Madison's cops-in-schools debate has inspired shameful commentary
Local opinion pages have served up a master class in punching down and avoiding the real issues.
Two of the most disturbing and wrongheaded things anyone has published in Madison over the past two years concern the debate over whether police officers should continue to work on Madison Metropolitan School District campuses. These pieces didn't come from actual reporters covering the showdowns between school board members and activists from Freedom Inc., or Madison Police Department Chief Mike Koval's disagreement with the school board over whether to include a modicum of accountability in the MMSD's "school resource officers" program. They're from opinion writers who take a wildly misguided view of the power dynamic at work in the debate.
Freedom Inc. and its supporters have made real, substantive arguments that putting cops in schools results in the disproportionate criminalization of students of color, that cops assault people of color in schools as they do in every other setting in this country, that the money MMSD sends to MPD would be better spent on programs that actually serve students' needs. Freedom Inc. has paired these arguments with aggressive tactics, shutting down school board meetings in an effort to force the issue. The merits of their ideas and strategies have been lost on some prominent voices in Madison media. The absolute low points so far? A December 2018 Wisconsin State Journal editorial and an April edition of former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Isthmus column.
The State Journal's editorial board passed up the opportunity to grapple with the incredibly complex and consequential elements of racism, education, and policing wrapped up in the cops-in-schools issue. Instead, its December editorial basically dealt an insult to the whole discussion by relying on feel-good anecdote. The piece profiles an MPD school resource officer who came to the United States as an immigrant from Colombia, overcame tremendous obstacles to get an education and pursue a career, and seems to genuinely care about the students she interacts with at East High.
This piece makes one attempt to respond to Freedom Inc.'s actual arguments about cops in schools, by citing a decline in arrest statistics at Madison schools and stating that "40 percent of citations that do not lead to arrests were for truancy." The piece does not consider that such stats might not capture some of the impacts a police presence might have on students, or whether we should consider it normal and acceptable for kids to be arrested in schools at all. Nor does it consider how this officer could do the many admittedly admirable things she does for students without being a cop. Teachers, social workers, counselors, volunteers, and people in other roles do it every day.
The State Journal's editorial board also makes an astonishingly clumsy attempt to weave this into some kind of heartwarming consensus issue:
The small yet vocal group that wants to remove police officers from Madison’s high schools should get to know Zulma Franco.
So should critics of immigration.
Cops in schools! It'll bring anti-racism activists and racists together! Or something! It's not just that this piece takes what I and many others believe is a flat-out bad position; it's that it also fails to really enrich or advance the debate in any meaningful way. We all know there are individual cops out there who have good intentions or at least put a kind face on it. That is irrelevant to the broader systemic issue at hand. Freedom Inc.'s tactics are at odds with the Robert's Rules Of Order-style structure of most public meetings, because that structure makes it harder for minority voices to be heard. But on and on the opinion section of Wisconsin's second-largest newspaper goes, taking proponents of cops in schools at their word and portraying opponents as merely "the loudest voices." In addition to several more editorials on cops in schools, the State Journal has also run a political cartoon framing the issue as—oh Madison, how hard you Madison sometimes—merely a debate among white people. I did find one letter to the editor the State Journal published taking Freedom Inc.'s side.
Cieslewicz takes a bigger-picture view here but also completely fucks the dog in his most basic duties as a journalist: "So, why is this even an issue?" he writes. "Well, because a small group of vocal activists in an organization called Freedom Inc. have been disrupting school board meetings calling for an end to the contract." As if there'd be no need to talk about this at all if it weren't for a few people mucking up our nice civil board meetings. It's an argument that verges on gaslighting those who've been mistreated and traumatized by cops.
Neither the State Journal editorial board or Cieslewicz had much to say in this context about the need to keep an eye on MPD and make sure its resource officers behave appropriately, or about the need for state and local officials to improve our accountability processes for police. In fact, Cieslewicz wants more accountability for the activists questioning the police, writing this in response to Freedom Inc.'s statement about a recent incident at the north side's Lakeview Library: "Those are strong words and so Freedom Inc. needs to be held accountable for them." This is chilling, authoritarian stuff, especially coming from someone who once held a position of real political power.
