Bringing Unschooling to School

A conversation with Free Student Press founder Damon Krane

By Alex Walker
August 12, 2015
ZNet
August 15, 2015
Alternatives to School
August 15, 2015
Conscious Consumer Network
August 16, 2015
Psychology Today
August 16, 2015

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AlexWalker
Alex Walker

My son is only three years old, but even before he was born I was determined to raise him in a less conventional way. I knew homeschooling – or more specifically, unschooling – would probably be part of that design.

Like so many people, my unconventional view of education is bound up with my attraction to a less mainstream lifestyle. Part of me longs to turn on my heel, leave all the worldly nonsense I detest about society in the dust, and carry out life naturally and as I see fit – off-grid, both figuratively and literally.

A big part of the society I’d like to leave behind is its school system. I want to keep my son out of the depressing feedback loop of the 19th century factory-style education system that 1990 New York City Teacher of the Year and unschooling advocate John Taylor Gatto aptly called “instruments of the scientific management of a mass population”. In the process of becoming an adult, I want my son to have an experience that is itself significant, and not a contrived training for what is expected of him as an adult. I want him to have the guidance and resources available to become an independently minded person who can make empowered decisions for himself rather than having an authority of one kind or another tell him what he should be concerned about in both his early education and life in general.

Yet I face an ethical impasse. To renounce the society you are born into comes with a price, and I find myself in a very privileged situation to even be considering homeschooling my son, or to fancy myself as some sort of future off-grid pioneer. As a white, middle class, college-educated American, I have both financial and social freedom to make relatively bold decisions in my life. And yet I am coming to acknowledge that the privilege I hold exists because of the very system I want to reject.

Furthermore, caring about my son means caring about the larger world he’ll live in and the society he’ll have to negotiate. Being an off-grid unschooler won’t make that world go away. Whatever protective buffers I create for my family, we will always be umbilically linked to our larger world. Thus while I plan to homeschool/unschool my son, I also want to positively affect the lives of all those students whose educational experiences are curtailed by public schools – institutions, which, despite my objections to them, I believe are necessary in our current social framework.

While struggling with these issues, I was contacted by an old acquaintance with an exciting plan to create for public high school students the very kinds of educational experiences I want for my son. His ideas for intervening in public schools called into question my formerly black and white reasoning about education in America having to be a decision between abdication and assimilation.

Damon Krane has been an activist, journalist, and grassroots social justice organizer for the better part of twenty years. His initiative, Free Student Press, amounts to an utter infiltration of independent thought within high schools, giving students the power to challenge norms, confront authoritarianism, and engage in constructive dialogue, while discovering and exercising their First Amendment rights to distribute independently produced publications that are often illegally inhibited by schools officials. By developing self-confidence and learning to work together, he believes that students can become empowered to build a better world.

Ironically, I know Damon Krane because we attended the same public high school. Krane got his start in journalism and community organization with an independent, public access student zine he created during our senior year of high school. That soon led him and another one of my former classmates to create Free Student Press, which Krane piloted in Ohio from 1999 through 2006.

Recently, Krane launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive and dramatically expand Free Student Press – first bringing it to high school students in four southern states, and then taking the project nationwide. Already, his vision has been lauded by such prominent educators, authors and activists as Ira Shor, a leading exponent of critical pedagogy and colleague of the late radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire; the renowned linguist, political analyst and prolific anarchist social commentator Noam Chomsky; the prominent education reformer and former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers; and Dawson Barrett, author of the newly released book Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow.

I recently spoke with Krane about Free Student Press and what relevance it might have to folks interested in homeschooling and unschooling.

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Damon Krane. Photo by Ece Ucoluk Krane

So what is Free Student Press and why is it relevant to people interested in homseschooling and unschooling?

Homeschooling and unschooling have a lot of appeal to parents who believe children and adolescents deserve more freedom to pursue their own curiosities and creative impulses than conventional schools allow. Free Student Press is based on the same conviction. But instead of seeking to create totally separate alternatives to our public schools, or trying to reform national school policy from the top-down, Free Student Press takes unschooling to school.

What exactly do you mean by that?

FSP starts from the assumption that teenagers don’t need anyone else telling them what to do. What they need are more meaningful opportunities to express themselves, to make sense of their world, and to have an impact on that world. So FSP offers teenagers some very practical tools. The first tool is the knowledge schools typically hide from students about their First Amendment rights to distribute independent student publications at school.

More commonly known as underground newspapers or zines, these publications are produced by students, outside of school, and without using school resources. But then students can bring these publications to school and pass them out to their classmates on school grounds, during school hours. School officials can’t control the content, they can’t punish students for writing things school officials don’t like, and in the overwhelming majority of cases school officials cannot legally prevent students from distributing independent student publications at school.

Within one of these publications, students can create for themselves a unique forum for public dialogue among their peers that is anchored to their experiences as students within their schools, and as young people within their communities. From my experience with these publications, I’ve learned that whatever disagreements students may have with one another, they tend to all want a place to discuss what they care about. So students learn how to manage this forum, because they’re committed to keeping it. They learn how to communicate themselves better, because that’s necessary to change minds and have an impact. They learn about their peers and others’ perspectives, and the situation forces them to contend with others’ arguments. Finally, if school officials attempt to illegally censor a publication – as they often do – students get to learn how to defeat corrupt people in positions of power and authority through grassroots organizing.

Along the way, FSP is there as a resource for the students. We’re not there to tell students what to do, but to respond to their questions and sometimes ask some of our own and offer advice. But it’s up to students whether they want to take that advice. Empowering the students to act for themselves is always the goal.

