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School Days and Grenade Launchers

Come on, they aren’t tanks, they’re armored rescue vehicles. And the, uh, grenade launchers would only be used to launch teargas canisters. When necessary. And the M-16s? Standard police issue.

What a journey these Los Angeles teenagers, and the civil rights group Fight for the Soul of the Cities, had, to get from there — the ho-hum justification by (good Lord) the city’s school district police force, for the accumulation of surplus Defense Department weaponry — to here:

“Our recent meeting and dialogue has led me to review my actions as Board President during this difficult period. Upon reflection, I failed to understand the amount of pain and frustration our participation in the 1033 program could cause in the community and especially with our partners from the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Fight for the Soul of the Cities. . . .”

These are the words of Los Angeles School Board President Steve Zimmer, speaking in genuine anguish as he acknowledges that militarizing school district police has, to put it mildly, a serious down side. He continues, in his letter last month to the Labor/Community Strategy Center, parent organization of Fight for the Soul of the Cities:

“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. . . . I now understand that even the possession of such weapons in the context of this moment damaged trust that we now must all work to rebuild. Please accept my apology. . . .”

This is an extraordinary victory — possibly the first of its kind in the nation.

It’s a victory for civil rights. It’s a victory for kids. But primarily, it’s a victory for absolutely basic common sense. The Los Angeles School Police Department — a police force whose sole responsibility is to maintain order in the public schools — has returned all the weapons, including grenade launchers, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (i.e., a tank) and 61 M-16 automatic rifles, which it had obtained under the controversial 1033 program, to the U.S. Department of Defense.

It provided proof that it did so. And it apologized — to the children and teenagers in the Los Angeles Public Schools. The apology was an acknowledgement — oh, so painfully rare in 21st century America — that real order isn’t a matter of armed domination. It was an acknowledgment that education requires trust and trust is annihilated by the appearance of a military dictatorship.

The struggle with the School Board over this began in 2014, shortly after members of the civil rights group had gone to Ferguson, Mo., to show solidarity with the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown.

“We come back from Ferguson and find out they have a tank, grenade launchers — it was a declaration of war,” Manuel Criollo, director of organizing at Fight for the Soul of the Cities, told me.

And thus began almost two years of sit-ins and protests. Hundreds of students participated. They refused to compromise or accept half-measures from the School Board. “First they got rid of the grenade launchers,” Criollo said. “In winter of 2014, they got rid of the MRAP tank. By early 2015, they argued that the M-16 was a standard police weapon. They said, ‘We no longer have military weapons’ — even though the M-16 is considered a cruel weapon by the Red Cross.”

But the students didn’t give up. When the School Board finally said it got rid of all its Defense Department armaments, they still weren’t satisfied. They demanded proof . . . and an apology. At a board meeting last February, “the activists spoke over the Pledge of Allegiance and demanded to be heard before other business could proceed,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The meeting was canceled.

And proof eventually came, and so did Steve Zimmer’s remarkable acknowledgment that militarizing the school police force had been a mistake, wrecking that invisible and crucial quality called trust — wrecking the school system’s relationship with the communities it served.

As I read his letter of apology, I honor its painful honesty — “I failed to understand the amount of pain and frustration our participation in the 1033 program could cause in the community” — but at the same time I feel a stunned despair that such a decision was made in the first place. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it rips my heart to shreds. Yes, yes, I understand that maintaining order in a big-city school system is an enormously difficult, complex undertaking, but . . . to reach out for tanks and grenade launchers?

Apparently the only assistance coming from the national government is military. There is zero peace consciousness at this level, zero guidance except to prepare for war.

As Criollo pointed out, the Los Angeles Police Department (which is separate from the Los Angeles School Police Department) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have thousands of M-16s and other equipment — MRAPs, a helicopter — from the 1033 Program.

“From our point of view, they’re on tactical alert to go to war with their own people,” he said. “We’re living in a country that’s not guaranteeing us a job, not investing in education. But trillions are invested in the military. This shows where their priority is. I think they’ve given up helping communities uplift out of poverty.”

I don’t think the nation has lost its way, but I think the government has.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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