Cieslewicz does acknowledge that "virtually any police force in the country has had some history of racism in its past," then largely gives MPD a pass: "But at least since the era of Chief David Couper in the 1970s, the MPD has worked hard to be among the most progressive departments anywhere." This is a jarringly stupid line of argument for a couple of reasons. For one, we know for an empirical fact that systemic racism exists today in Madison and that we can't decouple that from the state power that police represent. For another, we're not in the era of Chief David Couper. We're in the era of the callous, tantrum-prone Chief Mike Koval, whose vocal critics include...former Chief David Couper.
Both Cieslewicz and the State Journal editorial board scolded Freedom Inc. for its tactics, but I saw very little such indignation about David Blaska, who ran a racist law-and-order school board campaign this spring (he lost to Ali Muldrow) and writes blog posts in which he fantasizes about giving students a stern talking-to with help from a teacher who assaulted a student. Local outlets have given him a platform over the years, including Isthmus and In Business Madison, apparently in the mistaken belief that Madison audiences will somehow benefit from a dash of brave conservative contrarianism. During Blaska's candidacy, only Madison365 bothered to adequately spotlight his bizarre behavior.
At best, what we have in both of these pieces is a failure to understand what police represent to vulnerable communities, and to imagine how we might provide public safety in America without relying on armed cops who have a blank check to start violent confrontations. At worst, we have commentators kicking their feet up and telling us to simply let the powerful do their thing, when they should be holding the powerful accountable. By falling back on the assumption that cops make everything safer, these commentaries reinforce a dangerous media paradigm that treats the privileged, white point of view as objective and neutral. Both pieces also use MPD as basically their only source, and make little effort to vet or challenge MPD's claims, even though we know that cops lie to the media and the public all the time. In countering Freedom Inc.'s statements about the Lakeview Library incident, Cieslewicz cites an MPD report built on the premise that a group of four armed cops were intimidated by a group of unruly middle schoolers. And even this report acknowledges that an officer grabbed a young girl's arm. The girl then kicked the officer in the groin. Cieslewicz notes the kick but not the grab, characterizing the incident as "an assault on the cops."
For some reason it’s acceptable for local media to trust two institutions—one that presides over a troubled school system and one that has actually murdered innocent people in recent memory—to get together and get things right. Even if you don't favor abolishing our current system of policing and incarceration, you can surely concede that a long history of racist policing, paired with an unaccountable reactionary blowhard of a police chief, might place students in real danger. This is the same police force that recently beat up a 17-year-old black child who was having a mental health crisis, the same police force that assaulted a young black woman at East Towne Mall in 2016.
Most recently, longtime educator and advocate Kareem Caire wrote for Madison365 about how aghast he was to see people "curse out and demean Madison School Board members," a clear reference to the ongoing stand activists have made at board meetings to voice their opposition to school resource officers.
I respect Caire and the work he's done in Madison schools, but this is a pitifully crafted and edited piece. Not once does it even mention the issue of policing in schools. Caire does concede that "our young people are to be commended for exercising their voices and articulating their ideas and concerns with depth and precision," but doesn't acknowledge the human stakes of the debate. The piece literally begins with Caire writing "I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!"—caps his!—and goes on to condemn others for being too aggressive. That said, 365 has shown some follow-through in advancing the conversation, demonstrating again why it’s a valuable outlet. The site ran a powerful op-ed in which four UW-Madison faculty members rebutted Caire, writing:
History teaches us that there is no form of agitation against injustice that those in power will accept as legitimate. Protest rooted in respectability has never protected us from the dismissal of our grievances or brutal white supremacist violence. Instead, we are always told to stay in our place and to push for justice in ways that suit our oppressors.
The battle is far from over. The MMSD board voted on Monday to approve a new contract that would keep the resource officers around, with a path toward possibly scaling the program back from four high schools to three over the next couple years. Board members Ali Muldrow, Ananda Mirilli, and Nicki Vander Meulen voted against the contract. Freedom Inc.'s Youth Squad continues to push the issue. The people commenting on the issue in our most prominent local media outlets can think what they like about it, but must stop viewing it through a lens of complacency and privilege.