The entire experience teaches some big lessons that stick with students long after graduation. And the best part of FSP’s approach is that we don’t have to wait until we’ve changed our schools, or until we’ve built better large scale alternatives. Instead, we can turn precisely what’s wrong with our schools into what educators like to call a “teachable moment” – or, more precisely, a whole series of such “moments” that turn disempowering schools into an opportunity for seriously empowering education – the kind of empowering education that not only improves young peoples’ lives, but which also dramatically increases Americans’ capacity to create a freer, more just society.

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Let’s back up a bit and talk about students’ legal rights to do this. Are student press rights just a matter of the First Amendment, or of court decisions and/or other legislation?

The First Amendment was a concession early American elites granted in order to get the Constitution ratified. It really didn’t mean anything in practice until mass movements of ordinary people made it mean something – and that’s true for student press rights, too.

Back in the mid 1960s, a group of families in Des Moines, Iowa decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Some of their kids wore these armbands to school, for which the children were threatened with violence by school officials and then promptly kicked out of school. The families and allied individuals and organizations fought back, and eventually this resulted in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Tinker decision did several things, but most important for FSP it established the right of public high school students to distribute independent student publications at school.

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Mary Beth and John Tinker.

Are there any legal limits placed on what students can do with these publications?

Independent student publishers and journalists are still bound by the same laws as professional journalists, publishers and everybody else when it comes to stuff like libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, copyright infringement, and so on. But there is only one additional legal restriction that applies to independent student publishers at public schools.

School officials may only attempt to prevent distribution of an independent student publication if they can show there is a very high probability that the either the contents of the publication or the manner of its distribution would cause a severe disruption of official school proceedings or invade the rights of others. What 46 years of case law following Tinker has made clear is that it is extremely difficult for school officials to meet this standard.

If students have had this right since 1969, why am I just hearing about it now?

It’s not just you. Practically everyone is unaware of this.

For nearly a half century since Tinker, illegal censorship has continued to run rampant in our schools, as documented by groups including the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Student Press Law Center. But the many reported cases of illegal censorship are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t tell us about all the kids who were lied to about their rights at school, or simply not informed, or students who never reported illegal censorship because they didn’t know it was illegal.

I first got involved in this work during our senior year of high school when three sophomores created a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak. As soon as the students passed out their first issue, they were called down to the principal’s office and told they could not hand out a student publication at school unless they first allowed the principal to edit its contents. Since they had not done so, they were all punished with several after school detentions, and that was the end of Hide and Go Speak.

Now, rights or no rights, I liked what those kids were trying to do. So I went ahead and organized another student publication called Free Head, and it had a tremendously positive and transformative impact on my life. But it wasn’t until a couple years after high school that I learned our principal had simply lied to the creators of Hide and Go Speak and had illegally violated their rights by punishing these kids and banning their zine.

Free Head Issue 1

Why did your own high school experience of producing an independent student publication have such a big impact on you?

It taught me that people can work together very productively without any need for a central authority to dictate their course. It also taught me that a forum for public dialogue can cause a community to emerge where none had existed before. Suddenly, students outside of my own social circle, who for years had just been scenery in the hallways to me, were real people with their own thoughts and ideas. And as you might imagine, the intrinsic motivation to communicate myself made me a better writer than years of writing papers on random topics assigned by my teachers.

But Free Head wasn’t just about commentary or indie news reporting, it was about students expressing themselves any way they could on paper. We published poetry and other creative writing, along with visual art – all of which gave budding young artists an opportunity to share their work with a larger audience, often for the first time.

Two aspects of Free Head’s internal structure greatly amplified all of these effects, and also helped protect us from censorship. First, Free Head was public access. We pretty much published whatever students submitted. Second, we governed Free Head through a process of direct democracy. Decisions that affected the magazine as a whole were made democratically at meetings open to any interested student. And with so many students from different cliques having such a voice in the publication, our broad base of support made it harder for administrators to try to shut us down.

Free Student Press supports independent student publishers regardless of whether they choose to adopt a public access format and democratic management, but we do discuss the benefits of these things with students.

And how did Free Head lead to Free Student Press?

After learning about student press rights a couple years after I graduated high school, I partnered with Lisa O’Keefe, a former classmate of ours who also worked on Free Head. And as 19-year-olds, Lisa and I created Free Student Press and launched it in Athens County, Ohio at the invitation of a group of progressive educators at the Institute for Democracy in Education.

What happened when you first put the idea of Free Student Press into practice?

Within three weeks of our first outreach event, the very first group of high school students Lisa and I worked with produced a publication called Lockdown. On page one of their first issue, Lockdown’s creators accurately explained their First Amendment press rights and the Tinker decision. The students even included a supportive quote issued to them from Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, a national student press advocacy group.

LockDown 1

And how did the school respond to Lockdown?

The principal threatened to suspend all of the students involved if “anything like this ever turns up again.” Then he informed the family of Lockdown’s lead publisher, Devin Aeh Canary, that a suspension would likely prevent her from becoming class valedictorian. Later, school authorities falsely accused the students of promoting drugs and violence through their publication, and local police were called upon to illegally break up a meeting about the paper the students were trying to hold at a public park. The superintendent, meanwhile, issued a press release declaring members of FSP irresponsible outside agitators who had made children feel unsafe at school, and he pressured officials at Ohio University (where I was an undergraduate education major) to encourage me to stop FSP’s work.

