Feature

Lamorinda Responds to Local and National Racism

By Jamie Lattin, Editor-in-Chief

// At first glance, the murder of 46 year-old George Floyd appeared to be just another horrific instance of police brutality. But for a wounded nation, enough was finally enough. 

   Protests swept the country as groups called for increased accountability in the police system and new legislation to prevent police brutality. These sentiments eventually spread to Lamorinda in the form of nonviolent protests and demonstrations. 

   To show solidarity with the ongoing movement, community members Heidi Doggett, Jennifer LaForce, and Nazia Sheriff-Mohiuddin organized a car caravan through Lamorinda.

   “The three of us had some different ideas about why we wanted to do this and how we’d like it to happen, but we all agreed on the most important things: we needed to show support for George Floyd’s family and those who have lost their lives because of racism and to spark further anti-racist work in Lamorinda,” Doggett said.

   The caravan, which took place on May 31 from 11 a.m. to noon, convened at the Acalanes High School parking lot. Participants were encouraged to create signs and display them on their cars. 

   “I hope that demonstrations like ours can help direct attention and support to their efforts. Demonstrations help connect community members who are ready to pitch in however they can to dismantle racism,” Doggett said. 

   Protests also began occurring across Lamorinda. On June 4, community members gathered in Moraga. They held an eight-minute moment of silence for George Floyd and engaged with speakers from Black Student Unions, teachers, and mental health advocates. 

   “I think a lot of people shy away from protesting either digitally or in person because they think it’s dangerous or because they don’t want to seem outspoken and ‘different.’ What they don’t realize is that by being performative and not engaging in active solidarity, their silence and lack of action speaks their true opinion for them,” junior Katrina Ortman, who attended the protest, said. 

   Ortman also spoke to the necessity of learning about Black history in school beyond surface level content. 

    “I’ve never learned about pioneers like Madame C.J. Walker, Marsha P. Johnson, or even Malcolm X in school beyond a brief mention. To learn about how Black culture and heroes built what the US is today, I had to teach myself,” Ortman said. 

   Acalanes Social Studies teacher Brian Smith agreed with this perspective, citing the need to integrate more individuals of color to curriculum.

   “We have the current ‘canons’ in US History and American Lit and unless we break open the canon and make serious changes, then we will continue with the status quo and we will be unable to change the narrative of what it means to be American to include all of the races and stories that have formed this nation,” Smith said. 

   District teachers also joined in on protests and even organized events. Campolindo High School teacher Jill Langson and other faculty members organized a march from Campo to Miramonte on June 4 to protest institutionalized racism. 

   “I encourage all of you to come and show our students and community that we are dedicated to teaching anti-racism and that we are united behind this cause,” Miramonte teacher Megan Flores said in a message to her fellow teachers. 

     Although the murder of George Floyd served as a catalyst for the aforementioned protests, it was not an isolated instance of police brutality against a member of the Black community.

   “While I can not speak for the entire Black Community, for me personally the death of George Floyd unfortunately was not a huge shock. George Floyd was the sixth Black person just in May to lose his life due to racial profiling. While it’s hard to see another innocent Black person be brutally murdered in the streets, I am almost numb to it at this point in time. It almost feels like society has normalized Black people being killed for simply just being Black,” senior and Black Student Union president Deja Cooper said. 

   To raise awareness, Cooper and four former Acalanes students stood by the Lafayette Safeway with signs for passing cars. She also attended the Lafayette Peaceful Protest on June 7. 

   The protest, which started at 2 p.m., consisted of a series of speakers in the Lafayette Plaza and a march through the city streets. 

   Acalanes alumni Jaedyn Boynton, Marcello Severo, and Chloe Parmelee also spoke at the protest alongside Campolindo counselor Patrick Turner, who stressed the need for immediate change in Lafayette.

   “My life matters. Your life matters. Black lives matter. So stop stereotyping, over-policing, using excessive force, and killing,” Turner said at the protest. 

