Tucson Unified School District's Tuesday Night Debacle

From Tuesday's demonstration, outside TUSD...
From Tuesday's demonstration, outside TUSD...

Police in full riot gear, some tech-ed out SWAT-style with pepper-spray guns. A cop chopper overhead. Protesters locking arms to prevent police vehicles from moving. A 69 year-old activist on crutches arrested and cited, along with six others. Cops flinging demonstrators around like rag dolls.

In other words, not your average school board meeting.

Such was the scene last night as the Tucson Unified School District's governing board once more took up the issue of Mexican-American ethnic studies, the target of a new Arizona law championed by now Arizona Attorney General and former state schools Superintendent Tom Horne, seeking to end the program.

Battle scars for a brown beret warrior...
Battle scars for a brown beret warrior...

Before leaving office, Horne declared the program to be in non-compliance with the statute, and called for the complete elimination of the courses. However, current school's Superintendent John Huppenthal has commissioned an audit of TUSD's Mexican-American Studies, the findings for which have yet to be released.

Last week, TUSD board members were expected to consider a proposal to downgrade the courses, making them electives that will no longer fulfill core requirements. But before they could be seated, student activists with the group UNIDOS took over the meeting by chaining themselves to members' chairs.

The protest April 26 was raucous, but nonviolent. No arrests were made.

TUSD canceled the meeting, and rescheduled for May 5, Cinco de Mayo. There was talk of holding it at a local high school. TUSD then changed that plan, deciding to hold the meeting May 3 at TUSD's cramped headquarters at 1010 West 10th Street in Tucson

The proposal from board president Mark Stegeman to make the courses electives, an apparent move to placate Huppenthal before the audit is concluded, was still on the agenda. 

After hours of discussion, TUSD members decided to put off the vote until a public forum can be scheduled to discuss the proffered changes.

The community wanted none of it, however. More than 300 demonstrators had gathered outside the TUSD building, with others packed inside the small board room.

Pro-immigrant icon Isabel Garcia called the police presence "outrageous, unconscionable"
Pro-immigrant icon Isabel Garcia called the police presence "outrageous, unconscionable"

They were countered by 100 Tucson cops, who closed off the streets surrounding TUSD, filled its halls, and escorted those who intentionally violated the niceties of parliamentary procedure out of the room. These supposedly dangerous radicals were arrested and cited for 3rd degree criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor.

The TPD later issued a statement saying that its presence was at the request of the governing board, as were the arrests.

Not all of the governing board, however. Staunchly pro-ethnic studies members Adelita Grijalva and Judy Burns were both critical of the police state overkill.

"I was told we were going to hire four to six [off duty] Tucson police officers to assist security," Burns told me after the meeting. 

Instead, she said, "I was tripping over cops all night."

So who was to blame for the Fort Knox-like atmosphere? Burns pointed the finger at Stegeman.

"He was told by me, and by [TUSD superintendent John] Pedicone that this was horrible timing." Burns related. "That we needed to wait for the state report...I still believe they will not find us in violation of the law."

Counter-demonstrator Ray Clark: "The prisons are full of these people..."
Counter-demonstrator Ray Clark: "The prisons are full of these people..."

But Stegeman, an economics professor at the University of Arizona, remains tone deaf to the furor he has provoked. 

During the meeting, as demonstrators were dragged away by police and those listening outside via loudspeakers seethed with anger, Stegeman went into "lecture mode" as he called it, patronizng those present with hoary tales of "when I was in high school...a 100 years ago."

Indeed, despite his advanced degree, he came off as a class-A idiot.

A reputed Democrat whose term is up next year, he even ignored the calls of his own party, which has been unified in defense of ethnic studies.

Pima County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rogers, who spoke on behalf of the program before the board, couldn't explain why Stegeman seemed so set on playing the heavy in this drama. Or why board member and Democrat Miguel Cuevas was so willing to cop the role of Quisling, or the "swing vote," as some refer to him.

(Board member Michael Hicks, a prototypical "angry white man" Tea Bagger, is anti-ethnic studies. Naturally.)

Pan Left's take on the TUSD debacle

"No one would have predicted that Stegeman or Cuevas would have supported anything like this," Rogers explained. "We helped both of these people get on the ballot and now they turn their backs on us.

"You've got a school district they say is 60.5 percent -- but is really closer to 70 percent -- Hispanic, and many of their families were indigenous to this area way before it was even a territory or a state. For them to ask to have their heritage taught as part of history, what's wrong with that?"

Some observers are already discussing a recall for Stegeman, with the ultimate goal of firing Pedicone as superintendent.

Pedicone has spoken out of both sides of his mouth on the issue, sometimes praising ethnic studies, sometimes dissing pro-ethnic studies students as "pawns."

Tucson attorney Richard Martinez, who has brought a lawsuit challenging the new anti-ethnic studies law as well as Horne's finding against the TUSD, believes Pedicone is behind Stegeman's proposal.

"This is Pedicone's agenda," stated Martinez, "and he's gotten Stegeman to be his stooge."

But why has Pedicone praised the program in past statements?

"These are people who are afraid to say what they really feel," Martinez told me. "You may not agree with him, but at least Horne has the cojones to say, `I hate what you teach. I don't like the content.'"

