Anti-racist protesters shut down a school board meeting in Burlington, Wisconsin, Nov. 9, in response to the board’s unwillingness to seriously discuss racism in Burlington schools. The meeting was set to address the question of teaching an anti-racist curriculum, using components of the Black Lives Matter movement, within the Burlington school district.
Families whose children had experienced racism in these schools formed the Burlington Coalition to Dismantle Racism and invited members of The People’s Revolution and the Party for Socialism and Liberation to join in solidarity at this important meeting. During the public comment section, Burlington alumni and their families shared stories of racist harassment spanning years and decried the fact that the school board has never taken racism seriously. When the school board moved on to the next agenda item without so much as apologizing for the families’ experiences, the protestors shut the meeting down.
“These families are standing here crying and you’re going to move on to the next thing? You can’t even apologize or acknowledge the harm you caused them,” a protester cried out. The school board became agitated and refused to carry on with the topic of racism, so the protesters called out to shut it down. Protesters began chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Wake Up Burlington,” fists in the air and marching right up to the front of the room. The school board quickly decided to adjourn the meeting and began to leave, but the protesters remained, standing on chairs and continuing to chant and demand the school board do better. While there was no threat of violence, the school board called upon several police officers to escort the protesters out of the building.
Evidence of racism within Burlington schools abounds. Black and Brown children have been violently attacked, harassed and disrespected by classmates and were ultimately the ones to face discipline, not their white classmates who perpetrated the racist acts. While there are fewer than 50 Black students in the entire district, these students are disciplined at a rate five times higher than white students. Racial slurs have appeared in graffiti numerous times. Multiple school board meetings have been convened around the ongoing issue of racism. Yet, the Burlington administrators are reluctant to offer any solutions to make the schools safer for Black and Brown students.
Controversy arose in the community after one teacher began implementing lessons related to Black Lives Matter. When Burlington reactionaries caught wind of this, they organized a Facebook group “Parents Against Rogue Teachers” to disparage the teacher and threaten her job and life. At the school board meeting, concerned residents warned against using any curriculum related to “Black Lives Matter, Incorporated because it is a Marxist organization,” and advocated for social Darwinism to be implemented in lesson plans instead. As if to back up the racist remarks coming from some community members, school board member Taylor Wishau, who had also participated in disparaging the teacher online, displayed the Thin Blue Line flag on his mask and mug. Despite the hostile environment, other Burlington residents came out to support the BLM curriculum and urged the school to address racism in the school in a more intentional way.
“Those people didn’t read the Black Lives Matter curriculum. They saw the name and turned it down,” said Kamila Ahmed, an organizer with The People’s Revolution. “If we can teach the kids about the Nazis and the Boston Tea Party and pilgrims and all this…. Why can’t we start teaching them about Black Lives Matter today? This is history in the making. This is a turning point for the United States and people are waking up. We have to continue to wake them up with education, especially for our children.”
Implementing anti-racism policy would be one step to interrupt the perpetual systemic racism within the school district, though it does not seem that the administrators see that as a priority. Protesters at the school board meeting demonstrated a stronger commitment to the safety of Black and Brown Burlington students than the board members or racist community members ever have. “Witnessing the complacency and ignorance from the school board and members of the community on the struggles of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) families was gut-wrenching and insulting to say the least,” said Sean Scheuler, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation and The People’s Revolution who attended the protest. “However, the strength of the families who spoke, and the members of the community who chose to defend and uplift those families invigorated hope within the struggle. The fight isn’t over until the school board meets the needs of the BIPOC community.”
The protesters vowed to return to Burlington and continue to support these Black and Brown families, whose children deserve to find safety and belonging in their school. This action demonstrated the power of the people when they impede upon the status quo in the name of racial justice. It is crucial that the Black Lives Matter movement continues to show up for progressive anti-racist voices in small rural and urban settings, where reactionary tendencies often make it even more difficult and dangerous to stand against white supremacy.
Cover image credit: La Lux Photography. Used with permission.