   Over a thousand members of the Lafayette community attended the protest. Many speakers commented on the numbers, expressing their surprise at the level of engagement in a predominantly white area. 

   “We are never going to fix the systematic and deadly racism in our communities until we break down the communication blocks between white people and Black people that are especially strong in predominantly white communities,” Campolindo junior Maia West, who attended the protest, said. 

   The large crowd raised some concerns regarding social distancing. However, many believe it contributed to the sense of community. 

   “It’s such a strange experience, especially during a pandemic where everyone is wearing masks and trying not to touch each other, but if anything, that made the spirit feel stronger because we knew we were risking our health and safety. But we also knew that justice and equality couldn’t wait and everyone there had made the decision that this has always needed to happen and with the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we couldn’t hide inside,” West said.

   Although the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) has made increased strides towards equity in recent years, racism is still prevalent within the district. 

   On June 4, a video depicting district students using racial slurs leaked on social media and sparked a rapid response.

   The individuals in the video make reference to a nonexistent country called “Akawanda,” saying it’s “where the n*****s” live. They also say, “If you were to own anyone of any gender and race, it would be a Black n*****.” and “I’d own a n*****.”

    AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson responded to the video with an email to the district community. 

   “The video and its contents are reprehensible and very hurtful to our community, particularly our students, families and staff of color, and we must now use it as the catalyst for conversation about the difficult racial experience, racial inequalities and institutional racism experienced in our community and use it to stimulate district and community improvements,” Nickerson said in the email.

   Nickerson also called for increased antiracism practices within the district. 

   “Many have been in the street peacefully calling for justice, change, racial equality, and institutional reform. And we want to be hopeful that this time will be different, but we are too frequently reminded of the enormity of the task and the challenges within our immediate and critical antiracist work in this District,” Nickerson said.

   The video quickly circulated amongst AUHSD staff members as well as students.

   “This wasn’t some kid trying out using the N-word in itself (still completely reprehensible), this was an educated take on Black people and slavery and the value of the Black person as a slave.  This was not ignorance to the use of the N-word and its history. This was willful and thoughtful applied racism. It is repugnant to its core and is illustrative of modeled behavior and a complete lack of empathy and humanity for all races,” Smith said. 

   In a statement to the Campolindo High School community, Campolindo Principal John Walker referred to himself as “angry and disappointed” and called the language “reprehensible.”

   The response to the video was inflammatory among students in the district. A petition on change.org calling for the suspension of the students amassed thousands of signatures within the first few hours of its creation. At the time of this writing, the petition has 3,129 signatures. 

   “I am a black woman who lives in their community. I can’t even watch the video. My children are not safe in their own neighborhood with this type of sentiment in the people around them. I also have a beautiful African American nephew who walks the same halls with these girls and he deserves to be safe from this while he goes to school,” community member Heidi Garske commented on the petition. 

   Those who signed the petition believe that the students’ actions should immediately lead them to be removed from the district. 

   “I personally don’t feel like they deserve to be afforded the opportunity to remain AUHSD students. But of course I do not possess the authority to make that call,” Cooper said. 

   Many criticized the actions of the AUHSD administration.

   “Instead of promising deliberate action and an immediate response, all I could hear was blank promises of equality with no actual plan. You can’t act like we can just move on after something like this happens. The Black community doesn’t have that privilege, and people with privilege have to use it to make our community safer for everyone,” Ortman said. 

   However, Acalanes Principal Travis Bell believes that discipline alone is inadequate. 

   “There has to be both a consequence and the education of, ‘Here’s why here’s why that was offensive. And here’s how it offended either a singular person in the case of what I just shared or how it offended multiple people in a community,’” Bell said. For a full transcription of Bell’s interview, click here.

   According to Smith, the task of unraveling systemic racism is a difficult one. However, he believes additional changes to district policy may promote progress. 

   “While I think it is great to focus on campus atmosphere and curriculum, there are still other issues of race and equity in everything from disciplinary action to grading policies to class enrollment to staff recruitment and support for our current non-white staff,” Smith said. 

