We won’t tolerate these out-of-control cops

February 2, 2015

On January 19, Seattle teacher and anti-racist activist Jesse Hagopian addressed a rally that preceded the city's 8,000-strong Martin Luther King Day march. Afterward, as he walked past a line of police who were blocking a public street, an officer doused him with pepper spray at point-blank range and then continued to spray several other people.

A video clip of the attack on Hagopian and the others has gone viral on YouTube, with more than 1.2 million views as of Sunday morning. On January 28, former Seattle NAACP President James Bible and socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant joined Hagopian and his supporters at a press conference in front of City Hall to denounce the attack and demand an end to police abuse and violence. Bible is representing Hagopian in a lawsuit against the city that seeks $500,000 in damages.

Earlier in the day before the press conference, Seattle police were forced to apologize for an officer who last summer arrested an elderly Black veteran for the "crime" of using a golf club as a cane--and then ranted on Facebook that "chronic black racism far exceeds any white racism." The pepper-spray attack on a well-known Seattle activist adds to the list of crimes that led to a Justice Department investigation and sanctions against the department.

Hagopian talked to Todd Chretien about what happened on Martin Luther King Day, the reality of racism in a liberal city and the future of the Black Lives Matter movement.

WHY DO you think a member of the Seattle Police Department pepper-sprayed you at the Martin Luther King Day march?

I THINK it was very irrational. We're still looking into the motives of the police officer. What we do know is that I was on the sidewalk, on the phone with my mom, arranging a ride so that I could get from the demonstration to my 2-year-old son's birthday party. I was no threat at all.

This is part of a sad pattern of excessive use of force that the Seattle Police Department has displayed over and over again. The police are under a federal consent decree because the Justice Department found that they've used excessive force, especially against people of color.

I had just finished giving the final speech at the Martin Luther King Day rally only a few blocks away. I hit on the themes of defending Martin Luther King's legacy from those who would give him praise, but then maintain the status quo of institutional racism. I talked about how Martin Luther King would be in the streets with the Black Lives Matter movement demanding police accountability. The irony of the police pepper-spraying me in the face was...well, quite obvious.

A Seattle police officer douses Jesse Hagopian (on phone) with pepper spray at point-blank range
A Seattle police officer douses Jesse Hagopian (on phone) with pepper spray at point-blank range

It was a horrible day. It should have been one of the best days of my life because it was the first time I've gotten to speak at Seattle's main annual social justice event, and it was my 2-year-old son's birthday, too. Instead, I spent my son's birthday party pouring milk in my eyes, trying to think about how I would explain to my kids what happened.

YOUR SONS are 2 years old and 6 years old. How did you talk to them about what happened?

I DIDN'T do a very good job of explaining it because I came in to my mom's house where the party was already assembled, and I had a rag over my eyes. I ran for the refrigerator, and my sister was helping me pour milk in my eyes to wash out the pepper spray. My older son asked me what was going on, and I just told him that I was hurt and I was trying to get better.

It was a difficult thing to talk about. I didn't want to scare him and tell him the truth about what the police represent in this country. You know, I don't want him to live in fear, from the age of six, of people in authority all around him.

So I didn't do a very good job. I'm still trying to figure out what to say to him.

SEATTLE IS your hometown. It has a great radical and cultural history, dating back to the 1919 general strike. But it also has very racist establishment. What was it like growing up Black in Seattle?

AFRICAN AMERICANS are about 8 percent of the city, and they are rapidly being pushed out. Seattle has a reputation of being a very liberal city, but because the Black population is small, the marginalization is very real.

I guess I was lucky that I went to Garfield High School, a school that was integrated and has been for a long time, and prides itself on that. It was where Martin Luther King came for his only visit to Seattle. That continues today--we have the Black Student Union leading the Black Lives Matter movement here in Seattle. So being a student at that school, with a sizable Black population and many different cultures, was positive.

