On the beating of a former student of mine by the NYPD…

If you’re in New York, you’ve undoubtedly heard by now about two cases of police brutality in the Bronx in the past couple weeks.  In one incident, an 18 year old was shot while unarmed in his home.  The other, is captured in the video below:

The young man that was savagely beaten by four Bronx cops was a student of mine for three years, and my advisee last year.  The student who was killed also attended my old school, but I did not know him.

I’ve been trying to come up with something thoughtful or intelligent to say about this for a week now, and I just have nothing coherent to offer, probably because I’m of many minds here.  The remaining parts of this writing are somewhat disconnected:

Do I share the outrage of these protestors? I do.  Like them, I also know that neither are isolated incidents, but rather are part of a long pattern of abuse of young men of color in NYC, and in the Bronx in particular.

I also knew this student well.  I knew him to be an occasionally brilliant student.  I knew him to be a quick learner.  I knew him to be extremely sensitive, and caring for those around him.  I also knew him to be an often absent student.  I know he was involved in gang-related violence in our school building.  I know he robbed another student at our school.

More than anything else, I’m just sad.  I’m sad I live in a city where my students are correct to distrust the police because of a large handful of bad cops (despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of NYPD are good people trying to do a good job).  I learned way too quickly that when I taught my students about the 4th and 5th amendments, I was teaching them about rights that they didn’t actually have.  These ACLU guidelines for what to do when you’re arrested?  Some of them are more likely to get you beaten or arrested in the Bronx.

I’m sad that the character of the victim is an issue when looking at what is clearly an act of evil (which is why I’m not using him name – I don’t want anyone googling the incident to end up here).  Read the disgusting comments here for a taste.  I don’t care what my student was doing wrong: no one deserves the beating he got.  It’s like something out of 1960s Birmingham.

But I’m also sad that the student made the many wrong choices that he did in life.  Reportedly, he was arrested for stealing a cell phone the week before this incident.  He did plenty of horrible things while under my school’s watch.  It makes me wonder at what point my role as a teacher to help students develop and mature ends, and at what point my duties as a citizen to call out evil in our midst begins.  (On the same vein: I had a student make a disgustingly vile anti-Semitic comment in class today: this student is graduating in 4 months.  Is this a teachable moment?  Or a time to condemn her actions and character for making such a comment?)

One thought on “On the beating of a former student of mine by the NYPD…

  1. Stephen:
    I feel for you. Yes, this is a case of brutality. And,yes, there are “muddy waters” due to the previous actions of ALL those involved. But mostly I feel for you because of that gut-wrenching tension of all true educators that compels us to continually question and challenge our role beyond the classroom door. Your function as an educator of civic mindfulness, what our rights mean NOT on a textbook page, but in the “down and dirty” reality of life is so pivotal to real (and, hopefully systemic) change. And change is typically rough-edged. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I started my commemoration of Black History month last week by reading your chapter on Septima Clark in Marable’s last book. She knew she was educating to advance voter rights. But she had that tremendous capacity (as you clearly point out in your piece!)to link the lives of those she was teaching to the larger issues. For her, the personal relationships fed the public responses. What we do with our students is no different.
    Your student was truly wronged. And, you’re right. No one has the right to be beaten like he was. But , (and there is NO “Pollyanna” veneer meant by this)don’t doubt for a second that, despite poor choices and dumb actions, he’s been gifted with the potential for real empowerment because of what he learned from you and others like you.
    So, we keep on keeping on. We keep speaking truth to power. We keep decrying the treatment of our students of color. And we keep believing that we will make a difference.

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