Last month students in the Los Angeles School District won a two year battle to have military grade police equipment removed from their campuses. Not only were they successful in their endeavors, but they forced the school district to provide them with an itemized list of everything, including M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, returned to the DOD.
A coalition of Los Angeles high school students and grassroots organizers just accomplished the unthinkable. After nearly two years of sit-ins and protests, they forced the police department for the second-largest public school district in the United States to remove grenade launchers, M-16 rifles, a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle and other military-grade weaponry from its arsenal
But the coalition did not stop there. Members took over a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board meeting in February to call for proof that the arms had been returned to the Department of Defense—a demand they eventually won in the form of an itemized invoice for every weapon sent back to the DoD.
Going further, the coalition successfully pressed board members of the school district to apologize for greenlighting the policing of K-12 students with weapons of war.
“I now understand that especially in the context of the many conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation, our participation in this program may have created perceptions about the role of our district and our school police that my silence exacerbated,” Steve Zimmer, the president of the board of education, wrote in a May 19 letter to the groups Fight for the Soul of the Cities and Labor Community Strategy Center, which played a key role in the campaign. “Please accept my apology for any and all of my actions that contributed to feelings of betrayal and injury and interrupted our important collaborative efforts for equity and justice in all aspects of public education.”
Perhaps most stunningly, the coalition eventually persuaded the Los Angeles School Police Department to issue its own apology. “The LASPD recognizes the sensitive historical aspect of associating ‘military-like’ equipment and military presence within a civilian setting,” wrote Chief Steven Zipperman in a letter dated May 18. “We recognize that this sensitive historical component may not have been considered when originally procuring these type of logistics within a civilian or K-12 public school setting.”
The resounding victories were won in a district where the vast majority of students are Black and Latino. In the era of Ferguson, they have seen images of young people who look like them being shot and killed by police. Amid mounting nationwide outrage over police use of weapons of war to patrol civilian neighborhoods, the win marks an unprecedented stride toward the demilitarization of public schools.
“I know that this will transcend my school district and state,” Bryan Cantero, a senior at Augustus F. Hawkins High School, told AlterNet. “I feel like I was part of something that is bigger than me. I prevented something terrible from happening to someone’s brother, sister, friend or daughter. We prevented a tragedy. We prevented a war. When the police got those weapons it was a call to war. Am I viewed as a student or prey? What do they think I am? At the end of the day, something had to be done, and we took charge.”
‘Not a War Zone’
The Strategy Center describes itself as a movement-building think tank “rooted in working-class communities of color.” According to director Eric Mann, the organization first discovered that the Los Angeles Police Department possessed an arsenal of military-grade weapons two years ago. At the time, Mann and his colleagues had just returned from a solidarity delegation to Ferguson in 2014, where they witnessed the deployment of tanks and assault rifles against civilian protesters. Mann said the delegation “understood this was part of the war against Black people.”
The revelation that Los Angeles school cops were in possession of military arms immediately provoked a civil rights uproar. Yet, in September 2014, the school district and police department refused to return all of the weapons, agreeing to hand back grenade launchers but insisting they needed armored vehicles and rifles. “While we recognize, this armored vehicle is ‘military-grade,’ it is nevertheless a life-saving piece of equipment that the District would not otherwise have,” the school district stated.
The subsequent campaign “took a lot of work and time,” Ashley Franklin, lead organizer for the Strategy Center, told AlterNet. “We organized on each of the blocks we work in, organized in different high school campuses, going in and doing classroom presentations at the school about how this is rooted in institutional racism. We had phone call campaigns, turned in 3,000 petitions and made over 300 calls to school board members. It was a long campaign, and those were just the easy tactics.”
Taking Action clubs at multiple high schools in the district played a critical role. “Young people decided to put their bodies on the line, following after Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer,” Franklin said. “They did multiple sit-ins at the school board and disrupted meetings, declaring that this should not be business as usual.”
At the early February school board meeting takeover, students and activists refused to leave until their demands were heard, leading to a charged scene described in the L.A. Times. “Asst. Supt Earl Perkins hurried forward and motioned to camera operators, with a hand slashing across his throat, to cut the live video feed while meeting chairman and board member George McKenna tried to establish order,” wrote journalists Sonali Kohli and Howard Blume. When administrators eventually left the meeting, students and activists remained, declaring the gathering a ‘people’s school board.'”
Monique Jones, a junior at Augustus F. Hawkins High School, was one of the young people who took action. “I believe the campaign was important because every day somebody of color, Black or Latino, is being shot by police officers,” she told AlterNet. “Why would you bring those types of weapons into school campuses? It’s not a war zone. You’re not going to war with your own citizens and people who are in kindergarten through 12th grade.”