Dear PS 220 White Teachers Who Wore NYPD T-Shirts To School…
It must have seemed like a fantastic idea when, despite warnings from the United Federation of Teachers, you all donned NYPD shirts and crowded in front of a camera for a smirking group portrait. Through this lens, which is conspicuously White, those matching gray shirts might either be a tone-deaf display of team spirit, or a more troubling reification of how you regard your relationship to the minority student body. Whatever the intention, you have managed to introduce the armed and socially embroiled segment of the judicial system into the classroom in the most polarizing way.
And for that reason, on behalf of your Black and minority student population, which happens to comprise more than 59 percent of your school’s racial demographic, you must be made aware of the fact that this is an egregious offense. Regard this as an educational opportunity; a glimpse at some of the sentiments that boil deep within the Black/minority community when such insensitivity is overtly displayed in a school, of all places.
Allow me to contextualize your actions which have generated such angst and anger within me and many others, including, more than likely, a large number of your students and their parents. On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. He said “I can’t breath” before passing out and dying. This was filmed by a citizen journalist and sparked outrage over the unlawful death of the man who leaves behind a wife and six children. Since that date, multiple Black men have been gunned down in the streets by police. Michael Brown was shot and killed by police while holding his hands up in the air, a gesture that conveys surrender/compliance, and sparked a nationwide protest against police brutality. John Crawford was fatally shot in the chest by a police officer inside of a Walmart as he talked to his girlfriend on the phone. Omar Obrego, a father of three, was shot and killed after being pulled over for “driving erratically.” All of these men were unarmed. These of course, are only recent examples. There is a long history of police brutality, and very specifically, NYPD brutality that targets Blacks and minorities. Please, take the time to Google “Stop and Frisk” and Amadou Diallo, because I cannot afford any more time to your obvious ignorance.
In the wake of these tragedies, racial tensions have peaked. Protesters have taken the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, their cries for justice met with militarized force by local police who littered the streets with tear gas and rubber bullets — prompting Palestinians to share much needed information about avoiding and dealing with military/police violence. On the other side of the spectrum of responses, numerous White hate groups, including the KKK, have come out in support of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mike Brown, raising thousands of dollars for his “cause.” How do your actions fare within this context?
To your Black and Latino students, many of whom must have serious conversations with their parents about safeguarding their person from those charged to serve and protect them — the NYPD — your actions are deeply hurtful. Any remaining innocence they brought with them to the classroom that enabled them to readily accept you, a White person, as a loving, caring, respecting authority figure has been undermined. The relationships students and teachers struggle to build across racial divides can only be maintained when both parties respect one another; their history and most importantly their struggle. It is quite a delicate process that requires objectivity, fairness, empathy and most importantly, sensitivity. Traits and characteristics that you, the “educators” obviously lack based on your outrageous choice to wear those shirts, despite being warned against it by your own union.
Your return to the classroom represents the continued marginalization of minority sentiments sparked from centuries of police terrorism. From today on, when a little Black or Hispanic boy or girl looks to you, his “educator,” it is far less likely he/she will see a nurturer or protector. Instead, that child will look through the lens of his or her “blackness” and see a white woman or man who is more interested in furthering a personal, “White” agenda than protecting them — a little brown boy or girl.