The conflict was pretty intense, and it lasted for nearly four months. But with FSP’s support the students mobilized so much community support that they completely defeated both their school administration and local police. The students kept publishing Lockdown, and the school’s principal resigned. FSP went on to work with more high school students and independent publications in the years that followed. However, officials at all of the five districts we worked with remained opposed to teaching students their press rights, publicly refusing to include accurate information in their student handbooks after FSP audited the handbooks a few years after the Lockdown controversy.

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Why do you think censorship and deception about First Amendment rights are so common in public schools?

It’s a problem of institutional design. Public schools are supposed to be how we teach Americans constitutional rights essential to American democracy, but our schools rarely carry out that mission for the same reason the U.S. isn’t all that democratic. Just as calling a shopping cart an airplane won’t make it fly, the design of our public schools is at odds with the schools’ official mission.

Opposition to student press rights is an inevitable consequence of schools being designed to carry out what Paulo Freire called the banking concept of education. Within the banking concept, students are considered empty containers for a teacher to fill up with deposits of whatever information authorities have deemed valuable.

The first problem with the banking concept is that from the time we’re born, we human beings have our own curiosities and creative impulses. We want to figure out and consciously shape both ourselves and our world. Anyone who has observed young children knows this is what animates them – at least before children are subjected to school. Unfortunately, in the banking concept, these aspects of human nature are the enemy. They’ve got to be beaten down and suppressed so that students can be filled up with whatever is on any given day’s lesson plan.

Within the banking concept, Freire wrote, “the scope of action allowed to the student extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits… but in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away…” Similarly, the American philosopher John Dewey asked, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul…?”

Now, consider the second problem of the banking concept – it doesn’t work. With reference to a vessel-of-water metaphor for education (essentially the same as Freire’s banking concept), Noam Chomsky likes to point out that we human beings are pretty leaky vessels when it comes to things we don’t care about. Everybody has had the experience of memorizing information for a test, acing the test, and then immediately forgetting what it was we memorized.

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So if the banking concept denies the humanity of students and doesn’t succeed in getting students to retain much information, why is it the guiding principle of our schools?

The banking concept isn’t any good when it comes to storing deposits, but it does a great job of filing the people away. At school, particular subject matter comes and goes, but for a dozen years some lessons remain constant: What is important is what the people in charge say is important. You are rewarded to the extent that you please the people in charge. Thus you learn to accept alienated labor as your fate in life. This is extremely beneficial to economic and political elites whose wealth and power is derived from a workforce and citizenry that is apathetic, compliant, atomized and demoralized. And in the U.S., it’s those elites who create public policy and shape our society’s defining institutions.

In Tinker, the Supreme Court declared that authoritarian schools are not compatible with American civil liberties and democratic ideals. As the Court put it, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.” But the reason most school officials have failed to heed the Court’s ruling is that our schools are indeed enclaves of totalitarianism. The banking concept is nothing if not totalitarian. It’s all about controlling thought and behavior from above under the totally false pretext of getting students to retain useful information. And you maintain that system by silencing students’ voices and keeping them powerless. Denying students their legal press rights is just one predictable result – but one that’s obvious and illegal.

What about teachers? Why would they go along with what you’ve claimed about our schools?

A lot of teachers do their best to not go along with it. I could tell you plenty of stories about that, and so could the students I’ve worked with. Teachers have always been among FSP’s biggest supporters and many are backing the current FSP campaign.

But regardless of a public school teacher’s own educational philosophy, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to do anything but the banking concept when the student to teacher ratio is 30 or 40 to 1 and schooling is all about getting kids to memorize what they need to pass high stakes proficiency tests. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are some of the most extreme versions of the banking concept ever forced on teachers. Combined with other approaches to de-funding and destroying public education – which, predominantly in communities of color, also include replacing school boards elected by local communities with boards appointed by the city mayor – these reforms are part of the largely bi-partisan, neoliberal agenda to reduce the function of everything in life to a source of corporate profit.

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Don’t the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center already do the work of Free Student Press?

No. I love the ACLU and SPLC. FSP always puts students in touch with these groups, and we use some of their educational materials, too. Our work compliments theirs, and their work compliments ours. But neither the ACLU nor the SPLC focuses on independent student publishing as a means of doing ongoing empowering education with students – something I think is absolutely necessary if constitutional press rights are really going to mean something for more than a miniscule fraction of American students. Also, while the ACLU and SPLC primarily fight censorship in the courts and state legislatures, FSP empowers students to fight censorship more directly for themselves through grassroots community organizing. Not only does this impart valuable and lasting skills to students, it often defeats censorship faster – as was the case with Lockdown. That’s important because the courts move slowly, and high school doesn’t last forever.

The internet and social media seem to be such important and revolutionary tools in journalism and the exchange of ideas. What advantage over digital means do you see independent student print media having?

The internet and social media have a hugely positive effect on FSP’s work, but when it comes to independent student publications print is still a necessary starting point.

Facebook is good for staying in touch with pre-existing friends, Twitter is good for sharing pithy remarks with people you may or may not know, and the internet gives you free access to lots of different communication from all over the world – including communication that isn’t controlled by big corporate media conglomerates. But if all these digital media allow teenagers to think more globally, then an independent print medium is still what allows teenagers to act locally.

That’s because independent student print media are anchored to a very specific, and very significant, social context – one that’s not as small as students’ own circle of friends, and one that’s not as big, atomized and impersonal as the world at large. And it’s a context that is physical in nature, not virtual. Most social life, and most social change, still happens in the physical world. And it takes a tangible, physical medium to get into the tangible, physically located social context of teenagers’ shared lives as students at school.

