February 27, 2009

Commentary:

Freedom Fighters on My Mind

By Ernie McCray

When it comes to freedom fighters, I’ve met a few.

I once shook hands with Martin Luther King long before he gave birth to his wonderful dream.

I twice sang to Rosa Parks and basked in her beautiful and warm smile, so thankful that she once sat down so I could stand up tall.

I remember sipping wine with Pete Seeger and kicking back while he sang and waxed eloquently about civil and human rights and his efforts to get the world to “study war no more.”

Needless to say these were thrilling moments in my life but no more so than the moments I’ve spent, over the last year, with a number of freedom fighting students from Lincoln and Mission Bay High.

These kids, over a hundred strong, most of them Latinos along with a smattering of African Americans, didn’t set out to change their world. No, they were just trying to make their grades and get their homework in on time and get ahead in the lunchline. Then one day, like Mr. Magoo’s eyes popping open, they suddenly came to realize that some of their peers who were looking for college preparatory courses were steered into JROTC (which is often a direct path into the military) based on the lie that the program has academic value. They also discovered that others of them were being enrolled in military science courses without their parents informed consent.

And they got wind of plans for weapons training on their campuses which they sensibly felt made a hypocrisy out of the school district’s “no excuses, no exceptions” Zero Tolerance Policy regarding weapons.

As they pondered what to do and who to turn to, a couple of brilliant caring teachers, Kiki Ochoa at Lincoln and Luis Villanueva at Mission Bay, came to their rescue with open arms. They were joined by parents and a few other educators and community activists like me. We became the Education Not Arms Coalition and set out on a quest which has been, figuratively speaking, reminiscent of the freedom struggles of yore.

Those who marched for justice in the streets of the deep south in the 60’s came up against fire hoses and police attack dogs. Our petitions and rallies and presentations were met by authorities, for the most part, with sober cold “Whatever, who cares?” attitudes.

Adversaries of the notion of all of God’s children having the same rights under law painted the efforts of our nation’s great seekers of equality with malicious innuendos. Martin was dubbed “an outsider” and his civil disobedience strategies were said to be “unwise and untimely.” Seeger was branded a communist monster who wanted to overthrow the government (with a banjo?). The truth is: they knew what they wanted America to become and set out to make it happen.

The students in our coalition were accused of being “coached and manipulated” by a bunch of “uninformed special interest groups.” But, in reality, some of them, based on both personal and reported negative experiences with JROTC, educated themselves about their issues and concerns and organized forums where they presented what they had learned from their meticulous research. Quite simply they knew what they expected of their schools and set out to make it happen.

The powers that be in Montgomery frowned at Rosa’s refusal to give up her bus seat because “segregation is just the way it is.”

San Diego City Schools, early on, dismissed the students’ protestations against weapons training because “it has existed in the district since 1919.”

But like their counterparts from long ago, the students and their allies won. Students in the school system can no longer be lied to about or railroaded into JROTC and weapons training has seen its last days.

The beauty of it all to me, as an educator, is that these students’ teachers steadily, along the way, guided them and nurtured them and helped them make the journey from innocent victims to sophisticated community activists who now know how to create the kinds of social changes that are needed in our society - if people are to truly be free.

I will forever hold these young pursuers of justice, these new heroes of mine, in a place in my heart and soul alongside the freedom fighters of old.

They would, if it were up to me, be featured on a “Yes We Can” poster for all the world to see.

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