A Tacoma Teacher Strike Reflection

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The strike is over and school starts Monday. When I got the email letting me know we’d reached a tentative agreement, I was so giddy I screamed to my wife “TA, TA, WE GOT A TAAAAAAAAA.” Words can’t describe how glad I am this is over. But, before I move on to my usual fall routines: learning names, custom handshakes, teaching about the Federalists vs the Anti-Federalists, and Friday Night Lights--I think it’s important to stop and take stock of what happened in our community.

Tacoma, thank you. Teachers owe the parents and community a massive debt. You had our backs! You brought provisions, you organized a 2,000+ member Facebook group, you told us to fight and keep our heads high. Every honk, every donut, every text was appreciated, and I thank you. You’ve always supported our schools through levy votes, voting for bonds, and random fundraisers (I mean seriously, wrapping paper?). But the support you showed during the strike went above and beyond and brought tears to my eyes, repeatedly.

We also need to thank the labor community. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, ILWU longshoreman, and pipefitters all came out and walked the lines. Teachers, if we don't return this solidarity when they need us--especially to the paras, school bus drivers, and food service workers who serve our students--shame on us.

To Tacoma’s students, we all owe you an apology. Adult issues kept you out of the classroom where you belong. That’s an injustice and there’s no way to spin that. There shouldn’t have been a strike. I found the last two weeks mind-numbingly frustrating because it was preventable. If the McCleary Settlement was done with transparency, rather than dead-of-night-last-second deal making, we wouldn’t be here. If a fair contract had been offered from the beginning of negotiations, we wouldn’t be here. If young teachers in our city felt valued and knew they wouldn’t have to pick-up side-hustles to stay in their apartments, we wouldn’t be here.

Lastly for the school board, we elect school board members not spokespeople. Canceling school board meetings, ghosting from social media, and responding to community members with auto-form replies is not the way for school board members to lead. The community didn’t vote for the district public information office, we elected you. If you don’t want to face an angry public when things are bad, perhaps elected office isn’t your calling.

This will be my thirteenth year of teaching. I have worked in Tacoma my entire teaching career. But, my mentor in the profession departed during this strike. I am still not over that. Despite reaching a contract agreement, I have lingering concerns about our ability to retain many of the great teachers we have. I want for Tacoma Schools to be the world-class system our students deserve, but nothing that happened over the last two weeks brought us closer to that.

I’ve heard from a lot of parents and community members. People are angry and we have to win their trust back. I often say in my talks that “teaching is relational.” Classrooms are places where if trust is absent, learning will be as well. For the sake of my students, I hope Tacoma Schools can spend this year rebuilding that trust.

I’m off to go lesson plan.

A Little Solidarity

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Colin Kaepernick is no longer playing in the NFL because wealthy team owners decided collectively to silence his protest. Merrick Garland remains on the DC Circuit Court because millions of Republicans, who can't stand Donald Trump, voted for him anyway to get tax cuts and more conservative federal judges.

A little solidarity goes a long way.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, unchanged since 2009, largely because middle-class folks won't fight for low-wage workers. As Michelle Alexander laid out in The New Jim Crow, one of the reasons mass incarceration became national policy is because leaders of legacy civil rights groups were focused on issues that impacted their children, like affirmative action in college admissions. Police killings continue unabated, at over 1000 per year, because polite white folks don't think it's their problem.

A little solidarity goes a long way.

I tend to avoid Wiemar Germany comparisons, but if you want to sell to me that we're living through pre-Franco Madrid or pre-Mussolini Rome, you'll have my attention. What is happening today is not normal. Separating kids from their parents as a form of political brinkmanship is not normal. Revoking citizenship from naturalized citizens is not normal. Equivocating between violent white-supremacists and the people who rally to oppose them is not normal. Ethnic paramilitary forces euphemistically calling themselves “Western chauvinists” and holding rallies is not normal. We can't become numb to it.

Earlier this week, my dude James Ford shared a video of Latinx factory workers walking off the job en masse in support of two colleagues. They shut their entire factory down because they were united, in solidarity. I often think about the Spanish Civil War. When Franco rose to power, he did so largely because the political left in Spain was divided over how to oppose him, until it was too late.

