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Queer, trans, and Black students organized for their safety and dignity and pushed for the removal of police from Madison public schools.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jacqueline Luqm…: This is Jacqueline Luqman with the Real News Network. The school officials in Denver, Colorado, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon have announced that they’re severing ties with their police departments. And now the school board in Madison, Wisconsin has voted to do the same.

Wisconsin public radio noted that, “The vote followed years of activism by the Social Justice Organization, Freedom, Inc., and reverses course from last year when Madison Metropolitan School Districts Board narrowly voted to keep police officers in schools.” Now obviously, we’re living through an historic moment, maybe even a watershed moment in terms of racial justice and the relationship to policing and almost overnight, the conversation has shifted completely, but this work has been going on in communities on the ground, outside of the national media spotlight four years. And now it’s time has come. Here to talk about the culmination of that work in Madison, Wisconsin, is Mahnker Dahnweih, director of civic engagement with Freedom, Inc. Mahnker, thank you so much for joining me.

Mahnker Dahnwei…: Thank you so much for having me, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Luqm…: So first, can you tell us about the decision to end the contract with the police in Madison schools? And what’s changed between last year when this motion to remove police from schools was narrowly defeated and today, when it passed unanimously? What has changed to influence that change in the board’s vote this time around?

Mahnker Dahnwei…: So first I want to say, we are so happy, overjoyed, and excited to have this great victory under our belts. It has been years of organizing from young, queer, trans, black youth here in Madison, Wisconsin who have had intimate experience and knowledge of the violence that comes to black youth when there are police present in the schools. And so it’s those years of research, public testimony, conducting research, and just really engaging with community and changing hearts and minds that has actually led to this victory. I also want to recognize the moment that we’re in. We are in a time of global uprising and the riots and the rebellion in the streets have actually put immense pressure on elected officials and local leaders to the point where they have to take action and not just performative action, not just reform, but they have to actually start defunding the police, which will eventually lead to the abolition of punitive punishment within our communities, and the whole policing structure as a whole.

Jacqueline Luqm…: I’m so glad that you mentioned that this is a student-led, and particularly in trans and queer student-led movement. So can you give us a little bit of the historical context within that struggle for those communities, specifically, and led to the larger struggle to get police out of schools and Madison?

Mahnker Dahnwei…: So this all started about four years ago and Freedom, Inc.’s tagline is, “Our community is our campaign.” And we believe the folks at the center of violence that are actually experiencing it are the ones who are best positioned to actually fight and dismantle the systems that are perpetrating that violence. So when our young people came to us, we’ve always had youth programming here at Freedom, Inc., but when our young, black, queer and trans youth are coming to us saying, “We’re getting criminalized for the way that we dress or for not dressing the right ways,” or, “The police officers that are in those schools are actually body slamming us and apprehending us for things that other students don’t get singled out for.”

We’re like, “This is a serious problem.” And so they organized and they went and they testified at the school board meeting at the time. And the response of the district was actually to create a committee. That sounds like really familiar because that’s what they try to tell us this time around. We’ll make a committee. And our youth were not having that. They said, “This needs to go beyond a committee. You need to take direct action.” So it’s been four years of them getting disrespected, of them getting pretty much shut down when they come up and tell their stories, when they come up and share their research, when they engage community. They have really been the deciding factor in actually the last two school board elections, because candidates were not able to make it even past the primaries without answering the question, “Cops or no cops in schools.”

And so they’ve done a lot of work. They’ve done a lot of work on the [inaudible 00:05:17]. They’ve done a lot of meetings, a lot of research. And I’ll say the fact that we’ve been in the streets, mobilizing thousands during this current uprising is what actually kept pressure on the school board members and the school board president, specifically Gloria Reyes so that it could no longer be about her former ties as a former police officer. It could no longer be about what the school board members were afraid of, like who’s going to take care of those bad black kids. It had to be about how are we going to move forward and actually invest in a black youth that has nothing to do with punishment and cages and police officers.

Jacqueline Luqm…: I think it’s an excellent point that you just made that it was the students who have embarked upon a four-year campaign to do the research, to attend the meetings, to call these politicians out on their insufficient responses to their issues and the information that they were given. And they were present at every school board meeting. And they demanded that the question, “Cops or no cops,” be answered before anything could move on. So I think that speaks to the importance of highlighting grassroots organization and that we’re really not in a moment where suddenly overnight, people’s ideas and ideologies were changed. This was the result of a long campaign of people impacted by these policies, doing the research, engaging with the people who are implementing these policies and seizing a moment that arose that they were able to capitalize on. So ultimately, Mahnker, it was the students who got to know the ins and outs of school policy, and who organized more than 50 events in support of police-free schools over this four year period of time, who mobilized Madison to make the unanimous vote possible. Isn’t that right?

Mahnker Dahnwei…: Yes. It definitely is. And they’ve had to have some really hard conversations with folks on the doors, because one big pushback that we have when they first started from our community was, “What are you going to do with all the bad kids?” And so it really was hosting teachings for the community, doing political education sessions online, going door to door. It was all that time that they put in and having those conversations ultimately about abolition. We who believe in freedom … It’s not going to be easy. We’ll still have to fight for it. We’ll still have to come together and use our collective imagination to actually rethink what community safety is.

