What’s Good for the Goose . . .

What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander in the Woodland Hills school district.

Back in April school staff were caught on video cameras manhandling students just days apart. Joseph Golden III, a behavior specialist at the Rankin Promise School, was reported immediately by the school district to Pennsylvania’s child protective services.  Golden was suspended the day of his incident and the district immediately began taking steps to fire him.  Superintendent Alan Johnson was “very saddened and sickened” by Golden’s behavior (TribLive, May 9).

Furthermore, when Allegheny County police and the district attorney’s office became aware of the incident, Golden was arrested and charged with assault and child endangerment. The incident occurred on April 12th but the video didn’t make the news for several weeks.  It shows Golden lifting a 13-year-old boy by the neck and dragging him down a hallway.  Not an approved “behavioral intervention” by any means.

On April 3rd, high school “resource officer” Steve Shaulis was famously caught truly assaulting a 14-year-old student at the high school: he put the young man in a headlock, dragged and body slammed him, and, in the ensuing scuffle, knocked out a tooth.  The student was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest.  The DA’s office is “investigating” that incident to see if perhaps Shaulis should get some charges!  Neither that assault, nor an incident from last November when a student recorded high school principal Kevin Murray threatening to knock a kid’s tooth out, drew outraged reaction from Superintendent Johnson.

Those incidents were just the “worst possible coincidences” that Johnson knew “in my heart” don’t “reflect what Woodland Hills is about.” He and some collective “we” were “trying not to let it overshadow all the good we’ve done” (Post-Gazette, April 24).

The ‘R’ word

This is what Woodland Hills is “about”: all of the student victims are African American. So is Golden, but Shaulis and Murray are white. To district administration, Golden’s behavior is “unacceptable” and so he’s got to go immediately.  Murray and Shaulis – also caught on video in 2015 beating up and Tasing a black student – are just misunderstood, unfortunate – and white.

Murray is not only still the principal of the high school, but newly named head coach of the prestigious football program. Golden is facing jail time, but no one – certainly not the DA’s office – is talking about similar punishment for either Murray or Shaulis.  And while the DA’s office takes its time and “investigates” naked brutality by white adults, it wastes no time in charging the black student victims.

Golden’s behavior was out of line and hard to defend. But Shaulis and Murray are caught red-handed running the principal’s office like an interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay.

Needless to say, parents of black students are livid at the school district. They’ve been packing school board meetings but their more-than-reasonable demands that Shaulis and Murray be fired are continually met with the equivalent of a hearty middle finger.  In a school district that was born in the fires of racial fear and resentment, the district’s administration, led by Alan Johnson, continues to take an offensive and demeaning stance toward black students and parents.

The Woodland Hills school board meets throughout the summer and when it does, the parents and supporters of black students will continue to make their displeasure known. The district is over 60 percent African American; with unity and organization, it’s possible for the community to make its power felt.  This disgraceful, racist situation cannot be allowed to continue.  Racist principals, “resource officers” and superintendents have to go.

But all residents of Allegheny County should save some outrage for DA Stephen Zappala, who knows a crime when it’s committed by a black underling or a kid, but not when the head man and his overseer do the acting out. He’s not up for reelection until 2019 – plenty of time for a principled opposition to come together and put him out to pasture.

— James Collins



The Matter of Black Lives

The Black Lives Matter network (or Movement for Black Lives) stunned its critics and observers by coming up with a platform and list of six policy demands.  After a year of organizing and intense deliberations, BLM waited until the end of the Democratic National Convention in Philly to make its announcement.

Criticized as nothing more than a bunch of young rabble-rousers who like to take to the street but don’t have any vision, one might think this was a big step forward for BLM, right?  Not to the media.

According to various major media critics, this movement of young black people’s weaknesses include not having an identifiable leader; not speaking the “language” of white America; failing to court the African-American church; coming up with demands that don’t “poll well;” and failing to address black-on-black violence.

Let’s see what they said.  “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.” And who are these oppressed people?  Who oppresses them?

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

No tired, John Lewis preacher-style pandering to liberals nostalgic for the 1950s and early 1960s here. No more mild rhetoric from people who used to breathe fire but are now thoroughly owned by neo-liberal Democratic Party money.

