Monday, April 28, 2014

Power-to-the-People Wheels Turning

Emily Knox and Seyla Hossaini offered advice to those with the eyes to see it. 
(Photo from RVA Magazine)  

Richmond has seen its share of student protests. But today’s walkout reminded me of one in particular. And, in my view, the protestors at City Hall have just gotten started with the pressure they will eventually put on the local government. Pressure to do right by public education.

Here’s what happened 54 years ago in Richmond when a student protest was underestimated by the establishment:

In February of 1960, a group of 34 young citizens -- many were students -- was busted for having the temerity to ask to be served food and drink at Thalhimers’ lunch counter ... while being black. When they were refused service they politely refused to leave. The group was charged with trespassing and arrested. Their protest was called a “sit-down strike” in the vernacular of the times.

In reaction to that incident a picket line was thrown up around Thalhimers. Carrying signs urging a boycott of the department store the marchers surrounded the building. This was the time of Massive Resistance and the odds seemed against the dauntless demonstrators. Months of tense stalemate followed, fortunately with no violence to speak of. Eventually, the store’s management caved in. It was costing them so much money to do what was on the wrong side of history, it finally became smart business to do the right thing.

As a result all of the downtown lunch counters 86ed their whites-only policy. Until then they had been happy for black customers to spend money anywhere else in their stores, but the restaurant sections were off limits. Change came to Richmond because some brave students saw to it.

When those students took their stand, by sitting down, their chance of success was widely seen as dim. Still, the accepted view turned out to have been wrong. Maybe today a lot of people who think the mayor's proposal for baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is a done deal will turn out to have been wrong, too.

Today's student protestors are asking for Richmond's adults to honestly commit to doing better with public education. Recent revelations about deplorable conditions in Richmond school buildings have been attention-getting. Which makes the students' grievances about City Hall's spending priorities seem all the more legitimate and timely.

Obviously, one of the most obvious things these organizing students could do to further their cause would be to put Mayor Jones' political feet to the fire, to give up on his scheme to dump nine figures into building a new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. So the anti-baseball in the Bottom forces appear to have just picked up a new ally -- one with stamina.

With the sudden new interest "12 Years a Slave" has brought to the table, every day more people want to see a proper study of Shockoe Bottom's history done. With an emboldened Citizens Referendum Group circulating petitions to give the voters a chance to say whether they want such a new stadium, how long before the City Council members who want to be reelected can see the handwriting on the wall?

Could this be the year Richmond finally changes direction and makes quality public education for all of its students its No. 1 priority? Hey, in the wake of their headline-making success today, I can almost hear the power-to-the-people wheels turning in those young protestors heads, planning their next move.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Emily Knox is my granddaughter and I'm proud of what she and her colleagues are doing. 

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