Just the simple act of one student handing a tangible print publication to another student in the real world begins to provide a basis for real-world organizing. Not the kind of “organizing” that simply gets a bunch of people to show up at the same time and place for a big demonstration – as the internet and social media are great for facilitating, but the kind that brings people together in the physical world and enables them to share experiences and ideas, to reflect with one another, and to discuss, debate, decide upon and implement strategic collective actions.

But you said the digital age has its advantages too, right?

Absolutely. With tangible print publications anchored to the physically located social context of a school, the digital age then presents wonderful opportunities to strengthen and expand FSP’s work. First, there’s some evidence that the more young people use social media, the more supportive they are of the First Amendment. Second, the internet and social media can really amplify this work.

Not only can print publications have online versions that can be updated more frequently, be more intertextual via hyperlinks, and allow for even more dialogue via reader comment sections, but the internet can allow creators of student publications at different schools to more easily interact with one another. Just as one publication allows students to interact and support one another across the boundaries of social cliques that separate students within a single school, the internet can enable a network of such publications at different schools that transcends the more substantial barriers of racism and economic inequality that have so greatly segregated American communities.

Do you foresee any difficulty in persuading high school students, who are so entrenched in screen culture, about the virtues of paper publications?

If it’s an obstacle, there have always been bigger ones. Never mind paper being old school – the entire experience FSP offers is so foreign to most American students that most don’t get the abstract concepts at first. Typically, a handful of kids get it immediately, and once they create a publication – particularly a public access one – then the rest of their peers get it and the whole experience blossoms. But it’s finding that initial group of more receptive students that has always been a challenge.

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Members of Free Student Press and students from Athens and Nelsonville-York high schools, November 1999.

You worked through FSP from 1999 through 2006 with students in Southeast Ohio. Now you’re trying to launch FSP in four Southern states over the next two years, and then take FSP nationwide. Tell me more about that plan.

If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its goal of $25,000 by August 24, then I’ll begin traveling to several college towns in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In each town, I’ll recruit a team of college student activist-volunteers to assist me with outreach and working with the high school students in their area, just as Lisa and I did when we were undergraduate students. And just as Jalen Hutchinson at the Institute for Democracy in Education mentored Lisa and I in democratic and critical pedagogy, I’ll do the same for FSP’s college student teams, and also teach them about grassroots organizing and participatory democratic organizational models.

From there, I’ll travel from town to town, holding two separate weekly meetings in each town – one with the local FSP team, and one with the local FSP team and the local high school students. In the beginning, I’ll be leading FSP’s work with each group of high school students. But as the skills of the local team members become more advanced, they’ll gradually take over from me, freeing me up to launch FSP in additional towns.

In the meantime, I’ll try to facilitate online networking between the different student publications, and I’ll help the students access the additional resources that the ACLU and SPLC can provide.

Finally, I’ll be chronicling FSP’s work in a book. After this new two-year phase is completed, I’ll get the book published, and use it to try to convince major funders and national organizations to expand FSP all across the country.

What about students at private schools? Does private funding nullify the First Amendment rights of the students.

Yes, it does. Just as we can picket on the sidewalk along Main Street but not at the mall, the First Amendment is all about limiting the power of the government over its citizens, not limiting the power of private corporations over us.

The only quasi-exception I know of is California’s Leonard Law, a state law that provides students at California’s private high schools, colleges and universities with press rights equivalent to the First Amendment rights of public school students.

Of course, progressive private school administrators anywhere can choose to give independent student journalists the same leeway the First Amendment gives students at public schools, but this is totally at the discretion of administrators. Rights, on the other hand, are supposed to mean something whether the people in charge like it or not. That’s part of the reason school privatization threatens student expression and empowerment.

But while private school students don’t have the right to distribute independent publications at their schools, they can contribute to publications produced by public school students and distributed in public schools, and they can attend FSP meetings to learn about all of this and interact with independent student journalists from public schools.

Finally, private school students could try to distribute independent publications simply through the power of their own grassroots organizing and community support, without any legal rights to support them, but this would be extremely difficult – in part because it’s easier for private schools to expel students.

I can see this being something that homeschooled teenagers would enjoy and benefit from being a part of. And I would certainly encourage my son to someday become involved in such projects if he were interested. Do you foresee FSP collaborating with and reaching out to kids who are not educated at school, but who want to learn about their rights and how to organize and engage in a more meaningful dialogue within their communities?

If homeschoolers are looking for a way to engage and learn with their public school peers and to participate in something that gives homeschoolers a stronger voice in their communities, then this is one great way to do it. Homeschooled teenagers can participate in the same way I described private school students participating. But if homeschoolers already have had freer and more empowering experiences outside of conventional schools, then I’d expect public school students would be especially interested to know these homeschoolers, and such relationships would be mutually beneficial.

Ultimately, this is stuff that matters to all of us. Whether we’re teenagers or senior citizens, whether or not we have kids – whether, if we do have kids, we send them to public school, private school, or homeschool them – it’s still our society. What happens at public schools has a huge impact on our society, and therefore affects all of our lives.

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How can people support this work?

The Kickstarter campaign needs to reach its goal by August 24, so I encourage everyone who supports this work to donate immediately and to tell all their colleagues, friends and family to do the same. This only works if a lot of us pitch in. But if this campaign succeeds, its impact will be tremendous.