What we do know is that putting people in cages does not help. What we do know is that giving someone permission to use deadly force against children does not work. Children who have conflict, which is age-appropriate behavior to have conflict amongst their peers in schools or wherever that may be when you’re that age, adding more guns to the equation does not help. And so I think they have been very masterful in the way that they’ve been able to engage and actually convince the public that we are capable of doing something different. But if we actually believe in ourselves, that we can keep us safe. It’s not just the [inaudible 00:08:53] who keeps us safe. We keep us safe. We deeply believe in that. And now most of Madison does too.

Jacqueline Luqm…: I think it’s very interesting that we’re supposed to be allowing our youth to develop their brains and understand conflict resolution and to learn how to deal with other people and different people and be diplomatic and mature during these formative years. And somehow one of the ways we think we can deal with … “we,” I’m saying adults now, one of the ways we have convinced ourselves that we need to keep our youth safe is to introduce, as you said, armed law enforcement into the various situations where we want our children to develop these critical thinking and problem solving skills, not realizing that we’re just introducing another problem into the matrix for our kids, which just produces trauma. But Mahnker, you brought up the issue of who keeps us safe? We keep us safe. And that’s something I personally believe in, but many people are questioning what would taking police officers, or as they’re called to try to make them sound more benign, school resource officers out of schools, what does that look like in terms of discipline and disciplinary issues? So what is Freedom, Inc.’s vision for student safety?

Mahnker Dahnwei…: That’s a great question, Jacqueline. So over the past four years, we have proposed over 11 programs and emergency funds to the district that cover academic fulfillment, healing and mental wellness, that cover legal decriminalization of students. Because we understand that taking police out of schools, that’s the first demand. And yet we have to be holistic in our approach to actually keeping our students safe. A lot of that actually looks like providing emergency services to folks because one of the main things that students at MSD are ticketed for is truancy. So if folks actually have reliable transportation and they have the things that they need to get to school on time, then that’s one less thing to criminalize them about. And so we understand the need for a holistic approach to that. In terms of safety policies and practices, we proposed localized community control boards with any school that’s actually reflective of the racial makeup of that school.

And then it’s comprised of mainly students, their parents and trusted adults who have been trained in restorative and transformative justice. So that means that they will be able to negotiate a set of safety policies that are not punitive, that do not lead to the push out of black youth, trans and queer youth as well. And that actually focus on restoration and really like looking at the environment that causes conflict within these schools. A lot of times it’s not just the police. But you have school administrators here in Madison, jumping on 11 year old black girls and punching them in the face and ripping their hair out. You have school security guards who are sexualizing young black girls. So you have a whole … And then of course, the make up of our teachers is mostly white women and they have their own set of racial biases and get over right and get through.

So you have a whole entire environment that really has set our students up to fail, has set black students up to fail. And we’re not done yet until schools are safe for every black child. So there’s a lot of work to be done. The district must put money and resources into actually addressing this problem holistically. They must actually own up to the harm that they’ve done to black youth over the years, because what we’ve seen is not an uptick in graduation rates, not an uptick in academic fulfillment when those students are surveyed, it’s an uptake in youth who are in prison. In our County, actually just invested in a new youth prison.

So I will question what are their intentions. If they actually want you to be safe, removing the cops out of the schools, having actual accountability processes for adults who use law enforcement against students, actually investing money and time in school leadership, wellness, and creativity of black youth, making sure that there’s transformative justice in those schools and having community control is the way forward. Honestly, it’s the only way to see a sustainable change that’ll actually positively impact black students and keep them safe.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Mahnker, I do deeply appreciate the intersection between trans and queer students and black students advocating for their safety that will ultimately impact every student in the district. And what we’re hoping is that what you’ve done in Madison will be a blueprint for people who are pushing to remove school resource officers, or cops, from schools and terminating their contracts across the country. We’re hoping that this will be the foundation that people can use for that fight. And we understand that this fight is just the beginning because now what you want to see is that the money that’s paid to officers in schools and in Madison, it’s around $380,000 per year. According to the contract that was passed last year, could be reinvested, or should be reinvested, in those other forms of transformative justice, training, housing, transportation, and other things that you mentioned. So we understand that the fight for transforming the relationship between schools and the police, and indeed severing that relationship severely to perhaps stem the flow of the school to prison pipeline is just beginning.

We are so glad for the work that you have done with Freedom, Inc. in Madison. And again, we just hope that it is a blueprint for how others around the country can embark on that fight nationwide. So Mahnker, thank you so much for joining me and telling us tell us your story about this fight and your continued efforts in Madison.

Mahnker Dahnwei…: Thank you so much for having me, Jacqueline. And if anyone wants to get in contact with us, you can find us on Facebook, @FreedomInc on Facebook, on Instagram. We’re still out here in these streets. This week starts our gender justice week of action, because we know that defunding the police is a gender justice issue. And so we’ll be out on the streets all throughout those two weeks. So come and join us. The fight isn’t over yet. Peace and love to everyone.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And thank you for watching. This is Jacquelyn Luqman with the Real News Network in Washington, D.C. The fight for justice for all of us continues.

Studio: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju
Production: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.