handcuffed for school equity

23 Jul 2010 by Guest Blogger, 1 Comment »

Tractivist sisters and brothers,

I got arrested on Tuesday, July 20th with 18 others all fighting for school equity.

I have never been handcuffed, thrown into a paddy wagon, fingerprinted or had my mug shot taken. It was a sobering experience.

I have been in a jail before, through Prison MATCH (Prison Mothers and Their Children) and Job Start, both programs that seek to decrease recidivism and the impact of the cycle of incarceration. I spent hours with incarcerated young women who look like me. The prison system is full of people of color. I thought about them as I decided that I would take a stand against the elimination of the socioeconomic diversity policy in Wake County schools, which I believe will result in more young people entering the school-to-prison pipeline.

Thousands Rally
My day started marching with my prince kings and several thousand people down Fayetteville Street. We marched because we believe in equity in our schools. It was a powerful march. The diversity of the marchers was beautiful. Speakers spoke eloquently about the history of the struggle against segregation. It was more than 40 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court made segregated schools illegal in Brown vs. Board of Education.

At the rally, speakers talked about the moral imperative to stand against any effort to segregate our community. It reminded me that we no longer can just sit in our pews and pray. We are God’s weapons against injustice and it will take all of us together to fight for a united community. I was touched by one speaker, who said of the marchers, ”This is what my neighborhood looks like.” I understand that we cannot retreat back into our neighborhoods. We live in a global community. We will either learn to work together or we will all perish together.

We Prayed

We left the rally and went to a prayer meeting at Pullen Memorial Church. This is a predominately white church led by the Rev. Nancy Petty, who was arrested at a school board meeting a few weeks ago with Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president, Tim Tyson, a Duke University professor and author of ‘Blood Done Signed My Name,’ and Mary Williams, a renowned gospel singer and freedom fighter. They drafted a statement about why they chose to get arrested:

“In the best American traditions, from Henry David Thoreau to Ella Baker to Martin Luther King, Jr., we recognize the necessary place of civil disobedience: breaking a small and unjust law in order to protect a larger and broadly significant law, honoring the very spirit of law by yielding to punishment in order to meet the necessity of an urgent moral crisis. We seek to make a moral and spiritual witness that we feel is urgent, necessary, and right.”

School Board Meeting becomes a Police State
After the prayer meeting I dropped my sons off and I went to the school board meeting which was set up like a police state. Over 50 police had secured the parking lot with metal barriers. I had to park down the street and walk because they were not letting anyone park in the lot.

Opponents of the diversity policy had asked their supporters to fill the meeting room’s 164 seats. They were unable to reach this goal. Outside, Rev. Barber arrived and read a statement. He and three others were immediately taken to jail. The police told people who were standing with Rev. Barber that if they remained on the sidewalk and didn’t move behind the gated parking lot, they would be arrested. Several people refused to move. The police officers asked “Who wants to get arrested?” This was ridiculous because no one was violating the law. The sidewalk is big enough for people to stand and wait. Tensions were rising.

I went inside. At first, I could only get into an overflow room with a blurry television screen to show the proceedings. The school board has been asked many times to move the meetings to a big enough space for the public to attend. Unfortunately, they have refused. A protest broke out in the hallway when people who wanted to see the board meeting were forbidden to enter the main room.

Eventually I was able to squeeze into the main board room (thanks Lauren). When Michele Laws, president of the Chapel Hill chapter of the NAACP, went up to make her statement, I walked to the stand and I was not alone. Many people joined me and we locked arms. We began to chant “Forward ever, backwards never.”

Handcuffed for School Equity

Quickly, the police surrounded us and told us to stop chanting. We refused, and our hold on each other tightened. Michele’s daughter, MD, was in the middle of our group. Police began to pull and push at us, violently twisting arms. At one point, a supporter of the board smacked a member of NC HEAT in the head.

When Keith Sutton, the only black school board member, tried to calm tensions, police grabbed him and forced his arms behind his back in an attempt to arrest him. The crowd began to yell: “He’s a school board member. What are you doing?” Eventually, another officer intervened and Sutton was released.

One by one, they broke our circle apart. Finally, one woman was left. She was on her hands and knees on the floor, surrounded by officers, crying, “Don’t touch me.” When I knelt to pray with her, they arrested both of us.

My day ended in the Wake County jail, waiting to be processed and watching people of color continue to come into the jail in handcuffs — real handcuffs, not the plastic bands they used on us.

The NAACP has released an official statement to represent the Solid 19 that were arrested on Tuesday. Please read the official statement quoted here.

I have been asked why I got arrested and if it was “worth it.” We took a stand and would not be moved. We know that the Wake County system was not perfect to begin with. Indeed, my son was suspended twice this year. We have a lot of work to do. We still stand against the elimination of the diversity policy because we know it will only make a challenging situation worse.

I did this because:

  1. I am a mother and believe all children deserve a sound basic education and this requires equitable schools, preserving the socioeconomic diversity policy, quality teachers, and parental involvement and eliminating zero-tolerance discipline policies.
  2. Low wealth schools will only serve to widen the school to prison pipeline. The elimination of the diversity policy and the transition to neighborhood schools will result in an increase in the number of low wealth schools. The increased number of low wealth schools will lead to an increased in the number of students that become residents of jails and prisons. Across the country our prison system is filled with young people of color. I recently learned from Critical Resistance that at least 50% of the young people entering our prison system are being sent there by school resource officers that work in our public schools.
  3. We have a right to control/influence/participate in the schools in our communities. We have been shut out of this process. The new school board majority was elected by 6% of the registered voters, but a survey found that over 90% of parents were happy with the school their children were attending. Overwhelmingly the public has spoken out against eliminating the diversity policy. There have been letters to the board, public comment, rallies, town hall forums, data presentations by experts, letters to editor, meetings and much more that have little to nothing to move the board majority. They refuse to hear us, indeed they mock us, call us animals loose from our cages. If they say that about our efforts to challenge their position on this issue, how can they possibly hear our children’s needs?
  4. The data and the research all lead to one conclusion: eliminating the socio-economic diversity plan will yield more high poverty schools. I have heard from many who believe integration has not always served black children. They believe we should control the destiny of our schools. I think they have a point, but I strongly believe that without a socioeconomic diversity policy, we will never have equitable funding across all of our schools in Wake County. They can promise more resources to the segregated all-black school in my part of town, but they will not keep their promises. My sons will be fighting the same battle I am fighting. The cycle has to stop somewhere.
  5. Strong schools are good for the economy and high poverty schools are bad for business. We know that housing, transportation and education are all tied together and necessary for a strong economy. If we allow them to weaken our school system, they will weaken our economic base, we will lose jobs, will lose money. We literally can’t afford to allow this to happen.

Wake County voters fell asleep at the wheel last fall. Turnout was so low that we allowed these ideologues to gain control of the most valuable enterprise in our county-our schools. For that oversight we must all work harder to take back the helm of our schools. We need community investment and control of our schools. We need parents and students working with the experts (teachers and administrators) to create a more just and equitable school system. We need to vote in the upcoming election.

And we need your help. Please join us this Sunday, July 25 for the “After the March – Stay in the Struggle” get-together, 2-5 pm at the YWCA 554. E Hargett St. We will continue to fight. Forward Ever, Backward Never!!

Was it worth it?  Yes. Will I do it again? Yes, if it’s necessary. Someone said to me today, “If the struggle ain’t worth going to jail, then it probably it ain’t worth it at all.”

Erin Byrd
Member of NAACP Political Action Committee, Black Workers for Justice and Southern Partners Fund
Employed by Blueprint NC

One Comment

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