Oxon Hill (Maryland) High School allowed a display of student art to remain in the school’s rotunda for most of May. Some students and teachers said the display was “cathartic;” the Washington Post called it “an embodiment of the angst and anger” students felt “when police violence made national headlines.” “Young black males: the new endangered species,” read a placard; next to it was a cutout painted to look like a police officer with white skin reading a newspaper with obituaries of black men killed by law enforcement officers. Next to that was another silhouette painted black, depicting a black man with hands raised wearing a T-shirt with holes in it. “Blood” dripped from the eight bullet holes, forming the stripes of an upside-down American flag.
Last week, after a photo of the thing was posted on Facebook and recieved criticsm there and on some conservative websites, school officials decided to remove the display. A spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Public Schools said the decision was made to protect the school and students. But those pesky students installed a new display consisting of two wooden coffins amidst flower petals, with headstones reading, “HERE LIES OUR FREEDOM OF SPEECH” and “HERE LIES OUR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION.” They then tweeted messages with the hashtag #donttakeitdown and collected nearly 1,500 signatures on a petition demanding a statement of solidarity from the school board.
Isn’t self-righteous ignorance grand? Not only should the display have been removed, it should have never gone up in the first place, since it continues to spread a virulent and divisive lie (nobody was shot eight times with his hands up), while encouraging racial distrust and hatred. The Washington Post quoted Kiana Harris, a 17-year-old who graduated in May, who said, “It’s simply stating facts, and the same stuff could be found on the news. It really just made me think about all of the deaths that are happening, and the police are killing people who are unarmed.”
What “facts” is it stating? Young blacks are not an endangered species, in fact, they aren’t a species at all. Is this a school, or isn’t it? That black men are killed by police officers does not by itself mean that the black men were not at least partially responsible, or that their deaths were not justified in the line of duty. Is this a school or not? Do they teach critical thought, civics, cause and effect? Michael Brown was attacking a police officer and resisting arrest when he charged and was shot eight times. Do they teach reading at Oxon Hill? Honesty?
Is this a school, or not?
If the display made Harris think, it made him think using false representations of the facts and racially biased views. This same “stuff” cannot be found on the news, if the news is being read rather than skimmed and warped. Almost all the controversial police shootings have been complex, with many difficult factors affecting the guilt or innocence of the parties, and whether law enforcement officials used excessive force or not. If Oxon Hill High School isn’t teaching its students how to discern that from the news, it is negligent, incompetent, and not doing its job.
No school would allow a display that claimed that Martin Luther King was a Jewish woman, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1932, or that we fought World War II against New Zealand, because a school exists to teach facts, not myths, lies and political narratives. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” is a lie. That black males are being hunted down by police is a dangerous lie. The school, and its administrators, should neither respect an art display that “teaches” otherwise, nor tolerate it.
Prince George’s County Board of Education member Edward Burroughs III, who represents the Oxon Hill area, made a motion for a “statement in solidarity” of the student’s art and their freedom of expression. It passed unanimously, because the adults in the County are as ignorant, apparently, as their children. They are also as irresponsible, but as adults, they have no excuses.
“This art piece was simply an expression of the way they see the world,” said Burroughs. If so, it is the job of the education system to help them see the world more clearly, not pander to their biases.