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Alex Walker is a stay-at-home mother to a three-year-old son. Formerly a figurative artist and portrait painter, Alex is fascinated by sustainable architecture, homeschooling, gardening, and anything involving creative design. She is following her intention of learning more about human rights and progressive values and movements, as well as becoming a practitioner of ecological living. She lives with her son and husband in Littleton, Colorado and is thoroughly enjoying what the state has to offer.

Damon Krane is co-founder and director of Free Student Press. He has worked as a news reporter, opinion columnist, magazine editor, communications director, non-profit director, grassroots organizer and activist, journalism educator, and business manager. Much of his writing is archived at http://damonkrane.com. He is also a visual artist, specializing in black and white pencil portraits of people and pets at http://fineartpetsketches.com He lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ohio University Professor Jalen Hutchinson joins me in discussing some of the underlying ideas of Free Student Press

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“Meme-orable” Quotes About Free Student Press — Please Download & Share!

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Check out Dawson’s book, current speaking tour and related resources here!
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Coverage of FSP Expansion Campaign from the Town Where it All Began

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Confederate flag / Egyptian pyramids meme beautifully illustrates the traditional marriage of racism and stupidity

By Damon Krane
July 2, 2015
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A popular new meme is making the rounds among conservative Facebook users. With a photo of Egypt’s pyramids as the backdrop, the meme asks “When will we take down these monuments of slavery?”

Young Conservatives, a website claiming to have had 13 million views last week and boasting more than a quarter a million likes on Facebook, declared in a June 30 headline that this purportedly brilliant creation is “Probably the Best Meme EVER About the Confederate Flag ‘Debate’ in America.”

And maybe they’re right. Because I can’t think of any other meme that better illustrates the modern conservative movement’s marriage of racism and stupidity.

Well, except maybe the meme equating the offensiveness of the Confederate flag flown over government institutions to the offensiveness of young black men wearing baggy pants below their waist lines… or probably a million other memes that, thankfully, never get to grace my computer screen.

But when the pyramids meme appeared before me compliments of a white man who remarked “Like it or not, it’s history,” I decided to try to turn this meme into a teachable moment.

In case the meme’s intent isn’t clear to you, let’s start with how Young Conservatives contributor Michael Cantrell describes it.

“Ever since the horrible shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, liberals have been fighting day and night to have the Confederate flag removed from every part of society, whether doing so violates someone’s rights or not.

“They’ve also begun to start demanding statutes of famous Civil War figures and other people throughout history be taken down because they’re ‘monuments to slavery.’

“Well this little meme right here poses the question about why race baiting progressives haven’t demanded these ‘monuments’ [Egypt’s pyramids] be taken down, since, you know, slaves helped build them…

“…there is a theory that claims Jews helped build the pyramids, and even though we might not know 100 percent for sure that happened, you don’t want to accidentally soil your liberal anti-Semtic, pro-Palestinian record by supporting them, right?”

So, yeah… That cleared up everything, right?

If you’re having trouble herding Cantrell’s catty mess of right-wing wackiness into a coherent thesis, don’t worry – Cantrell is, too. So he transitions swiftly into this conclusion.

“In other words, the point I’m trying to make is the whole thing is ridiculous, there are bigger issues facing the country, so how about we take care of some REAL business and fix this mess our nation’s in?”

That’s right. If all else fails, just act like American white supremacist racism doesn’t matter. I guess Cantrell summed up the meme’s intent after all.

However, in response, it’s worth pointing out that no one is arguing the Confederate flag should be removed from “every part of society.” No one is arguing that it be removed from historical displays at publicly funded museums. Instead, people are arguing that the flag should not be flying over government institutions.

And the reason we want the flag removed from such locations is not because the first copies of these flags were made from cotton picked by slaves. It’s not that their seams were sewn by slaves. It’s because the so-called Confederate flag always has been a symbol of an organized and murderous movement for white supremacy supported by official state power.

The flag that Dylann Roof brandished proudly on social media, and which Bree Newsome tore from a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds, was one of many different flags designed and used by white supremacist forces in a war they fought to protect slavery. As James Loewen’s July 1 piece for the Washington Post reminds us, seceding states explicitly declared that they were fighting against states’ rights (specifically, Northern states passing state laws that interfered with the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law) and for the preservation of slavery.

Over the course of its four-year existence, the white supremacist movement that went to war to protect slavery, calling itself the Confederate States of America, represented itself with a succession of three different national flags, the first of which alone passed through four different variations. None of them were what we call “the Confederate flag” today, but they were bad enough.

The second flag of the CSA – “The Stainless Banner” – was created by William Thompson, a newspaper editor who had criticized the first CSA flag – “The Stars and Bars” – for looking too much like the U.S. flag, something which Thompson made clear represented “the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.”

Thompson was quite clear about what a Confederate flag symbolized. “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race,” he wrote. And for this flag designer white supremacy was not just a national cause but a global one, too. Thus Thompson predicted his flag “would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” (original emphasis)

Yet neither Thompson’s flag nor the other two national flags of the Confederacy are what we call the Confederate flag today. The latter is in many ways a 20th century invention.

Adapted from the CSA Naval Jack and the battle flags of the Confederate armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee, this new Confederate flag was popularized not by the white supremacist would-be nation that came into being to defend slavery in the mid 1860s, but by the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist Dixiecrat politicians who resurrected and repurposed a symbol of a white supremacist slave society for the fight to preserve white supremacist segregation from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. As they did, their new Confederate flag came to fly over southern capitols and city halls, and to be incorporated into the re-designed flags of several southern states. This time it was not about fighting the Civil War; it was about fighting Civil Rights.