But racism is deeply entrenched in the city, and I couldn't escape it. There were many different aspects to it--whether it was the tracking system in school that made me feel I wasn't intelligent enough to pursue higher-level classes, or being stopped by police while I was driving and then harassed. But those are just the typical stories of African Americans all over the country.

YOU'RE NOW a teacher at Garfield High School. Can you describe what it's like for your students growing up in today's Seattle?

WHEN WE had the first Black Student Union meeting this year, you could tell from the students that it was a huge relief because of the horrific events that happened over the summer, starting with Mike Brown being shot down and left to lie in the streets for four-and-a-half hours. That created a lot of pent-up anger, frustration and fear among my students.

So it was an incredible first meeting of the year where we finally got back together and could lean on each other for support. These young folks at Garfield High have taken that anger and fear, and turned it into energy and motivation--they've really taken the lead in the movement in Seattle.

They led the march on October 22, the national day against police brutality, from Garfield High to the East precinct in Seattle. It was pouring-down rain, it was the first demonstration they ever organized, and they got some 40 students marching with them. When they got to the precinct, they were met by cops in riot gear and on horseback. As the students put it: Here we are, as children, trying to tell them about how to be more responsive to our needs, and they met us with a show of force. I think that moment really tells a lot about our society.

Since then, they led a mass walkout after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, and they even received the city's human rights award this year for their activism.

WHEN YOU'RE not being pepper-sprayed, you're also an author, with a new book out titled More Than A Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. How do you see the state of our public schools being connected to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement?

I DID an interview recently that was headlined: "Hands up, don't test." We have to see the connections between high-stakes testing, institutional racism and police brutality.

The history of high-stakes testing is that these tests first entered the public schools because of the eugenics movement. They were designed to keep African Americans, women and immigrants labeled as unintelligent, ranked at the bottom and sorted into the worst jobs in society. I think high-stakes testing plays a similar role today.

In fact, there's a study that came out of Boston University not too long ago showing that the only outcome to attaching high stakes to exit exams--the ones that you have to pass to graduate--has been an increase in rates of incarceration. I think that high-stakes testing is a big part of the school-to-prison pipeline that is warehousing a whole generation. The movement to end high-stakes testing needs to understand how these tests perpetuate institutional racism if it's going to succeed in defeating these exams.

And I think that the Black Lives Matter movement isn't just about stopping our young people from being shot down in the streets with impunity. When we say Black Lives Matter, we want an education which is culturally relevant and antiracist. I think that if these movements come together, they'll be stronger for it.

YOU'RE A teacher, a union activist and civil rights organizer, an author, and you're also a socialist. How do you see what you've talked about being related to the system of capitalism?

YOU CAN'T have capitalism without racism, as Malcolm X put it. It starts way back during the days of Bacon's Rebellion, when there was a mass multiracial uprising against colonial authority back in 1676. That was put down by moving to the divide-and-conquer strategy of full-scale, racialized slavery, where only Black people were slaves, while white workers were paid a low wage.

You can see from the very origins of this country and the origins of the capitalist system that it was built on slavery and divide-and-conquer. It grew up through Jim Crow and segregation, and it's matured today under the New Jim Crow and institutionalized racism.

I think we have to see this economic system, in which the 1 Percent can hoard as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion people on the planet, as predicated on institutional racism and dividing the 99 Percent so that they can't fight back. In that context, I think the education system plays a huge role in reproducing the inequality in our society and reinforcing the dominant ideology that we can't do any better than this system.

That's a daunting task, but I think that when you have most of the population who aren't benefiting from the system, and you have a Black Lives Matter movement that's able to understand the central role that racism plays in maintaining the system, I think you have a recipe for a mass revolt, the likes of which we haven't seen in a very long time.

Anybody who has worked with the students at Garfield High School can tell you that there's something brewing in our society like I've never seen in my lifetime. And when that's championed by young Black people who feel that their lives are completely restricted in our society, I think you're going to see a passion for social change erupt.

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