Over the past two years, they’ve rebuffed attempts to take over their movement by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Cornell West.  These young people know their history, know how to organize in the 21st century, and know that their interests do not lie in selling out for praise from their enemies.  For now, at least, there are no “super star” leaders to be coopted.  Just a growing, increasingly sophisticated collective of people who know that black — and all oppressed — lives matter.

Pittsburgh-area young people have been on the move too, as the large July demonstrations downtown demonstrate.  Opportunists are always lurking, however, just as honest disputes will arise.  Go to this website for official information on BLM: http://blacklivesmatter.com/.

And throw away the key?

Critics accuse African-Americans who are opposed to police killings of our people of ignoring black-on-black violence. We need not listen to them; their intentions are suspect.  We don’t expect the average white person to be privy to conversations in our homes and communities, but can’t they see the “Stop Shooting/We Love You” signs in windows and lawns where African-Americans live?  Are they unaware of the long-running New Pittsburgh Courier front-page campaign to embarrass and mobilize the black community by running a weekly tally of black homicide victims?

Yes, the poor and oppressed victimize their fellow poor and oppressed people.  Take the case of young Eric Taylor, of Duquesne.  Earlier this month, the 17-year-old was sentenced to 22 1/2 to 45 years in prison for a crime he allegedly committed when he was just 15.  The story goes something like this:

In 2014, young Taylor is said to have shot a pregnant 15-year-old girl (motive unclear), whose baby died.  LeRoy Powell — again, just 15 years old — testified at Taylor’s preliminary hearing.  District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office made Powell’s testimony public — his name was all over the news — and he was shot down in broad daylight just days later.  The DA’s office later admitted that it “might not have” fully explained the risks to young Powell and his family or offered protection.  No one has ever been charged with Powell’s murder.

In sentencing Eric Taylor so harshly, Judge David Cashman said he took into consideration the fact that Taylor had committed two armed robberies at age 13.  Two armed robberies at 13 and a deadly gun crime at 15?!  Did Cashman consider what could have happened in the life of a child to cause him to behave so?  Does he, or any of those people who self-righteously condemn people like Eric Taylor, know or care?

The City of Duquesne is a glaring example of the results of deindustrialization, disinvestment and just plain abandonment by those politicians and capitalists who concoct what passes for social policy in the United States today.

In 2010, the average household income in Duquesne was just half the state average.  Its school district is so underfunded that it closed its high school, which had produced state champions in football and basketball, in 2009.  In 2012, it closed its middle school.  At its one remaining elementary school, 100 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a fourth receive special education services, and less than one percent are designated gifted.  What the hell kind of place is that in which to grow up?

Is 17-year-old Eric Taylor related to — perhaps even the son of — another Eric Taylor of Duquesne, an alleged heroin kingpin, who was murdered in 2000?  Or perhaps he knew Terron Taylor, who was sentenced to prison for involvement in the same heroin ring, which also claimed as a member former Duquesne High School and Duquesne University basketball star Kevin Price?

What other life did young Taylor know?  What did Duquesne, the Mon Valley, Pittsburgh or US society have to offer him?  Or the older Eric Taylor, Terron Taylor, or even Kevin Price once his basketball days were over?  Is locking up a 17-year-old kid for the next two to four decades the answer?

The Black Lives Matter network doesn’t think so.  Among other things, they call for economic justice and demand “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.”

So should we.  Eric Taylor, LeRoy Powell, and the young lady who was shot and lost her baby all deserve a better life.

— James Collins




Police-State Politics as Usual

“Tuesday night I heard about Mr. Sterling’s death, and I felt so very tired. I had no words because I don’t know what more can be said about this kind of senseless death.”

— Roxane Gay on the police murder of Alton Sterling in the July 6 New York Times

When I heard about Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to charge Port Authority police officers for the killing of Bruce Kelley Jr., I felt much the same as Roxane Gay. Gay is an African American writer and professor at Purdue and the police killing spree of black people is getting to be too much for her.  I felt tired too, but also angry.

While preparing to write this blog, I again watched the video footage of a platoon of PAT cops pursuing Kelley – who only wanted to be left alone – through backyards and back streets. His initial crime, you’ll recall, was to be discovered drinking with his father, Bruce Kelley Sr., in a gazebo near the busway in Wilkinsburg last January.  Rather than let the men leave in peace, the cops felt the need to provoke them by issuing tickets, which the Kelleys refused to take, and then escalate the situation further by attempting to arrest the men as they walked away.