The aforementioned video, there’s some NSFW language here, just warning you

It's easy for us to get tunnel vision around our own issues. It would frankly be easier for me to stick to class size, teacher salaries, and school funding. But now more than ever, people who desire a more just and equitable society must show solidarity. I'm not a Marxist, but I speak the language. Capital and power seek to distract and divide us, but we're often too willing to do that work for them. Our lives are all improved by the contributions of immigrants to the cultural milieu. We were all birthed by mothers who deserve equal rights, pay, and treatment. We're all threatened when law enforcement operates unchecked in our communities. We're all harmed when the LGBTQ+ population has their humanity questioned or lives threatened. We're all worse off when Black lives don't matter. But, none of these struggles is more important than the other.

A little solidarity goes a long way.

I Don’t Fear White Supremacists, I Fear Liberal Indifference

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Early in my student-teaching, I had a theory. When students behaved poorly, I ignored them, hoping they'd realize the folly of their ways and modify their behavior. If you've taught for more than a week, you know how this worked out. Lesson learned: if someone lets a homophobic, racist, anti-trans, etc. slur rip in class, your immediate response communicates your values and expectations. Your first response to someone saying “that’s so gay” will dictate whether there’s ever a second time.

It’s no different in everyday life.

American liberals are currently engaging in the same faulty reasoning regarding white-supremacist and neo-confederate activity. Throughout the post-civil rights era, white supremacists lingered on the fringes of the political right. However, through YouTube self-radicalization, internet communities like StormFront, and the wink-wink nature of the president’s response to their support of him, they’re moving from the fringes toward the mainstream of the American right:

The “if it triggers the libs, then it’s good with me” ethos that Trumpsim has brought to the American right has brought white-nationalists figures out of the shadows. They’re leveraging our political tribalism to gain a foothold in conservative media and online spaces.

Meanwhile, the preferred liberal approach “the best way to fight white supremacists is to ignore them” has proved ineffective. This is certainly the easiest path for (seemingly) unaffected white liberals but is also incredibly dangerous for my students and our democracy. When you ignore white supremacists, they “hear” your silence as indifference--if not a tacit endorsement. We saw this with David Duke’s near-orgasmic comments after the president failed fully to condemn the events in Charlottesville.  

The danger is real and I’m convinced the liberal weapons of choice: satire and longform essays, are insufficient to combat the 15-24 year old, YouTube self-radicalized, alt-right/Nazi horde about to break into the political mainstream. We need a new playbook and it has to include white liberals taking a risk and confronting white supremacists.

I recently saw this unfold in my own community. In February, a local group of activists identified a group of Neo-Nazis living and operating a tattoo parlor in East Tacoma. Dozens of people shared the piece on social media, but the collective response was muted. The Nazis in question felt no pushback once their presence became public knowledge, so in the spring they began flying a Confederate, German flag, and a Viking Raven flag in the neighborhood. Members of the community began putting pressure on them: letters, phone calls, several “this is not okay in our community” in-person conversations, and the Neo-Nazis wrapped themselves in "patriotism" instead, replacing those flags with US flags and bunting.

This may seem trivial, but the lesson is clear: ignoring them was a signal that their conduct was acceptable. So they escalated. But, the community collectively saying “we will not tolerate this behavior” provoked a change.

Ignoring white supremacists is a tacit endorsement of their ideas and presence. Collective condemnation and confrontation send them scurrying. Bigotry and courage usually don’t coexist. Dear reader (especially teachers), it may go against your non-confrontational nature but it’s a must. Look, I have tough skin. Up until Twitter made such activity an account revoking offense, I got called a "nigger" online basically weekly for my various posts. Y'all, it shouldn’t be left to people of color to police white supremacists. Neo-Nazis may not seem like a threat to you, but they are a threat to your students, their families, and our communities.

Their plan is simple. They seek to normalize their presence and then their activities and beliefs. Ignoring them grants an air of legitimacy.

We mustn't allow that. We can’t.