Decades later, as a teenager in 1997 I watched Klansmen brandishing Confederate flags as they stood shoulder to shoulder with swastika-clad neo-Nazis in opposition to an NAACP march in Claysville, Pennsylvania. The march was organized after a cross had been burnt on the lawn of the town’s only interracial couple, presumably a familiar calling card from the Klan.

It was this incident that first got me thinking more critically about those “good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm” that I’d grown up watching on TV. It got me thinking about the namesake of their 20th century Confederate flag on wheels, the General Lee. And it got me thinking about the Confederate flags sold in Claysville during the following spring’s National Pike Festival, emblazoned with the proclamation “The South Will Rise Again.”

My curiosity soon led me to the website of “America’s Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The first image I saw there was the Confederate flag. Beneath it, the Klan implored readers to “Fly the battle flag with pride, for we are at war again.”

This July 18, it is the KKK that will gather at the South Carolina state capitol to protest the removal of a 20th century Confederate flag that finally has become difficult even for conservative politicians to defend. A symbol of slavery resurrected in defense of segregation, the Klan has always been the flag’s rightful owner, even before the Klan was around to claim it.

So what of the conservative meme’s comparison of the Confederate flag to Egypt’s pyramids?

Were Egypt’s pyramids created to symbolize a pro-slavery movement at the precise moment that movement was fighting a war to protect slavery?

During the last century, have Egypt’s pyramids been adopted as the symbol of a modern Egyptian movement for racial apartheid?

Has the Egyptian government tried to place the pyramids and the buildings that house its key decision-making bodies in close proximity to one another?

Sorry, young conservatives. There is no comparison here.

But there are some other comparisons you may find less comforting.

The Washington Post reported July 1st on a 2004 survey of more than 500 Georgians that found support for the Confederate flag highest among two groups: white racists and those ignorant of Confederate history. But I suspect the two groups are often one and the same. Just as ignorance of history can nurture racism, racism can motivate people to be willfully ignorant of history.

In the case of the Confederate flag, a banner born from a war to protect slavery was reinvented by militant white supremacist segregationists, only to then be defended by many whites as a matter of “Heritage Not Hate”, something with no more contemporary political significance than the pyramids of Egypt. (But didn’t this year’s Republican presidential hopefuls initially suggest the Charleston AME murders weren’t about racism, thereby proving that climate change isn’t the only thing they’re willing to deny despite substantial evidence?) In America, the promotion and denial of white supremacy are both cut from the same cloth. It is only fitting that they would be represented by the same flag.

And it is also only fitting that as manifestations of American white supremacy continue to be challenged by the new civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, you can expect to see more conservative stupidity coming to a meme near you.

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Announcing the Rebirth & Expansion of Free Student Press!

FSP Chomsky Shor

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Things have been pretty quiet here since last fall. That’s because I’ve been busy laying the groundwork for an exciting new campaign to bring a proven model of student empowerment through civil liberties education and independent student publishing to public high schools across the U.S. Here’s the skinny. (Do people still say that?)

Way back in 1998, my friend Lisa O’Keefe and I founded a group called Free Student Press, which we launched the following year in Athens County, Ohio with the assistance of the Institute for Democracy in Education. Within a month, the first group of high school students with whom we worked had released the first issue of an independent student publication they called Lockdown. School officials reacted harshly — and extremely illegally. They confiscated copies, lied to students about their constitutional rights and vowed to suspend everyone involved. The principal threatened to effectively revoke the valedictorian’s class standing in an effort to make it more difficult for her to go to college, and he suspended another student for distributing a leaflet that criticized his actions. The school’s attorney, meanwhile, falsely accused the newspaper’s teenage creators of promoting violence and drug use. And it was most likely school officials who directed local police to illegally break up a lawful student meeting at a public park.

Crazy stuff, huh?

FSP2015_Broll_Photos_007

Unfortunately, as documented during the past five decades by acclaimed journalist Jack Nelson and the Committee of Inquiry into High School Journalism, the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, both misinformation about student press rights and illegal censorship long have run rampant in our schools. If you’re like most Americans, you made it through more than a dozen years of public schooling and into adulthood without ever learning of students’ rights to distribute uncensored, independently produced student publications at public schools.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969 declared that authoritarian public schools are not compatible with American democracy. “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism,” the court wrote. But 46 years later, our schools mostly remain “enclaves of totalitarianism” which do a much better job of promoting alienated labor and submission to arbitrary authority than of promoting democracy through empowering education.

The student publishers of Lockdown, who I mentioned earlier, ultimately prevailed. They kept their paper, and their principal lost his job. And in recent interviews, some of Lockdown’s creators discussed the lasting, transformative impact the experience had on their lives.

Over the past eight months, documentarian Roger Hill (Flying Paper and Mental Rev Productions) and I conducted interviews with these former students and others, and we produced two videos — a feature length documentary of the Lockdown saga and explanation of the work of Free Student Press, and a condensed 8-minute video addressing some of the key points.

These videos are now the centerpieces — yes, two centerpieces, because this metaphorical table is too amazing to have just one! — of a 60-day campaign on Kickstarter to bring the work of FSP to public high schools across the country.

Already, superstar public intellectual Noam Chomsky has given this effort a thumbs up, calling Free Student Press “an imaginative initiative that has already attained success in engaging students in constructive dialogue and encouraging independent inquiry, thought, and action.”

I hope you’ll give the Kickstarter campaign look-see now! (And please let me know what you think by sharing your feedback there, or by emailing me at my address under the “contact” tab here.)