   Administrators plan to meet with racial equity leaders across the district and create a student forum to stimulate positive reform. 

   “I think that the district identified racial equity as a need several years back and took steps and continues to take steps forward. But, I think it needs to be comprehensive and I think that the district and school sites need to write an equity road map with very clear cut goals and accountability measures,” leadership teacher and diversity chair Katherine Walton said.

   Despite the increased frequency of initiatives to combat racism in recent years, discrimination and hatred are still prevalent in the AUHSD. Student and parent speakers at the Lafayette Peaceful Protest criticized administrators for past and current inaction regarding racism in the district. 

   Bell noted that the district has begun work on a clarified policy regarding the n-word. 

   “We’ve been working for the past year on a district-wide policy responding to the use of the n-word and I think that that’s something that we need to move quickly on making sure it’s published and out there and responding appropriately on that and making sure that our staff and our students are made aware of our stance on that word, being that it is not allowed to be used or on our campus,” Bell said.

   The video, despite its overwhelming controversy, brought prevalent issues to light. 

   “Our students of color, along with their white allies, have been decrying for years the language that gets used in the classroom and the halls and the bathrooms and locker rooms. We, as a district, have not been consistent enough in how these things are dealt with by teachers, staff and admin and the result is a beneath-the-surface pervasiveness,” Smith said. 

   Many faculty members believe change must start with education.

   “We need to provide opportunities for education, reflection and action as it is a journey that never ends. Students should attend our equity minded clubs, student equity council, and be a voice on campus each and everyday,” Walton said. 

    To promote positive change, advocates stress the importance of taking action in any way one can. 

   “There are foundations you can donate to, there are countless petitions to sign, there are actual protests you can go to every other day if not every day. This isn’t just a social media ‘trend’. We are real people that need your privilege to help our voices be heard,” Cooper said. 

A note from the writer: After attending the Lafayette Peaceful Protest, I began to seriously consider my role as a student journalist. I heard multiple speakers discuss the ways in which the media can be responsible for pushing horrific instances of police brutality and racism under the rug. The news cycle always continues and, one way or another, buries these stories. Blueprint is dedicated to changing that. We are committed to amplifying the voices of our students of color. Please contact ahsblueprint@auhsdschools.org with your stories. We want our community to hear them. 

Categories: Feature

1 reply »

  1. Jamie and BP.

    This is a powerful, in depth, meaningful piece that ranges far and wide and is very well sourced.

    That you have the passion to dig and the power to write, report and print, especially after school is out for summer, attests to your commitment to ethics based journalism for the public good and the kind of heart and soul elemental to the BP ethos.

    This story needed to be written, especially its solid focus on the Camp student depredations.

    It is one thing to cover student activism and quite something else to dig into the sine qua non.

    To my mind, there is still more to be unearthed regarding consequences (Bell refers to consequence, but does not elaborate in the quote. What powers and limits do schools have in responding to that kind of student racist speech that glorifies ignorance?

    I think readers would be well served to hear more detailed, specific, focused question based responses from Nickerson and Walker, or at least know that one or the other declined to be interviewed further for this story beyond their public statements.

    Also, the story does not include the other presumably Campo kid’s racist video about “I’m the KKK”

    It would also be good to see the Instagram post of the Campo student who pleaded for a more stringent admin response and see what more he or she might say to BP and how Walker and Nickerson would respond to those perspectives.

    You have the instagram handle with the posts from my earlier contacts and I hope you pursue that avenue.

    Mr Bell did a commendable job in going on the record and speaking to the fact that more must be done as some in the community are tragic people who hold to their ugly beliefs and feel some perverse joy at recording and posting them. Not just idiotic, but sick.

    I recommend a sub head that embraces the petition and previews to the essence of the repost.

    By the way, did anything ever happen to those kids? Did their grotesque expression appear 2 years ago and get swept under the rug? Also, what is the time context of the second video?

    Also, I suggest some interviews with Campo student leaders and Social Studies Teachers.

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