Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Tale Of Two Marches by Dr. Michael Flanagan

On Thursday night I went with some of my colleagues to Washington DC in order to meet with the staffs of Senator Sanders and Senator Hassan and advocate for public education. It is important in this time of upheaval in American politics to advocate for public school students. The DeVos confirmation vote is scheduled for Monday and my fellow members of BATs and I wanted to make sure the voices of real teachers and parents were heard by at least two of the key members of the Health Education Pensions and Labor committee.

Our meetings with both staffs went well, in addition to pushing back on DeVos, we spoke about the threats to IDEA, the concerns of ESSA, a call for a Congressional conference in which real teachers and actual experts could show that the public schools are not “failing”, but that we are intentionally being failed in order for astroturf organizations like Students First, corporations like Pearson Publishing and Charter schools like Success Academy to siphon off public school tax dollars. We brought up the dilapidated working conditions of so many public schools, especially for those students and teachers in Detroit, the home of Betsy DeVos. We also brought up the fact that BATs has created an action group with a large social media reach that we could use to push progressive issues and target specific concerns of the HELP Committee members. BATs may not have the millions of dollars of the Eli Broad, Walton and Fordham foundations, but we have networks of intelligent, concerned and dedicated public school activists who are mobilized and ready to support actions. The meetings went well, and we will continue to cultivate those connections while making more appointments with politicians.

However, the reason I write this piece is not to discuss our efforts to advocate on the behalf of our teachers and their students. It is to describe a rather ironic circumstance. My friends in BATs and I usually stay at the Holiday Inn when we are in DC. It is right across the street from the Department of Education and we have organized several protests from that hotel. When we arrived there Thursday night, we were focused on our meetings with the Senators. So much so that we did not realize how many people, especially young high school aged kids, were walking around the hotel hallways and lobby. As we were in the elevator going down to dinner, three of us looked at each other, questioningly as we noticed the people riding down with us in the elevator carrying Bibles and wearing Christian themed T-Shirts. When we got to the lobby it became clear that the hotel was filled with students, chaperones and families who had been bussed in for Friday’s “March For Life” rally.

It was just five days ago that all of us taking part in this trip had marched in the “Women’s March”, in either DC or New York City. We were now woefully out of place, and both the irony and humor of our situation was not lost on us. Feigning panic I said; “good thing we are going to the hotel bar for dinner, as it will be like our 'sanctuary'". I had assumed correctly that the majority of these guests/marchers would not be spending time in a hotel bar aptly named the “21st Amendment”. I was correct in my thinking as the place was empty. As we had dinner and a few glasses of wine, we watched the packs of pro-life marchers walking back and forth, none even contemplating entering the bar. We made comparisons to the three of us, all supporters of a woman's right to control her own body, landing smack dab in the middle of a right to life event. It reminded me of the old Richard Pryor movie, “Bustin’ Loose”. That scene where he wanders into a KKK march accidentally. Or when the white college students from National Lampoon’s “Animal House” go to see Otis Day and the Nights play at the Black club, after they had recently performed at the frat house. “Mind if we dance with your dates?”. We sat in the restaurant, ate dinner and people watched from our sanctuary where, being the Irishman that I am, I postulated that it must be fear of the sin of alcohol that was preventing the incursion of the revelers on the night before the march. Occasionally someone would enter the bar, and ask us if we were there for the march, and we would reply something to the effect of “No, we marched last week.” There would be an inevitable awkward pause and in order to break the tension, I would ask them to take a picture of all of us. The next morning as we were heading to our meeting, and the pro lifers were all leaving for their rally, I was wearing my BAT Apple T-Shirt when a man who looked to be a pastor and was wearing a Christian themed T-Shirt said he liked my shirt. I replied thank you, but was glad that he did not ask me what the name BAT stood for. Suffice to say, it was a long elevator ride.

I know that the people in the hotel, and those attending the March For Life are not bad people. They were there, because they had been raised to believe the way they do. But to be honest, at one point I may have equated our situation to those of characters in a Walking Dead episode who were trapped in an abandoned building surrounded by the zombies that would eat our brains. After our meeting at the Capitol office buildings, we walked right into the end of the March for Life. They had marched from the Washington Monument to the Supreme court. As we were leaving and heading to the Union Station, which was packed, but strangely there were very few people on the train back to New York City, I tried to identify some similarities and difference between the two marches.

Of course it was easier to begin with the clear differences between the two events. The first was the age of so many March For Lifers. They were high school and college aged kids who had been given the day off and bussed in directly through their schools and churches. The Women’s Marchers had mostly saved and booked the travel themselves, they were not funded through outside organizations. The March For Lifers have been holding this same event for the past 44 years now, and this year the march was promoted by President Trump and Mike Pence was the keynote speaker. In contrast the Women’s March originated three months ago, born of the frustration of seeing a misogynist who bragged about sexual assault being elected President on a platform of repealing the ACA and appointing a Supreme Court Justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade. While there were plenty of celebrity speakers and some politicians who spoke at the Women’s March, it was a true grass roots event. The March For Lifers carried mass produced signs during their march, paid for with either tax free church money or through the deep pocketed funders of the Christian Right. The Women’s Marchers carried home made, often hysterical, signs speaking out on their issues. The March For Lifers grew up seeing pictures of aborted fetuses, and were taught at an early age to call people who support a woman’s right to chose, murderers and baby killers. The Women’s Marchers knitted pink pussy cat hats and demonstrated for women’s rights, and against the fascism of this fledgling administration. The one thing that was abundantly clear was that the people supporting the pro life march were well financed, compared to we who had marched in the Women’s March. The March For Life event had a good number of attendees, the Women’s March was the largest political demonstration in human history and was filled with people of all backgrounds and age groups,

The similarities were a bit more difficult to identify, but here is what I came up with: In both events, children played a key role. Both events drew entire families who are committed to their beliefs. Both protests were filled with passion, and people who sacrificed their time to peacefully advocate for their issues by exercising their Freedom of Speech. That is pretty much all I could come up with on the similarities part, and yes I know it sounds like I am reaching. But being a high school teacher I needed to include a counterclaim somewhere.  

I could say my point in writing this piece was to show that we as a people, even though we have drastically different opinions on the direction this country is heading, should all be able to protest, demonstrate and advocate for our beliefs. I could say that was my point, but alas, it is not. My point is that if you are planning to go to Washington DC, to march in the streets or just to speak to your politicians about education issues, you should research what event is going on there at the time, and try not to book a hotel filled with people who completely disagree with almost everything you stand for. And if you do accidentally find yourself surrounded by large groups of pro lifers in a crowded hotel, take shelter in the hotel bar. They will not follow you there. Also, if you attempt to blend in, in order to make it back to your room or something, just ask anyone who is standing next to you “are you here for the rally?”. Works every time.

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