On December 17, 2014 I participated in a forum at Uniondale High School in Uniondale, New York on "Policing in America: Should Uniondale Care about Ferguson?" It was organized by social studies teacher Adeola Tella-Williams and students in her Participation in Government class. The student population at Uniondale High School is almost 100% Black and Latino, and as it became clear at the forum, students felt the death by police of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, on a very personal level. Ms. Tella-Williams is a former master's student at Hofstra University and a cooperating teacher in the Hofstra teacher education program.
The forum opened when eighteen students from Ms. Tella-Williams' class, wearing black hoodies, their lips sealed with duct tape and their hands held shoulder-high, walked into the high school's little theater. As about two hundred students, teachers, and administrators looked on these Black and Latino high school seniors laid down on the floor for four minutes. This dramatic act symbolized the four hours that Michael Brown remained on the ground after he was shot and killed by a police officer.
According to Ms. Tella-Williams, her students initially proposed the event because they "know about the injustices, but they don't know which side to take . . . or if they should be on any side at all." Tatiana Hollingsworth, a student from the class emphasized, "We are not here today to disrespect the police." Jonathan Dossows, another student, explained, "We are doing this to let everyone know that black lives matter." Dossows reported how he has already been stopped and questioned by police twice while walking home from school. Once he was told that he fit the description of a robber. Another time police asked him if he was selling drugs.
Panelists and speakers included Justin Williams, a teacher and administrator at Uniondale High School, Keith Saunders, one of the school's deans, Valerie McFadden, a school employee who has documented police violence against Black youth on Long Island, Serge Argueta, a social worker in the Uniondale school district, police officer John Sheik of the NYPD who is a graduate of Uniondale High School, and myself.
Saunders acknowledged that many students are upset because they have experienced being stopped by police. He stressed the need for students to learn the skills necessary "to voice their opinion in an organized and structured way." Argueta congratulated the students for organizing the forum and declared it made him "extremely hopeful that change is possible." He told the assembly, "solutions are right here in this room."
Williams told students about some of his own experiences as a young Black man. They included being "pulled over and stopped 20 times" by police "for no reason that I could determine other than I had darker skin." While he cautioned students to act respectfully if stopped by police, he also stressed his belief that the problem in many of these encounters is that the police do not act professionally. "The onus should not be on the public to behave better than the police officer. The officer has a weapon and the power and should not disrespect citizens."
Officer Sheik also cautioned students to avoid escalating any dispute with police. "All cops, we are not perfect. Even if you don't agree with the officer when the officer stops you, please listen to him in the streets" instead of arguing. " Sheik told students they would eventually have their day in court. Williams, however, respectfully disagreed with this claim and wondered whether, when officers tell their story, the courts would believe Black youth.
I was the only white member of the panel. I opened my comments by acknowledging it and trying to provide some historical background on the militarized police presence in Black and Latino communities like Uniondale.
In tenth grade students study modern world history and I asked them to recall the poem "The White Man's Burden" by English poet Rudyard Kipling. Kipling defended late 19th century imperialism claiming Europeans, especially the British, were bringing civilization to Third World people. I argued that police activity in minority communities today is based on a similar ideology. It has been heightened by White fear of non-white people, residential and school segregation, a police culture that allows officers to act outside the law, calls for increased security since September 2001, and the supplying of military equipment to local police forces. I stressed that I disagreed with violent community responses to police action. But I also protested against official violence by the police and questioned whether anyone would have paid attention to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson if it had not been for protests and rioting.
There has been much discussion about what citizenship education should look like in the 21st century. This was an outstanding example of young people becoming activists, raising questions with adults, searching for answers, and sharing their ideas with a broader audience. I thank the students of Uniondale for inviting me to participate and I congratulate them on their present and future activism.