What Use Does the Los Angeles Unified School District Have for Military Grade Weapons?

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On Thursday, July 30, 50 Black and Latino students wearing mock bullet proof vests with stickers that stated #StudentsAintBulletProof #End1033, from the Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities, once again asked the Los Angeles Unified School District to give us a list of the weapons they received from the Department of Defense 1033 Program, to return 61 M-16 assault rifles we believe are still in their possession, and to apologize for being in the program in the first place. Students said, after three public comment testimonies, four long letters (September 2014, November 2014, May 2015, July 2015), over 3,500 petitions, appeals, and every other method of persuasion “Why is the LAUSD trying to kill us?” This campaign is part of the Strategy Center’s No Cars in LA and the U.S., No Tanks in LA and the U.S.

Shortly before the board meeting Manuel Criollo, the Center’s director of organizing and I received a letter from LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines informing us that “the Los Angeles School Police Department discontinued its participation in the DoD 1033 Program. This decision was made prior to the release of the May 2015 Presidential Order 13688 limiting or restricting law enforcement agencies nationwide participation in the aforementioned program.” We wrote back saying that language was very vague — what did “discontinued its participation” mean? Was the LAUSD completely out of the program? What military grade weapons had it received from the DOD, which weapons and when had it returned (such as the DOD MRAP tank) and which weapons, such as the reported 61 M-16 Assault Rifles, it still retained and when it planned to return them. We did not receive a reply.

When we talked to new LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer and other board members there was ambiguity about what they knew and what they were told — and they agreed to at least find out the answers to our questions. But we wrote back that we needed more than that. We needed a commitment that they would introduce a motion supporting the demands we had been raising for a year — including calling on President Obama to end the entire program.

But we also raised deep concerns about what we believed was the board’s disrespectful behavior towards the public during “public comment — in which students and parents pour their hearts out but board members do not comment, empathize, or offer encouragement. Instead, after each person speaks, the chair says, “next!” turning “public comment” into a sterile exercise of sham democracy. We believed we had the commitment of one board member to change that behavior, to respond to Strategy Center’s demands we have raised for more than a year, to introduce a motion to make a full accounting of the process and the weapons, to let us know if they had any remaining weapons, and to commit to returning every one down to the last bullet.

But the students did not get a positive response or from most board members, any response at all. One LAUSD Board member did address the group — in response to students’ demands from the audience. Sadly, Dr. George McKenna (the sole Black member of the board) aggressively defended the tanks, M-16s, and other lethal weapons in the schools. He argued that gangs, drugs, terrorists are all a threat to the public safety, that he wanted to keep the weapons, and added, provocatively, that he would ask for “drones” if the federal government gave them out.

Then, the LAUSD staged its own “walk-out” and left the meeting to go behind closed doors into “closed session” a political and symbolic reflection that the board was truly closed to the needs of the students. As the LAUSD abandoned the students they chanted, locking arms, “students ain’t bullet proof,” “students first we want answers now,” “back to school, no weapons,” “silence is consent,” “if Black lives matter return the weapons.” Then, in an empty board room, the students held their own public hearing and testified as to their fears of going to schools that have armed police and a school board that clearly sees them as the main danger — including asking for even more weapons to suppress them.

We understand that many people would argue, out of frustration, that we are wasting our time going through these formal processes and board meetings and votes and should just move to protest, exposure, and calls for revolt, rejection, and revolution. But Ashley Franklin, the lead organizer of the Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities, explained that there is dialectic between reform and revolution and rather than being opposites in fact they are two parts of a revolutionary whole. The Strategy Center has a general strategy of social revolution that requires the most radical structural changes in society and is working to build new structures, like the Bus Riders Union, Community Rights Campaign, and Fight for the Soul of the Cities, that can be new base areas of grassroots resistance. We based our work on the great radical experiments of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Dr. King and Malcolm X, Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the 1970 Black Political Convention — where the slogan was, “It’s Nation Time.” During that period, “the Movement” created structures of resistance. They recruited people to very specific reform struggles that challenged the ideology and power of the system and won important material and political victories for the people. In that context, we have worked with the LAUSD in a complex but at times constructive, even positive manner. We won the roll back of truancy ticketing and the racist day-time curfew in which more than 37,000 Los Angeles Black and Latino students were ticketed and fines of $250 to $1,000 were eliminated. (The stop and frisk of students for truancy was not eliminated.) We worked with the School Board to pass the School Climate Bill of Rights with our allies Brothers Sons Selves in which they banned the use of so-called ‘willful defiance’ suspensions, ushered in restorative justice as alternative and intervention, and limited the role of police in school discipline. The Strategy Center introduced the Equal Protection Plan which the board adopted. The EPP has eliminated thousands of tickets and arrests in schools by decriminalizing a whole range of everyday student behaviors from schools fights, tobacco and alcohol possession and normal discipline issues. But we were also training tens and at time hundreds of students, parents, and teachers in a real-life political education process. In the process of struggle we learned how the system works, how to fight it, how to win victories, and how to keep up the political initiative. We felt we were making modest progress towards weakening, derailing, and eventually dismantling the school to prison pipeline.