They set a police dog on Bruce Kelley Jr., who defended himself by killing the dog. In response, he was riddled with bullets.

I watched the video of that man being hunted like an animal and my anger grew. Then came the death of Alton Sterling, and I watched Baton Rouge cops shoot him while he lay on his back, restrained by two cops.  I was moved to tears by the family’s emotional press conference where his 15-year-old son broke down and cried inconsolably.  That’s when I came across Gay’s column.

No time to catch my breath, though. I woke up the next day, on July 7, to news of the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota and was again emotionally shaken, this time by Castile’s brave girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who live streamed the immediate aftermath, even as her boyfriend sat next to her dying in the driver’s seat while a screaming cop stood outside the car window, still aiming his weapon at the visibly mortally wounded man.  And, oh yes, there was a child in the back seat.

What can you say?  Before the deaths of Sterling and Castile, I was prepared to counter Zappala’s “justifiable” defense claim, point by point.  But why bother?  (My colleague Greg Godels did a fine job of that here back in February.)  Bruce Kelley was the victim of business-as-usual in law-and-order America. Kelley and all the black and brown victims of the police were killed because we live in a hyper-capitalist country where racism and the paranoid fear of “the other” are encouraged in order to keep working and middle-class people divided and pacified.  The police are paid to enforce this ruling ideology.

Will black lives ever really matter as long as America continues as a police state? 

We have a black president who has tiptoed around the issue of race, even as white supremacists and police have taunted him with the brazen murders of African Americans, starting with the killing of young Trayvon Martin. Obama fights racism with corny, moralizing speeches, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who responded to violence 50 years ago against civil rights workers in the South with action.

We have a GOP presidential candidate who openly spews hatred toward Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And the candidate most of us will feel compelled to vote for – Hillary Clinton – professes her love for people of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations, and also promises to continue the arrogant foreign policy of endless aggression that has made the United States so many enemies in the Muslim world. These policies will no doubt fuel retaliatory attacks against US and Western targets, which will in turn fuel more anti-Muslim rhetoric at home.

We can take some encouragement from the words of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who came close to calling a spade a spade. But we must always take encouragement, pride and, most of all, leadership from the young people in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are willing to take it to the streets.

Bourgeois Brownnosers

The uproar over the Pittsburgh School Board’s selection of Anthony Hamlet for its next superintendent is finally dying down, and what a fiasco it was. Former city councilman Sala Udin (representing the Hill District Education Council), the group called A+ Schools, the Urban League’s Esther Bush, Tim Stevens of BPEP (all our bourgeois friends!) and others tried to “stand up” to the board’s selection after embarrassing information about exaggerations and discrepancies (why is it that nobody says “lies” anymore?) in Hamlet’s resume came to light.  But for whom are they standing? And just how tall?

There is no denying that the School Board conducted a buffoonish selection process – the discrepancies in Hamlet’s resume (or resumes) could have been uncovered by anyone with Internet access and the motivation to use a search engine.  Still, he was selected by an elected public body – a part-time board made up of working, scuffling people.  The board hasn’t done a great job over the years, but has its performance been any worse than our full-time City Council or General Assembly?  They (like the jury in the O.J. trial) may actually take their jobs seriously and know a little something about the school district business.  And who, if not our elected school board representatives, should select the superintendent?

Superintendents these days (and any days, for that matter) aren’t the great innovators and charismatic leaders that the movies and mainstream rhetoric would have us believe. They’re hired to be administrators of an incredibly complex, even arcane, bureaucracy that politically has very little space for innovation.  Sala Udin and his friends, experienced political players all, know this.  They are fronting for someone with power and privilege – someone who’d rather remain in the background – who wants a better-looking suit occupying the superintendent’s chair.

We should all be for “good government” – and governing – but I’m also for democracy. The school board may have made a good or a bad decision in hiring Anthony Hamlet – or no decision at all, given how power works and from where it comes in the education system.  Superintendents can make important differences – and maybe Hamlet will.  But these days, superintendents don’t produce the “Excellent Experience” that Sala Udin and company are calling for – unless said superintendent comes from a wealthy district.

— Jim Collins