The most recent demonstration of resistance in the struggle to defend ethnic studies came on Tuesday, April 10th, at the TUSD board meeting. Over 100 people filled the room in opposition to the impending vote against renewing the contract of Sean Arce, former director of the Mexican American Studies program. Student protesters and supporters chanted “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist TUSD!”, and shouted down board members. Some zip-tied themselves together, a smoke bomb was set off in the meeting room and scuffles with security and police ensued. At least one de-arrest took place as the crowd demonstrated an inspiring level of solidarity, preventing the police from making any successful arrests.
That the TUSD board would vote against Arce was a forgone conclusion. By now, many of us, both in the center and periphery of this movement, recognize the dead-end of appealing to the rationale of supposed representatives. Perhaps the more a strategy of moderation fails, the more the movement will continue and expand efforts to create and maintain autonomous, liberatory education models in active opposition to white supremacy and the state.
The following essay was written last January as an elaboration on why Tucson anarchists are in full solidarity with the fight for ethnic studies and youth leading it.
Recently on January 10, 2012 the board of the Tucson Unified School District voted to destroy Ethnic Studies, specifically, Mexican American Studies. This decision came after years of resistance. On April 26th, 2011 high school students from various schools throughout Tucson chained themselves to the chairs of the board members desks while they fumbled around outside with the racist riot pigs. Inside a mariachi band played and the lifeless room erupted with people dancing on tables and crowds joyously occupying the building. The next week, on May 3, determined to go forth with the vote, the state brought pigs to line the area and put people through metal detectors to get inside. Many community members continued to speak up in the meeting and defy the arbitrary power that the racist board tried to silence them with. As the pigs began arresting them and taking them out back, word got out to those outside and they quickly blockaded the roads where the police vans needed to exit. The barricades the pigs brought were knocked down, a banner was dropped on a building across the street which read ‘We’ve got youths backs” and many created softblocks (or ‘human chains’) across both roads the police needed to access. All of this happened spontaneously and, though such tactics of resistance are only a start, they demonstrated one thing clearly: The state’s attempts to de-radicalize and dis-empower those who challenge their white supremacist agenda are backfiring! It should also be noted that the actions mentioned here are only a surface look at the daily resistance led by radical youth in Tucson.
Why is ethnic studies being attacked?
It’s pretty simple. Ethnic Studies can be subversive. They are right. Learning histories of the land, of Chican@s, of indigenous peoples (such as the Tohono O’odham- whose land is being occupied by a colonial government in Tucson), of those who have resisted colonialism and borders, all of this calls into question and denaturalizes white supremacy and government/corporate control. I remember taking Ethnic Studies courses and getting rocked by the stories of Tijerina taking up arms and reclaiming land in New Mexico, kicking out forest rangers, and leading an armed raid on a county courthouse. I also never thought about borders the same after learning about the Mexican Revolution, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the Gadsden Purchase. These histories helped me break down systems of power today and inspire further resistance to them. Here in Tucson they are specifically targeting Mexican American Studies as a crucial component in the current multi-faceted tidal-wave of white supremacist attack on latin@s. Whether it’s border walls pushing people to death in the desert on the border, nazis marching down our streets side by side with the police, SB1070, Secure Communities and police discretion caging and deporting people of color, or HB 2281 banning classes and books, we see one thing: white supremacy flaring it’s ugly head. Mexican American Studies being attacked is related to the ways in which Black peoples and Indigenous peoples are increasingly being attacked by borders, cages, capitalism and colonialism as well and these connections are being articulated by Indigenous elders and Black community members who are standing side by side with the youth and with latin@ communities (this has happened both outside the school board office and in the community center where students have come together to create their own school). Tucson’s community response illustrates that the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics aren’t working. HB 2281 explicitly opposes ‘ethnic solidarity’ and Tucson is coming together to show such solidarity amongst and between many identities and to make visible ways in which white supremacy is affecting all of our communities.
The youth do light up when they hear what they already feel rumbling beneath the spectacle. White supremacy isn’t natural and thus is not guaranteed to continue. The attack on Ethnic Studies is a reflection of a shifting paradigm. It is an expression of fear. Fear of revolt, fear of riots, fear of fires. It is an attempt to prevent the next generation of radicals from blossoming. But they’re too late.
Why is resistance to the attack on Ethnic Studies important for anarchists in Tucson?
If we want totality we have to be honest about the many fields where battles are fought against oppressive paradigms, such as white supremacy. Smashing state and capital doesn’t necessarily mean smashing white supremacy and, as anarchists that oppose all forms of oppression and hierarchy, we stand with those who are coming together to defend Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies as part of the fight against racial hierarchies and oppression. We see inspiring resistance that moves beyond myopic goals for reform. We also stand with the youth in Tucson who are experimenting in true forms of solidarity and autonomy. The fact that the youth are creating their own schools as a part of their walk-outs, posting signs that read ‘class in session’, and keeping the media out clearly demonstrates that they take autonomy seriously. I felt blown away at how amazing their autonomous classes were and couldn’t help the easy comparison to the many free schools I have been a part of, which, as awesome as they have been, have never reached so many people.
As anti-austerity battles flare up and education battles over tuition are waged, it is important for anarchists and anti-authoritarians to be critical of what goals are merely statist/reformist and what goals seek full liberation. One of the reasons that the Ethnic Studies battle in Tucson shows such possibilities is that the youth are staring totality in the face and explicitly connecting their struggle to other revolts. Quite frankly, the youth in Tucson have shown that they have more teeth than their university counter-parts. This battle is also germane to public high school students from all class backgrounds, which is something that much of university politics has lacked.
I was depressed and confused for much of my high school experience and, sadly, the years following were the most tame and domesticated years of my life because of the false answers that I was sold, promising me stability and success. The youth in Tucson are taking advantage of this moment to call into question the whole system that is trying to shape them. Of course, not everything inside of Ethnic Studies is radical and the classes in of themselves do not actually mold insurrectionary revolutionaries out of each student. They do, however, open up spaces for questioning state apparatuses, and for many of us such spaces have saved our lives (for some quite literally).
Ethnic Studies has become a symbol here in Tucson. The chant, “When Ethnic Studies is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!” means that when they try to cut off channels for the youth to learn about their roots and connect with others, they will only study harder, act fiercer, and come together in greater numbers. This extends to all of us, every age and background.
I do not wish to speak for any of the youth in Tucson. Honestly, their words are much more powerful than any of these. I am not a student here, but I do find joy in the subversive tendencies that I see amongst the youth. Recently the racist school district banned many books (including Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chicano, and the Tempest), coming into classrooms and confiscating them. The youth have refused to let this stop them from reading such texts and they are stealing back the ideas that are being banned. Their continual mass walk-outs and their efforts to come together in a community center to make a school of their own is something that anarchists in Tucson are thrilled about this. We strive to build meaningful relationships with our neighbors, the youth, the Tohono O’odham people whose land we are on, and with one another, with goals no meeker than total revolt. Indeed there are reformist vultures seeking to recuperate this battle, but there are many more who are committed to coming together to demand the impossible. Anarchists seek complete destruction of any state sanctioned anything (including schools). Anarchists should also support the fight for Ethnic Studies as a real part of the fight against white supremacy. This does present a real tension, a tension that will be present in almost any struggle if we take an honest look at intersections of oppression. Demanding the impossible means demanding an education that provides bolt-cutters for our chains.
Solidarity. Autonomy. Joy.