Everyone shouts “Black Lives Matter!” — but heaven forbid we change anything

Last summer was a heady time. Historic, truly epic, protests and even uprisings took place in response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many more. But they were not just a response to that — they were the motion unleashed of decades, centuries of white supremacist violence and insult. Defunding the police; ending mass incarceration; removing racist monuments; opening up housing and health care; all of these demands were front and center and the possibilities of making real change seemed endless.

Then the fascist was chased from the White House and the militias were exposed for the dangerous troglodytes they are. Racist slanders, confederate flags, mask refusers — it seemed the lines were drawn.

But now we have entered the gray fog of liberal centrist politics. Now the actual concrete steps that might take us towards meeting some of these transformative demands are being defined as too far out, crazy, off the rails. One has only to look at the San Francisco Bay Area in California, probably the districts that had the highest voter turnout for Obama, to run into this push back of the privileged. These attacks are led by The San Francisco Chronicle, an old school newspaper that seems to be staffed almost exclusively by white suburbanites. They include:

The SF School Board is made up of young progressive educators who know well the classrooms and the communities. The Chronicle runs daily attack pieces against their efforts to take actual steps to undermine the structural racism of our school system.

· The board chose to end test-based admissions to the elitist Lowell High School, ending a history of racism in access as well as in actual aggression against students of color. Of course, this induced howls of horror from the elites. The Chronicle declared that the new policy ended rewards for students who exhibit “merit and hard work.” Right, Black people are lazy, is that it? Let those poor folks study harder, they whine, to maybe be as good as us.

· They slated 44 schools named after racist and colonialist “heroes” to enter a process of renaming. The Chronicle never mentions the 44 names, only focusing on one, Abe Lincoln, who made the list because of ordering the mass hanging of 38 Sioux men in 1862. At least local journalist Tim Redmond took them on.

· And the board and union have put the growing demand from privileged parents to “open the schools!” ahead of the safety of children and families. While polls show that families of color are most reluctant to return to in-person schooling without proper safety measures, since they have most experienced the horrors and death of COVID spread, The Chronicle pretends to be championing the interests of Black and Brown youth, disregarding the polls. SF Mayor London Breed even directed the city attorney to sue the school district to force the schools to open unsafely — an act of pathetic political grandstanding. They seem to be worried about something called “learning loss” now and the inequities of the impact of the pandemic but where were they over the decades of school underfunding and inequity?

The result of this steady drumbeat of slanted attacks against the progressive school board is that there are two groups working on a project to recall the school board and place school governance under Mayor Breed through an appointed school board. What, in The Chronicle’s policy positions, is different from those of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? These were her foundational demands: leave up racist monuments, throw kids back in school, and maintain elitism and tracking.

And as for progressives winning elections in San Francisco, how about Chesa Boudin who was elected District Attorney a little over a year ago? As part of the national trend of progressives winning elections for DA, Boudin set out to take necessary steps to end mass incarceration and to make the office a center of justice. On every step he’s taken, ending cash bail, not charging three strikes, indicting police for criminal violence, The Chronicle has set itself in opposition.

Every time a tragic and sensational murder occurs in San Francisco, the paper takes a cue from the propaganda points of the reactionary Police Officers Association, sensationalizing it and tracing it back to the moment the perpetrator was released from prison or bail, raising the fear that an onslaught was being released on the innocent citizenry by an irresponsible DA. No mention is made of the many who have been released from prison and have gone on to lead productive lives, spending time with their families, escaping the pandemic-laden prisons and making positive contributions to their communities.

The upshot? What else? A recall effort against District Attorney Boudin.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the intrepid investigative reporters at The Chronicle have watched federal investigators indict every major official under the mayor without uncovering any aspect of the story themselves and certainly never suggesting that she is dirty. Maybe the whole city government is corrupt but the mayor somehow missed it. After all, the mayor remains main power of the establishment against the School Board and the District Attorney.

Are things any better on the state level in liberal California? After years of teachers, communities, and scholars working to develop the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), the initiative was on the verge of becoming a requirement for all California high schools. Suddenly a hue and cry went up, calling the plan socially “divisive,” a form of political “indoctrination,” and anti-Semitic based on its recognition of the Palestinians. The governor got cold feet and vetoed the plan. Back to square one.

The lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement, of the powerful battles of Indigenous communities, immigrants, and so many others, are that America’s deep history — the theft of native lands, the enslavement of Africans, and ongoing colonial oppression — must be changed by undermining a legacy of privilege, exclusion, and violence. Racism is not a wrong idea in someone’s head. It is structural, built into American institutions.

But what are we doing to actually attack these structures? This is going to take some hard conversations, some challenging work in the real, material world. The problem with the liberals is that they are fine to exclaim “Black Lives Matter!” They will bury you with “Black Lives Matter” posters and corporate slogans and study groups. But when it comes to making one real change, oh my god no! That would be terrible!

This is where the rubber hits the road. Will anything change in the year after the wave of protests? Or will the dull centrism of the liberals stifle the winds of change and put even more reactionary leaders in charge?

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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