Kickstarter Campaign Page

(SHORT) Free Student Press: Student Publishing, Empowering Education & Democracy

(FULL FEATURE) Free Student Press: Student Publishing, Empowering Education & Democracy

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‘Blood Bucket’ makes big mess for supporters of Israel’s ethnic cleansing

By Damon Krane
September 7, 2014
The Ohio University Post (published September 8, 2014)
The Athens News (published September 11, 2014)
Mondoweiss (quoted in articles September 9 and September 16, 2014)
*Updated with afterword, 9/16/14*

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Ohio University Student Senate president Megan Marzec clearly stated her position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It speaks volumes about her opponents that they’d rather silence her than attempt to argue against that position. From the online death threats to that masterpiece of passive aggressive condescension Rabbi Danielle Leshaw authored for last Friday’s Post, those demanding Marzec’s resignation from Student Senate (and/or her head on a platter) don’t seem to want to talk about the issue at hand any more than they want Marzec to talk about it. That’s because Marzec’s detractors aren’t “supporters of Israel.” They are supporters of ethnic cleansing. And ethnic cleansing is a hard thing to advocate openly, especially if you want to keep fooling Americans into paying for it.

Israel was established as an ethnic and religiously Jewish state in 1948 in an area primarily inhabited by Palestinian Muslims and Christians. To make way for a Jewish majority, 700,000 Palestinians were pushed out of Israel – many to the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel then conquered in 1967. Ever since, Palestinians there (now numbering 4 million) have lived under Israeli military occupation. While continuing to expel Palestinians from the West Bank and incorporating more of their land into Israel, Israel has turned the less desirable land of Gaza into an overcrowded, open-air prison where Israel controls the borders, imposes an impoverishing trade embargo, and routinely attacks trapped Gazans with the world’s 4th most powerful military – attacks Israeli military strategists callously refer to as “mowing the lawn.”

During Israel’s latest attack on Gaza this summer, Palestinian militants killed 66 Israelis, including 61 soldiers, three adult civilians and one child. Israeli soldiers, meanwhile, killed over 2,000 Palestinians, an estimated two thirds of whom were civilians and 30 percent children. ( Note: The most reliable figures to emerge since this article was published place the Israeli death toll at 72 and Palestinian dead at 2,100.) After Israel had finished bombing Palestinian hospitals, schools, shelters – even children playing soccer – the U.S. Congress followed up on the Senate’s unanimous declaration of support for Israel in July with its early August decision to increase funding for improvements to Israel’s missile defense system. No one in Congress suggested giving any missile defense system to Palestinians.

For decades Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. For the past 20 years, the U.S. has given Israel between $2.5 and $4 billion annually – including $8.5 million in military aid each day of fiscal year 2014. The US gives more money to Israel than to all of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined, even though Israel is a country just one fifth the size of Ohio whose citizens enjoy one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and longest life expectancies.

There are several explanations for the so-called “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt focus on the power of the Israeli lobby. I think U.S. elites want a well-armed, non-Arab, oil-free dependency in the world’s most important energy producing region. But there’s also a natural cultural affinity.

Israel and the U.S. are both settler colonial states founded on ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians of today are the Native Americans of 200 years ago. Just as Columbus “discovered” America and our slave-owning, Indian-killing, “religious freedom-loving” forbearers “civilized” this country, Israel was “a land without people” (because Palestinians don’t count) just waiting for “a people without land” to “take the desert and make it bloom.” Or, as an Israeli-funded subway poster campaign in major U.S. cities put it recently: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel.”

Yet as much as our shared national mythology might appeal to the Fox News demographic, young Americans just aren’t buying it anymore. A recent Gallup poll found that while 55 percent of Americans age 65 and older supported Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza, the same was true of just 25 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29, 51 percent of whom opposed the offensive. So when OU’s supporters of ethnic cleansing say Megan Marzec doesn’t speak for most of her fellow students, remember this: Megan Marzec speaks for most of her generation.

And when Leshaw and company have the audacity to attempt to speak for all Jews on campus, remember not only all the members of Jews Against the Occupation and Israel’s own Peace Now, as well as prominent Jewish commentators like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Medea Benjamin, Phyllis Bennis, Max Blumenthal and the late Howard Zinn. Think also of OU film professor Louis-George Schwartz. With regard to Marzec’s detractors, Schwartz has stated, “I’m named after two great Uncles killed in Auschwitz… I say unequivocally that those who threaten anti-racists in the name of ‘THE Jews’ do not speak for me, and they dishonor my ancestors. I say unequivocally that those who support the murderous state dominating the territory of Palestine do not speak for me.”

Think about all of this and recognize that people like Leshaw (so hip because she texts swear words just like a student!) are trying to hijack the horrific history of Jewish persecution in order to use it for their own racist political agenda. Keep that in mind, and you’ll never fall for their attempts to portray long-overdue criticism of Israel as unconscionable hatred of the Jewish people.

And finally, if you’ve ever wished you could undo the horrors of America’s own settler colonial past, remember that you have the power to stop history from repeating itself in Palestine. It is your government that is spending your fellow citizens’ tax dollars on Israel’s murderous ethnic cleansing campaign. It is your university and those like it that are invested in Israeli companies. You have the power to change all of that – just like the student activists before you who helped end U.S.-backed apartheid in South Africa. Realize that, and you’ll come to see that the real goal of the effort against Marzec isn’t to silence Marzec, it’s to silence you.

Stand up for Marzec, and you stand up for yourself. Stand up for yourself, and your generation can bring hope – and possibly even justice – to the people of Palestine. Now is your chance.

