by Jamie Longazel
A video of a Hazleton Area High School (HAHS) student of color having her head slammed onto a table by a school police officer went viral last week.
I graduated from HAHS. Class of 2001. And more recently, I wrote a book about Hazleton’s now-infamous 2006 Illegal Immigration Relief Act. So this case hits home for me on a few different levels.
Even though more than a decade has passed, I think it’s worth taking a quick trip back to the debate around the IIRA. Actually, let’s just take a look at one statement. Coming from former Hazleton Chief of Police Robert Ferdinand, I chose this one because it so clearly reveals the ideology underlying last week’s incident.
The statement came about a year after the IIRA passed. City officials were defending themselves in court (Lozano et al v. Hazleton) against an ultimately-successful lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. Lawyers were pressing Ferdinand – who was on the stand – about unverified claims he and other city officials made regarding the supposed criminality of recent immigrants. Here’s what he said:
I think that we’re seeing a penchant of these guys for carrying weapons and using weapons, not only firearms, but baseball bats and sticks and swords and knives, that we haven’t seen in previous years… I get a picture of what is occurring through [police officers’] eyes, and that is plainly the truth that we’re having an increase in violent crimes of that nature…
For instance, when I was young in high school, the way to resolve a difference would be two guys squaring off after school and punching it out. Now we’re talking about these guys don’t have the honor or the courage to fight one on one. They are talking about utilizing weapons against each other and having a whole crew of their buddies jump in there, too…
This is completely different from what we have seen years ago… I don’t care what the numbers say. I’m telling you that the reality is that this is the trend now, this type of activity, this kind of violent crime.
What jumps out here for me is how he seems to imply that recent immigrants are inherently crime-prone. Even though no empirical evidence pointed to increases in crime among recent, mostly Latinx immigrants, the chief of police said he doesn’t “care what the numbers say.” To him, it is “plainly the truth.” And he wants us to know that we aren’t talking about ordinary criminals. This is criminality like “we haven’t seen in previous years” – baseball bats, knives, swords, and sticks… oh my!
Even more telling is how his statement presents white folks as incapable of criminality. Check out that second paragraph again. Ferdinand – the chief of police – romanticizes after school fights. Under oath. Fights which, in many cases, could classify as felonious assaults. Back when people like him engaged in this sort of behavior it was honorable and courageous.
Okay, now back to the case at hand. You see, in order to understand why a grown man slamming a young woman’s head against a table is immoral, you first need to recognize, at minimum, two things: 1) The young woman’s personhood and 2) The white officer’s potential fallibility.
There’s a second video circulating locally, which shows a physical fight between two young Latina students. Apparently this melee led the police to detain the student in the viral video. Take a look and you’ll notice that a lot of people commenting on this video are in lockstep with Ferdinand’s logic. “Bunch of animals,” (dehumanization) one poster said, “when a person of law intervenes you stop, end of story” (police infallibility).
This case is far from over. People are organized, angry, and making demands. There is a demonstration scheduled, which was organized by a strong coalition of local groups, Anthracite Unite among them, and HAHS alum are signing a letter to school administrators. High-profile, often tragic events have historically been the catalyst for some of our most important social reforms. Let’s hope the actions our community is taking right now improve the conditions in our schools.
But what about those of us who are not directly impacted? Those of us who saw fights happen at HAHS or a similar school almost daily without any legal repercussions. What we’re bound to see is those who understand the aforementioned criteria arguing with those who don’t. Which is unfortunate. Because beyond catalyzing reform, events like this also present us with opportunities to connect our struggles and opportunities to expose who has power and how they wield it.
Let’s face it: Powerful people have been abusing children – often immigrant children, almost always poor children – for a long time in this area. Children were more or less forced to work in the mines. Some were killed, others maimed, and the rest surely experienced lasting trauma. And who can forget the kids-for-cash scandal, when local judges incarcerated children as part of a scheme to enrich a wealthy developer? Even at a less serious level, think of how many HAHS grads were impacted by the corruption that has long plagued this district. How much better would the quality of our education have been had all teachers been hired based on merit and not based on who they know?
See what I mean? Working class whites and working class Latinx folks are on the same side in this struggle. The impact the militarization of our schools has had may be disparate, but we’ve got the same opponents. That’s why I’m standing with my Latinx friends in this fight. Because dehumanization and a conditioned refusal to question authority sadly make us forget that we all have a moral prerogative to protect young people. And because the powers that be always win when poor and working class folks fight among themselves.
Jamie Longazel is co-founder of Anthracite Unite and author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. You can learn more about him and his work at www.JamieLongazel.com.