The SLA connection to officers posted in schools

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Marcus Foster, superintendent of Oakland schools when he was murdered by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army on Nov. 6, 1973. The issue of police officers in schools was one reason he was targeted by Bay Area radicals.

Some young people in my community are asking the Mankato Area Public Schools board to remove police liaison officers from the two high schools and one middle school.

On Sept. 20, they gathered at Mankato East High School to protest the “school-to-prison” pipeline. In the months after George Floyd’s death, schools around the country have either already eliminated school officers or are talking about doing so.

Forty-seven years ago, almost the exact same issue riled up some citizens in Oakland, Calif. What many people may not realize is that this “school-to-prison” pipeline issue ended up sparking the first violent act by the Symbionese Liberation Army, starting a movement that led to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, two bank robberies and a fatal shootout.

We are generally accustomed to the concept of police officers in schools. I graduated in 1993 and I think my school had a liaison officer, though I don’t believe he was there all day, every day. Since that time the idea has taken off. According to data cited in a New York Times article, 67 percent of high-schoolers in the country attend a school that has a police officer on site (along with 45 percent of middle-schoolers and 19 percent of elementary school students).

But in 1973, the idea was relatively new. Flint (Mich.) schools had the nation’s first school officer in 1958, but the concept didn’t become more widespread until the early 1990s. Then, as now, the idea can create controversy, especially if you are talking about putting a police presence in schools that have a good-sized population of minority students. That is the issue in Mankato. The protest group contends that minority students don’t feel safe and feel targeted.

Two issues faced the Oakland school district in 1973. One issue concerned student ID cards. The school district had had problems with non-students coming onto school property and causing trouble — in one case, a non-student fatally stabbed a young woman at Oakland Technical High School. A student ID card program had been in place for a few years before, but it had been discontinued. After the murder, students and parents wanted it reinstated. But the opposition worried that student information taken from the ID cards would be fed into a database and that the database would be used to filter out the “undesirables.”

The other issue was the proposal to post police officers in schools. In the Bay Area, school vandalism and violence was a problem. Political bodies became involved, putting the pressure on school districts to do something. Though the Oakland superintendent, Marcus Foster, didn’t think putting officers in schools was a good idea, he felt compelled to at least explore the possibility. That’s where the district was by fall 1973.

Members of what would become the Symbionese Liberation Army, along with other Bay Area radicals, strongly opposed both the ID cards and officers in schools. Like today’s group in Mankato, they worried about a “schools-to-prison” pipeline. “There was much talk of fascism and a police state,” write Vin McLellan and Paul Avery in The Voices of Guns (p. 142).

The criticism piled upon Foster. He was walking a line between politicians who wanted to see the problem of violence in the schools addressed, and radicals who opposed any law enforcement measure.

He paid with his life.

On Nov. 6, 1973, Foster was murdered by members of the SLA, shot outside the school administration offices where he had just concluded a school board meeting.

The SLA and other radicals seized upon what they wanted to see. They saw Foster as “the bad guy” and they weren’t going to let that go. If they had looked closely, they would have seen a Black man who cared deeply about all students and a man who was succeeding in making Oakland schools better. He was the last man who would have ever wanted to see a “schools-to-prison” pipeline. The radicals got a lot wrong, and a man died because of their assumptions.

But the larger issue of police presence in schools is something worth looking at more closely, and I’m glad the young people in Mankato are starting the conversation. I hope they will look to the past as a guide and be willing to have conversations with all involved and not buy into a simple narrative where there are only “good guys” and “bad guys.” I hope they will take the time to examine all the complexities and I hope all sides can come up with solutions that satisfy all.

Those of us of a certain age have grown up with police in the schools. We don’t have any memory of how strange it seemed when it was first proposed. Something that Emily Harris (a member of the SLA) said in 1976 has always struck me as prescient:

“No matter how you look at it, an armed presence in the schools is just the beginning in teaching conditioned acceptance to the occupation of whole communities.”

Published in The Last SLA Statement: An Interview with Russ, Joe, Bill & Emily (The Bay Area Research Collective, 1976).