by The Philadelphia Student Union November 12, 2014
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” -Assata Shakur
To those who have called our action on October 15th “disrespectful”, we invoke this wisdom of Ms. Shakur. As we peacefully protested at the School District of Philadelphia’s screening of Won’t Back Down, part of their “Family Appreciation Month”, we were not trying to appeal to their moral senses. Rather we were bringing to light the many ways that the SRC has failed the students of Philadelphia, explained here. The screening was largely organized by SRC member Sylvia Simms, the Women’s Christian Alliance, and Comcast (Simms’ current employer) a company that took in over $64 billion without paying taxes to Philadelphia in 2013 while our schools continue to go extremely under-funded.
As the media has well publicized, Simms (whose twitter handle photo is ironically an image of Angela Davis), screamed at the students, inches from their faces that they “probably go to failing schools” and “belong in jail.” Meanwhile her supporters chanted “Lock them up.”
An article published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 17th reads:
In a telephone interview, Simms said she raised her voice to the students because they were chanting loudly and she wanted to communicate. Simms, 53, a North Philadelphia grandmother, parent organizer and mayoral appointee, said she asked them what schools they attended and talked about failing schools.
She denied stating that the students probably attend failing schools.
“It wasn’t like that,” she said. “I’ve noticed we have a lot of failing schools. It’s my job to try to fix as many schools as I can.”
She said she couldn’t remember exactly what she said.
She said that she didn’t say that students “probably go to failing schools”, but here is clear evidence that Simms lied to the press and to the public. At the SRC meeting the following day, there were several calls from allies for Simms to apologize to students, as both an adult and as a decision-maker for the School District of Philadelphia. However, she stayed silent. She didn’t apologize, nor did she acknowledge that her supporters chanted “Lock them up”.
In this same meeting, SRC Chair, Bill Green addressed the individuals at the meeting who demanded that Simms apologize defensively, claiming that Simms is a champion of students’ causes.
If Simms can violently scream at young people for “failing” while at the same time be hailed as a “supporter of students”, then we can only imagine what the other SRC members are saying behind closed doors. However, the worst part is that we don’t really need to imagine. Besides not publicly condemning the actions of their fellow commissioner, we can plainly see how the SRC as a whole feels about community input. SRC meetings are no more than political theater with decisions made ahead of time and with little to no real discussion about the impacts of policies and changes on which they vote. The SRC members regularly sit before an audience of parents, teachers and students, with stone cold faces, and give little response to the pleas from the community, creating a mockery of community engagement. Recognizing the ineffectiveness and the folly of such a charade, we decided that the best way to have our voices heard was to engage in civil disobedience. Students were acting in the political forum that was available to them, a public event at the School District.
There is the pervading notion that SRC meetings are the only real and respectable place for the community to have its voice heard. However, it is overwhelmingly apparent that the SRC has no respect for our schools or our communities. As the SRC pretends to act with concern for the community, in reality, they want to dictate how the young people who are impacted by their decisions engage with them, largely relegating them to the sidelines and ignoring their voices. We are expected to behave in a manner deemed “acceptable” to those who do not agree with our demands just so we can stare at a decision-making table where we are not allowed to sit.
Given the conditions in a school district already starved by budget cuts and school closings there absolutely needs to be a raucous outcry of dissent on behalf of students from as Simms would put it, “failing schools” that she and the body she is a part of has played a role in destroying. By telling students that they are “failing”, it is de-legitimizing the voices of all students, who are placed in a not-so-secret hierarchy.
In fact, the students at the Won’t Back Down action are student athletes, musicians, and performers, actively involved in peer mediation in their schools. Some have been pushed out of schools, others have not. The students who participated in the action were from both neighborhood and magnet schools, students who are usually pitted against one another for resources. Students of all types had to take their action to the only place it would be heard.
The police were called during this action. The police were called, not to monitor the situation, as there is already security staff in the building, but rather to make arrests. For any member of the SRC to call the cops on students is not only unacceptable but an eerie reminder of how systems of power are used to control and violently oppress young black people in the United States.
The SRC is an unaccountable body that is abusing its power. We see this abuse as both institutional, and now, with respect to Simms’ comments, as interpersonal as well. SRC members can scream at students, cancel teachers’ contracts, and close schools, with no repercussions. There has been a deafening silence by Mayor Nutter, who appointed Simms, in regards to her actions. Lorri Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, told Newsworks, that this was “democracy in action”.
We disagree with City Hall. Democracy is when you get to choose your leaders who make decisions on your behalf. Democracy is when students’ right to assemble is protected, not threatened by arrest. Democracy would be an elected school board, not the SRC. We demand that the SRC be abolished and that Philadelphians be given local control over their schools. We demand an end to the attacks on teachers, students, and our public schools. WE WON’T BACK DOWN!