out of retirement to sleep-lead through a transition.

This is from the email to families from Kelly Aramaki, executive director of schools for SPS' southeast region:

“I am writing to let you know that Dr. Andrea Drake, Emerson's Principal, is currently on leave. During her absence, Ms. Barbara Moore, retired principal of South Lake High School, has graciously agreed to step in as acting principal. Ms. Moore is one of Seattle's finest leaders and will be a strong and steady support during this time. Ms. Moore and Ms. James, Emerson's Assistant Principal, will be working closely together and with the staff to ensure that everything moves forward smoothly. Your child's learning is our number one priority.”

As I understand it, Principal Drake did not volunteer to take a leave of absence. Seattle School Board member Betty Patu visited Emerson recently and met with some teachers. I don't know what exactly Patu was told or what she discovered, but something about the conditions at Emerson prompted Patu to go directly to Aramaki, who saw fit to place Drake on leave.

Drake had reportedly mismanaged the levy process as well, but whether or not there is any substance to that rumor, Drake’s brief tenure at Emerson has been far from smooth.

My son goes to Emerson. Principal Drake took the helm just prior to the start of the 2015-16 school year, and from one parent's perspective, the school has languished in low expectations for its students ever since. Last fall's curriculum night, for instance, was far more focused on the importance of attendance and uniforms -- essentially showing up and wearing the right clothes -- than anything academic, let alone anything rigorous.

Last summer, state superintendent Randy Dorn changed Emerson's designation from a "priority school," which it had earned due to persistently low test scores, to a "superintendent intervention school." This change gave the school's teachers an option to stay at Emerson or leave to pursue other positions within the district. Almost every teacher left.

Working conditions at the school seem to have remained unkind to its teachers this fall. Emerson still does not have a teachers union representative.

When SEA voted unanimously to wear custom Black Lives Matter shirts on Wednesday, Oct. 19, teachers at Emerson asked to take part. Principal Drake's response to her staff’s request to participate was a firm "NO." Then she explained herself by telling her teachers that "all lives matter.”

She’s entitled to her beliefs and her own ideology, but if that’s the culture being established at my son’s school, then I appreciate the change of leadership. It’s not that I take issue, necessarily, with this particular example of upheaval at Emerson.

I take issue with the larger pattern of constant turnover and consistent underachievement at the school. I take issue with the fact that we have every reason to believe this will just keep happening.

So, Barbara Moore becomes Emerson's third principal in three years and its fourth in the past five. For the most part, our neighbors with access to other schools will continue exercising that option and avoiding Emerson altogether.

And who could blame them?

The building is home to some excellent, dedicated teachers and support staff, but they need more help. Emerson is also home to a few hundred beautiful little kids and their families, and we’re depending on our leaders in the district and on the school board to step up and give our kids the education they deserve — or at least something equivalent to the education most students on the north end are already getting.

It seems clear that our state superintendent (Dorn), our region’s ED with SPS (Aramaki) and our locally elected school board rep (Patu) are all well aware of the problems at Emerson.

Our leaders know that our school is failing us. This is, in theory, why we elected them, why our taxes pay their salaries. They are our advocates, a mouthpiece for the students and families in the communities they serve. And they know that our kids are being treated inequitably.

So, what’s going to be different this time? What will be done to change Emerson’s future and give our kids access to the education they deserve from their neighborhood school?

 

#BlackLivesMatterAtSchool renews my hope for Seattle schools

#BlackLivesMatterAtSchool renews my hope for Seattle schools

In a city typically plagued by white-moderate passivity, and in a school district plagued by persistent segregation, disproportionate discipline and tracking, this loud, courageous call for racial equity renews my hope for change in our district.

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