Martinez makes a very good case that the Horne-sponsored law will be overturned as vague and unconstitutional. In fact, he's debated Horne at length on the issue. David Morales' Three Sonorans blog has the full give-and-take online, here.

Former ethnic studies student Erin, now at U of A, praised the classes
Former ethnic studies student Erin, now at U of A, praised the classes

Whatever Stegeman and Pedicone had in mind going forward, Tuesday was a disastrous spectacle for them, and totally unnecessary. It inflamed the community, bringing down the wrath of students, parents, politicos and longtime activists, further alienating all to the board.

"It's absolutely outrageous, unconscionable that they put the cops on us in this heavy way," said Pima County Legal Defender Isabel Garcia. "Never, ever have we seen this kind of action."

She said cops and security wanded and patted everyone down, searching bags and purses, forcing attendees to leave their water bottles behind. Garcia was particularly incensed that 69 year-old Guadalupe Castillo, the lady on crutches mentioned above, was arrested after she tried to read portions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Indeed, the crowd outside rang with the cries of "Free Lupe!" until she was finally allowed to exit the building after being cited.

There have been some accusations of police abuse. One girl, a 16 year-old brown beret told me both her and her mother had been hit and jerked around by the cops. She showed me her hands, which were bleeding, almost like stigmata.

At one point, I and others eyeballed a squad of SWAT-team types, who looked ready to rumble, standing behind a building near some students waging a sit-in. But they did not attack. The students ultimately disbanded and walked back to the front of the building.

All of the ethnic studies students, current and former, that I spoke with praised the program as teaching them to think critically.

An Anglo gal by the name of Erin, now a freshman at the University of Arizona, said the courses were similar in reading matter and structure to the courses she's taking at U of A.

I asked her about criticisms of the program from Horne and others, specifically over the phrase "kill the gringo," a quote from a Chicano activist used in the history book Occupied America, which Horne often cites as an example of what ethnic studies teaches.

Erin, who like myself belongs to the "gringo" category, laughed, and explained that a phrase such as that would be presented in the context of who said it and when, not as some sort of commandment.

"It's inaccurate to pick out one sentence in probably the 50 different texts you read each semester," she explained. "He's just looking in the text from his perspective...I don't think that's very accurate."

This should be a no-brainer. Take as an example the quote from '60s radical H. Rap Brown, who once said, "Violence is American as cherry pie." If you teach people what the '60s were all about, the phrase might be discussed. But that doesn't mean the person teaching the class is preaching "violence."

What I liked about the protest Tuesday was the diversity of voices all uniting to stave off Stegeman's attack on the program, which is seen as the first step in killing it altogether. Nearly every ethnicity and color was represented.

Jana Happel, an Anglo mom who has two kids attending TUSD, disputed Stegeman's misleading statistics before the board. Stegeman contended that only five percent of TUSD students take ethnic studies.

But Happel pointed out that, "on the average 365 graduates per year took these classes," meaning that, "out of those graduates who had the opportunity to take the classes, one in four" did.

In other words, they are quite popular, and even Pedicone in the past has argued that the classes result in higher AIMS scores, graduation rates, and students matriculating to college.

So why fix it if it ain't broke? TUSD fears the loss of millions in state aid if they keep the status quo.

But critics like Martinez believe that the courts will overturn the law, and that TUSD board members such as Stegeman either are opposed to the courses or are allowing themselves to be bullied by the threat of loss of funds.

There were a few refuseniks present, like one roly-poly senior citizen by the name of Ray Clark, who claimed to be a Navajo and a regular attendee of TUSD meetings.

"The prisons are full of these people," Clark told me of the demonstrators. "They think that this is their land and that they have the right to take over."

Clark also joked that the situation needed a "Bull Connor" and some "police dogs" to straighten things out. He later said he was being facetious, but the gleam in his eyes seemed to belie this, just as when he told me, chuckling, that most journalists deserved to be strung up.

Edwin Rivera, a Latino man in an Arizona Cardinals T-shirt and cap, berated some of the brown berets for wearing a Mexican flag patch on their uniforms. The berets, all students, explained they were not supportive of the Mexican government, just that it was a symbol of their culture.

But Rivera, father of an 18 year-old at TUSD, wasn't buying it. He told me he was a naturalized citizen, and that wearing a Mexican flag is "a slap in the face" to the American flag.

"I feel sorry for those people," he said. "They're born here, they're educated here, and they wear the Mexican flag...You want to wear the Mexican flag, go to Mexico."

Thing is, I told him, you'll probably see more Irish flags on St. Paddy's Day in New York than you'll ever see in Dublin on any given day. If someone has a shirt with an Irish or Italian or British flag on it, no one gets bent out of shape. So what's the big deal with someone waving a Mexican flag or carrying a banner with the Virgin of Guadalupe on it?

To me, it seems self-evident from Tuesday evening's fracas that the ethnic studies ban and the desire of some on the TUSD board to downgrade the program is simply creating more division, anger and distrust in that community.

And with each passing day, it becomes clearer that the effort to axe ethnic studies in Tucson will eventually fail, the sentiments of a few like Rivera and Clark aside.


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