Schools Not Jails
April 11, 2012
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At Friends, Monday, January 16th was a day of service dedicated to honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds from the Friends community participated in direct service around Baltimore. I chose to witness another form of service, also in Baltimore, but one with a gritty edge and purpose. That day, the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) and Occupy Baltimore, joined by a coalition of other community groups, began their “Schools Not Jails” action. They intended a week-long occupation of the site of a planned $104 million youth jail in a vacant lot in the heart of the city’s correctional-industrial complex in East Baltimore. While Occupy Baltimore has received a fair amount of media attention (as well as visits from the Peace, Non-Violence, and Social Justice class), the BAP has been working diligently since 1990 to use mathematics as an organizing tool with which to advocate for public school improvements and equity. It is a student-directed group that practices passionate and committed grassroots activism.
I went down to East Madison Street with a friend, Ab, whose own history is ripe with civil disobedience and social justice work. He was working on a PhD. in English at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 when he came to Baltimore to found a commune in South Baltimore. Over the decades, he’s been active as a community organizer and steadfast as a supporter of human and civil rights, as well as a regular in various incarnations of the anti-war movement. I’d attended a few rallies and protests with Ab and he’s good company: wise, knowledgeable, full of good humor, and brimming with stories.
The rally began outside the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and then attendees marched to the proposed detention facility site. In the bitter cold, protestors chanted “Schools, not jails” and wielded signs with similar messages. Not surprisingly, the whole affair was shadowed by uniformed and plainclothes police; also not surprisingly, the marchers walked in civil fashion, aided by self-appointed marshals from the Occupy Baltimore cohort. And, not surprisingly, Ab kept bumping into friends and acquaintances from past events. (The social justice community in Baltimore is, in some ways, like the independent school community: a tight-knit circle where everyone seems to know everyone else.)
At the vacant lot, more speeches were delivered and then a little action. A dozen volunteers rapidly unloaded plywood boards and passed them over the chain link fence, where four men with hammers and nails quickly constructed a replica of a schoolhouse; the whole time, multiple bands of law enforcement impassively watched: six Maryland State Troopers inside the fenced area, a knot of Baltimore City police officers a block away, and a massive gas guzzling behemoth sprouting menacing antennae with the words Mobile Command Unit stenciled on its side. I counted over 20 boys in blue, approximately one for every four of us. Good time to do some crime in Charm City, I thought, because all was the cops appeared to buzz around this protest like moths to flame.
As books were laid out next to the school house, a Baltimore City teacher, using the Occupy movements call and response “mic check”, talked about the numerous deficiencies at her school, including crumbling infrastructure and classrooms bursting with students. What really struck me, though, was her sobering announcement that she wouldn’t be there for her kids the next day because she would be in jail. Soon enough, six protestors inside the fences were arrested and charged with trespassing. Again, I wondered how a few dozen police officers keeping tabs on a peaceful protest was serving the city. Did they believe that allocating $104 million for a 120-bed youth jail -in these fragile economic times!- was a better investment than using a fraction of that money to keep neighborhood rec centers open and fund crime-prevention programs, not to mention using some of that money for sorely-needed improvements to schools?
It’s easy for cynics to view this occupation as little more than a publicity stunt…yet I walked away feeling rejuvenated. I’d witnessed citizens engaging in one of America’s finest traditions: civil disobedience in response to injustice. I heard substantive arguments that made common sense. I saw a farcical demonstration of overwhelming over-reaction by the city and state, my own tax dollars wasted to incarcerate a half-dozen people merely wanting their government to make life a little easier for kids. This was no symbolic action but rather a clarion call to those who control both the purse strings and the handcuffs, as well as those whose franchise has been sorely limited. Schools not jails indeed.