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[Update: 9/16/14 — In addition to those threatening Marzec’s life, her detractors reportedly also have included people threatening to rape her, others sending astoundingly racist and misogynistic emails, and the student group Bobcats for Israel, four of whose members were arrested September 10th and charged with disrupting a lawful meeting after they tried to shut down a Student Senate meeting in order to force Marzec’s resignation. (For additional accounts of Bobcats for Israel members’ behavior at this meeting, see this letter and this blog post from OU film professor Louis-George Schwartz, whose powerful response to Zionist hardliners attempting to speak for all Jews on OU’s campus I quoted above.)

Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, mentioned above, is heavily affiliated with Bobcats for Israel. Leshaw works for the Ohio University chapter of the group Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Hillel is an international organization active on college campuses which attempts to re-define “Jewish” as Zionist. Leshaw administrates the Facebook page of Bobcats for Israel and accompanied the group to its action at the September 10 Student Senate meeting. After tweeting live updates in support of the action, Leshaw accompanied members of the group placed under arrest to the police station. However, there are no reports of Leshaw participating directly in Bobcats’ September 10 action, nor was she arrested along with the students she mentors.

As the progressive Jewish American Middle East news blog Mondoweiss pointed out, Bobcats for Israel’s logo features a map of Israel which includes the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, all territories illegally occupied by Israel. Consequently, if these Bobcats are for an Israel that is both Jewish and incorporates these territories, then they are necessarily for massive ethnic cleansing. The demographic consequence of incorporating into Israel all of the non-Jews who inhabit these territories would be a Jewish State with a Jewish minority. Thus if Bobcats are for a Jewish Israel that incorporates these territories, the group should be more forthcoming and change its name to Bobcats for Ethnic Cleansing, or perhaps Bobcats for Genocide. (For her part, Rabbi Leshaw responded to Mondoweiss’s reporting with typical decorum by calling Phillip Weiss a “douchebag” and “asshole” on her Twitter feed.)

With regard to this group’s action at the September 10 student senate meeting, Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut (who was chancellor of OU’s Board of Regents from 2007 to 2011) wrote OU president Roderick McDavis to express his support for Leshaw and his disbelief that members of Bobcats for Israel were “actually booked and charged with criminal conduct.” According to Fingerhut, “These students are owed an apology from the university.”

As if the history of settler colonialism needed any more evidence of the shameless arrogance of the racist colonizers! I remember when I was arrested at OU (and on public property immediately adjacent to the campus of Kent State University) for committing civil disobedience in opposition to a massive crime against humanity (the U.S. invasion of Iraq) instead of in support of one (Isral’s U.S.-backed ethnic cleansing of Palestinians). In the case of my arrests, I don’t recall any present or former chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents demanding that the president of either of these schools apologize to me for their failures to intervene to prevent my arrests, even after I was among the plaintiffs in a successful wrongful arrest lawsuit against the City of Kent. I do remember a letter from the Ohio University Judiciaries expressing the university’s desire that I “act more responsibly” in the future. So cry me a river, Eric Fingerhut.

Yet despite –or perhaps because of— the repugnant audacity of Marzec’s detractors, there are substantial signs of support for Marzec at Ohio University, including a letter now signed by over 50 OU professors; statements by Graduate Student Senate President; a petition to defend Marzec and all OU students’ rights to advocate for Palestinian human rights being promoted by the OU Women’s Center, the student group Fuck Rape Culture, and the OU Student Union (as well as explicitly Palestine solidarity groups on campus); an editorial by the student-run Ohio University Post newspaper; and many letters to Athens media, including this one from OU film professor Tom Hayes, in which Hayes mocked Rabbi Leshaw’s call for Marzec to resign.

“I call for unelected Rabbi Leshaw to resign and find a position at an institution with a less robust tradition of advocacy for the dignity and freedom of humankind. Perhaps she can find an institution where students are required to check with the campus Rabbi, or Imam, or Minister before taking a principled position. A segregated Jews-only university in an illegal Israeli settlement might be a good fit. The disgusting barrage of defamation and abuse directed at President Marzec makes one wonder if some people on this campus think that this is also Israeli occupied territory.”

Along similar lines, OU history professor Kevin Mattson told the Ohio University Post that while he isn’t in full agreement with Marzec, it was Rabbi Leshaw’s “very condescending and unthoughtful letter” to The Post calling for Marzec’s resignation that led him to join the group of faculty expressing its support for Marzec.

“When you ask a person to resign from an office they were elected to, you are basically asking for a reversal of the election,” Mattson said, calling Leshaw’s rationale behind her letter “faulty logic.”

Thus while the backlash to Marzec’s “blood bucket” action has been as repulsive as you might expect of people who do, after all, support a murderous and racist U.S.-Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians, the backlash to that backlash continues to inspire hope — hope for a sustained and powerful Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement that might finally bring justice to Palestine.

[Update: 9/30/14 — Electronic Intifada on September 24 published an interview with Megan Marzec accompanied by a good brief summary of this story. Also, the Ohio University Post and Athens News recently reported on a coalition of right wing campus groups, including Bobcats for Israel and the OU College Republicans, organizing a petition drive to recall Marzec from office for her support of Palestinian human rights.]

Editor’s note: Damon Krane lived in Athens, Ohio from 1999 through 2009, during which time he attended Ohio University, edited The InterActivist magazine, contributed to The Athens NEWS, wrote a column for The Post, ran the high school journalism education project Free Student Press, directed the local center for progressive activist development People Might, and was active in numerous social justice groups.

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