Guest columnist Michael Lawrence-Riddell: ‘When you attack one of us, you attack all of us’

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School, addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Feb. 24. Gazette file photo

Published: 3/7/2021 9:03:44 AM

“We can disagree and still love each other. Unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” — James Baldwin

Our community is under attack. This might sound like hyperbole, but I do not believe it is.

James Baldwin is a hero of mine and a proponent of revolutionary humanity — the recognition that my humanity is tied up in yours and your humanity is tied up in mine and any diminishing of your humanity diminishes my humanity. This doesn’t seem like a revolutionary mindset at all, but in a culture that was, in part, built on the dehumanization of others through slavery and continued systemic racism, the recognition of the humanity in others, especially others who are not like you, is a revolutionary act.

The principal of my daughter’s middle school in Northampton is a Black man. He has been attacked and in the world that I am helping to create, an attack on him is an attack on me and an attack on you. He is being attacked for protecting his students from hate speech — hate speech in the form of an icon.

This icon has been called many things over the course of its history. The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the rebel flag, the Southern cross, the Dixie Flag, Stars and Bars, and most commonly, the Confederate flag.

Principal Desmond Caldwell released a video earlier in February clearly stating two things: 1. The “Confederate flag” is a symbol of hate and 2. It has no place in our community. In response to this simple and truthful message, he was targeted on social media and called an “anti-American tyrant.”

I cannot help but wonder if the irony of calling someone “anti-American” while rhetorically waving a flag that has been a symbol of white supremacy since its inception and was a flag of a treasonous group that waged war on the United States to protect their right to own human beings of African descent, human beings who looked like the principal of my child’s school, is lost on the writers’ of the post.

The system that the flag represented was very clearly all about protecting the institution of chattel slaver. If you are thinking about replying to my points by saying that the war and/or the flag were/are about “state’s rights” or southern pride, look up the articles of seccession — similar to the Declaration of Independence when Jefferson, et al laid out their rationale for making the political decisions they did, the Confederate States clearly outlined why they were secceeding from the union and over and over the words “slavery” and “slave” and explicit statements of white supremacy appear.

That flag represents a violent history. A violent history which has served to dehumanize all of us, “victims” and “perpetrators.”

Principal Caldwell’s statement about the Confederate flag having no place in our schools was a simple statement, a statement which should not be controversial. It is a symbol of violence, a symbol of hatred, a symbol which has no place in a community of learning.

A problematic point here is that we have a system so steeped in white supremacy that Caldwell was essentially on his own, on an island, making the point that the iconography of hate has no place in his school. The failure of our system is that there is not strong language and policy decreeing that hate speech and symbology has no place in our schools. Caldwell needs and deserves a leadership structure behind him that clearly shows and proves that hate speech is not protected speech. And again, when you attack one of us, you attack all of us.

Sadly, this was not demonstrated in the actions of the leadership of the Northampton Public Schools. On Feb. 24, a large group of supporters, organized by NPS students, assembled at the JFK Middle School to clearly and simply state that when symbols of violence are used against members of our community we will stand up. There were many Northampton Public School educators who came to support our students and our one Black administrator in the district. Unfortunately, there were not more educators and administrators there.

I am sure that this is a more complicated issue than the reductive way I will state it here, dealing with negotiated contracts, etc., but part of the reason that more educators were not there, is that they were not resoundingly encouraged to show up.

This was a huge missed opportunity — a rally organized by the youth of our community. Imagine the power they could have seen if our whole community and the school system showed their support for Caldwell. The message should have been, “I am strongly encouraging ALL NPS educators to show up.”

We need a strong, districtwide policy about what constitutes hate speech and that it is 100% not tolerated in our school community. We all need to show up.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell is executive director of Self-Evident Media.

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