And yet, in June 2014, while we were negotiating in good faith with the LAUSD and Los Angeles School Police Department, they, without consulting or even informing us or any other civil rights groups, made a clandestine application to the Department of Defense to bring more surplus military grade weapons into the schools with the express intent of using them — otherwise why ask for them in the first place. This is institutional racism and part of the conscious, intentional national policy in the U.S. in which the Black nation is subjected to a systematic counter-insurgency plan. This plan to crush the civil rights and Black Liberation Movements and their positive influence on Chicanos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous peoples, women, and supporters of all races, has proceeded unabated for more than 40 years — from Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and sadly, President Obama despite occasional deviations from the script. These policies are a unified matrix of exclusion from the job market, deteriorated housing, ending of the social welfare state, massive hunger and poverty, environmental degradation, daily attacks by police and a consistent police presence that is a conscious army of occupation in Black neighborhoods and institutions. Let us be clear. The DOD 1033 program is a part of a conscious “counter-insurgency’ strategy by the system. Those in U.S. ruling circles, including President Obama, well understand that these policies are already generating mass rebellion (thus the government tanks in Ferguson, Missouri, the mass uprising in Baltimore) and is ramping up military grade weapons to suppress the greater rebellions it knows it is provoking.

On May 18, 2015 President Obama passed an executive order on the Department of Defense 1033 program that was heralded as a major blow to the program. But a closer examination indicates its profound limitations. Positively, it specifically prohibits the use of the DOD 1033 military weapons for school police departments that exclusively serve K-12 schools, which we and other civil rights organizations have been demanding for a year. But it is unclear if it demands that the school boards return the weapons they already possess. Moreover, it places very few restrictions on institutions like the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to get new weapons. Our goal is to get President Obama to follow through and to end the DOD program altogether.

You can help! We need people all over the United States to rally against this human rights violation and the rights of the Black nation and Latino people in LA and nationally with two key demands:

  1. Send a letter to President Barack Obama to end the 1033 Program now. The president, as “commander in chief” but also as the head of every federal agency, can end this program through executive power and an executive order if necessary. While this story talks about the abuses in Los Angeles there are DOD 1033 weapons military weapons in every major urban center in the U.S

E-mail President Obama Now

  1. Send a letter to LAUSD President Steve Zimmer, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, LASPD Chief Stephen Zipperman. Call on them to:
    1. terminate all LAUSD ties to the Department of Defense. The school board has told us they have “discontinued participation in the program” but will not answer when that happened, which weapons they still retain, and their commitment to return them
    2. give a full accounting of when the Los Angeles Unified School Board applied to the 1033 program, which weapons they initially received and why they felt a need for such lethal weapons against their own students
    3. provide a full accounting of any weapons they still possess from the DoD 1033 Program and an agreement to return and destroy those weapons within 30 days at the latest with a clear statement they are out of the program permanently
    4. The LAUSD should call on President Barack Obama to end the DoD 1033 Program completely and now

With the growing rebellions in Black communities in response to systematic abuse, assault, imprisonment, torture, and murder of Black people, we truly fear a greater repression of demonstrators by armed police, national guardsmen, and other forces of state repression. We need a systematic and symbolic win — that every police force in the U.S. must give back every weapon from the 1033 Program, that every city and town pull out of the 1033 program, and President Obama overturn the whole program. Let’s seize the time and fight to win.

Call LAUSD Board Chair Steve Zimmer: 213-241-6387
Send him your letter: steve.zimmer@lausd.net

Call LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines: 213-241-7000
Send him your letter: superintendent@lausd.net

Call LASPD Chief Stephen Zipperman: (213) 202 – 4508
Send him your letter szipperman@laspd.com

Eric Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and The Fight for the Soul of the Cities. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers and the author of Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He is the host of KPFK Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines and will be attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris December 2015. He can be reached at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com


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