Halfway through a speaking event hosted by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and the Revolution Club, main speaker D’andre Teeter proposed something radical to the attending students on Thursday. Teeter, the Bay Area organizer for the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, demanded a student strike in April against mass incarceration.
“We want to issue a broad challenge to students,” Teeter said. “We want you to build and lead a movement. (The founders of Stop Mass Incarceration Network) Carl Dix and Dr. Cornel West have a message to take up the cause and organize a one-day, nationwide student strike in April to stop mass incarceration.”
The mood shift was palpable. The SF State and Bayview-Hunters Point Center for Art and Technology students, who had dutifully clapped and offered cheers of support for every speaker who had come up before to share their experiences with police brutality, were now silently squirming in their seats. Several gathered their stuff and slunk out of the Rosa Parks conference room at the Cesar Chavez Student Center.
Teeter’s proposal threw those in attendance off guard, but not without reason. The theme of student leadership fueled the earlier parts of the meeting, where family members of victims of police brutality stressed the importance of student support and involvement in standing up against social issues. Among them were Richard Perkins Jr.’s mother Ada Henderson and Derrick Gaines’ aunt Dolores Piper. Perkins was killed by Oakland police in 2015 and Gaines was killed by South San Francisco police in 2012.
“Anything you can do, any article you can read, any dialogue you can have with your friends, is important for the future of all of you,” Piper addressed the then-packed room. “Because you are the generation that will now have to deal with this. It’s up to you to decide what side you’re on, and what you’re going to do.” She earned applause and emphatic nodding from students, many of whom had clustered in the first two rows of seats.
The black and Hispanic men killed in the Bay Area, including the high-profile shootings of Oscar Grant and Mario Woods, were just a few of many police murders that the Stop Mass Incarceration Network calls “epidemic in numbers and genocidal in trajectory.”
A study conducted by The Guardian found that the number of young black men killed by police was at its highest rate in 2015, with 1,134 deaths recorded. Despite making up only 2 percent of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than that of white men of the same age.
According to data from the 2010 census, African American and Hispanic people make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population. However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned in the U.S.
Data from the Department of Education and the Sentencing Project also showed that black and Hispanic students are arrested far more often than their white peers, and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
After the speakers were finished and Teeter made his surprise statement, Revolution Club organizers Rafael Kadaras and Liz Roj urged students to join them onstage in support of a student strike. Revolution Club organizer Rita Akayana passed out No More Stolen Lives banners to some of the students in the front rows and waved them onstage. They shuffled up, looking uncomfortable.
“There has never been and there will never be a revolution without radical student involvement, and we believe SF State can be the place for revolution again,” Roj said, gaining cheers of agreement, though this time the applause seemed a little strained. “It’s up to you to fight the power. You guys did it in ’68 and you can do it again!”
The club then ushered students into a circle for an informal meet-up regarding the potential strike. The positive energy that previously permeated the meeting was now nervous as students voiced their concerns over how striking could affect them academically.
“I came to this (meeting) because this kind of stuff like mass incarceration is what I’m learning about in class and I wanted to come and show my support,” said liberal studies major Christina Espinosa. “But I don’t know if striking will get me in trouble or hurt me.”
A few others mumbled their agreement. The students from BAYCAT slumped in their seats and resolutely avoided eye contact with the organizers, who seemed desperate to wring definite interest in organizing a strike from the small, tense group.
Kadaras argued that any action people are willing to take is welcome, but continued to push for a strike.
“A strike is us challenging our peers to think about the society we live in,” Kadaras said. “It’s worth it to take a risk.”
Still, the meet-up broke without any definitive plan for action.
“We didn’t want this to just be, you know, a passive thing where the students came and listened to us speak and then left,” Revolution Club organizer Joey Johnson said as the room began to clear out. “We could really use the support. Students are more powerful than they think.”