Our trip to the TABS 2014 Conference in Washington, DC was supposed to be a quiet chance to learn from other boarding school faculty and administrators. But when an opportunity to let your life speak presents itself, you can’t stand on the sidewalk and allow it to pass you by.
On Thursday night after participating in an “Unconference,” the contingent of faculty from George School stepped out of the restaurant Jaleo on the corner of 7th and E Streets and began our walk back to our hotel. Several blocks later, we intersected a large crowd of protestors who had taken to the streets to express their frustration in the twin grand jury disappointments in the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. There was no doubt that we were going to join the protest, and for the next hour we wended our way through the streets of DC, intentionally zigzagging to confuse the police escort that was trying to contain the protest and keep it from disrupting traffic and the business of the city. Of course for us protestors, that act of civil disobedience was precisely the point. A selection of our chants (many of which originated in the protests in Ferguson) included:
“No justice – no peace! No racist police”
“Black lives matter! Black lives matter!
“If I can’t breathe, you can’t breathe!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we can’t have it? Shut it down! If we can’t have it? Shut it down!”
On Friday night we had a similar experience. We were halfway back to our hotel after dinner at Haad Thai when we heard the protesters about a block behind us. This time we paused for a minute unsure of whether or not we would join in. But as we stood on the sidewalk, the protestors chanted at us, “Off of the sidewalk, into the streets!” and we were compelled to join in once again. (It’s amazing what a direct appeal and feelings of personal guilt will do.) The protest was a bit more menacing on the second night, as the organizers seemed determined not to let the police escort shape the experience. Protestors walked through oncoming traffic, forcing it to come to a complete stop, and we lingered in major intersections to shut them down. It seemed like every taxi cab driver we passed rolled down his or her window and raised a fist in solidarity with our movement.
We faced some ethically challenging moments. The organizers of the protest had word that fire trucks were being used to break up protests in New York, so when a fire truck tried to move through our midst on the second night as we were stopping traffic on 14th Street, it was hard to know what the right thing to do was. A police car behind us used its megaphone to tell us to let the fire truck through, and I must admit, I was pretty skeptical that it was responding to an emergency. I know that I’m not gifted with ESP, and maybe there was a burning building nearby. But from my point of view on the street, it sure looked like a tactic designed to flummox the protest.
Another challenge was when the protest took up the chant “Hands up: fight back!” on the first night of our participation. I found myself chanting along for a minute before I thought about the message. As educators at a Quaker school, we are called to let our lives speak on behalf of the cause of equality; however, nonviolence is major tenet of Quakerism. I tend to agree with Marvin Gaye, “There’s no need to escalate.” My colleagues and I were not there to lecture the other protestors, though, and I felt like a guest in their midst and in their city. Perhaps I can excuse myself if I imagine that the “fight back” imperative isn’t necessarily demanding physical violence, merely resistance to police overreach.
The crowd on both nights was utterly diverse and impossible to pigeonhole. Like the motley throng in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” there were young and old, black and white, native Washingtonians and out-of-towners all walking and chanting together. I couldn’t help but think of the French Revolution much more than all of the civil rights marches in Washington because of the rebellious energy and nocturnal, drizzly setting. We weren’t a dignified army marching in serried rows with charcoal gray suits and fedoras, but rather a rag-tag band with an inconsistent pace.
While I can’t confirm this fact, I’m pretty sure that there were no other teachers or administrators from the other TABS member schools who found their way into the protest. To be fair, we joined in serendipitously both nights, but this was going on just blocks from the hotel where the conference was taking place. I tweeted about our participation using the conference hashtag, and a few people noticed, but why weren’t more educators fired up to let DC feel their presence? Years from now, I’m sure I’ll remember our participation in the protest and forget most of what I learned at the conference. Teachers are responsible for bringing the world to life in our classrooms, and how can we do that if we do not live life with passion? And how can we toil away, preparing our young charges for their futures without caring about the state of the world they will inhabit?