You Cannot Handcuff a Movement Whose Time Has Come: Why I Was Arrested at the State Capitol

As I was escorted by the Thurston County sheriff into a jail cell, sporting the tattered plastic sandals they exchanged for my shoes, wearing my yellow “I AM A TEACHER” T-shirt, I worried that one of the other inmates may have had a bad experience with their high school history teacher and might want to take it out on me.

But, mostly, I was fretting that after going to all the trouble to raise my voice for education funding in a state legislature gone tone deaf, my only reward would be a cold bench, a criminal record and hundreds of dollars in fines.

I knew I hadn't done anything wrong – the police had let the real criminals who broke our economy go free – but at that moment, I doubted the wisdom of my attempt to school the Washington State Ways and Means Committee on its constitutional duty to fund education. Isolated from my colleagues, I questioned whether my actions were innovative or below standard pedagogy.

All I could think about was whether I was going to be released in time to make it back to my Garfield High School classroom the next morning, or if not, would they let me have another phone call to get a substitute.

* * *

Earlier that day, I traveled to the Washington State Capitol in Olympia with members of the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a Northwest organization of rank-and-file school employees, to join hundreds of other teachers and protesters to raise our voices against $2 billion in cuts to health care and education proposed by Gov. Christine Gregoire in an emergency legislative session to cut the budget.

The state had already cut $2.7 billion from the state's education budget over the past three years. We have seen our coworkers laid off, teacher salaries cut, schools closed, classrooms swell in numbers, student transportation eliminated, counselors cut and course offerings disappear. The new cuts would shorten the K-12 school year by a few days, saving money primarily by reducing teacher pay.

Aside from the moral turpitude of these cuts, there are legal problems. Washington State's Constitution declares education is the “paramount duty” of the state. In February, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ruled the state was in violation of its Constitution, writing, “The State does not provide its public schools stable and dependable ample resources to equip all children with the basic knowledge and skills mandated by this State's minimum education standards.”

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The state, already in violation of the highest law of the land, is now holding a meeting to plan its next crime? Our SEE group recognized this legislative session to cut school days was, in effect, a criminal act. As Jerry Garcia once said, “Somebody has to do something and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”

I had met up with several Seattle teachers that morning to car pool to the Capitol building in Olympia. We loaded the car with items necessary to teach the state a civics lesson: a giant banner that read, “Citizens' Arrest, Lawbreakers Need to Fully Fund Education”; hundreds of copies of our Citizens' Arrest Warrant; flyers on how Washington State has the most regressive taxation in the entire country; and a few suggestions for taxing the state's wealthiest residents.

Our first act at the Capitol was to unfurl our banner, declaring the lawmakers were under arrest, from the viewing balcony during the opening session of the Washington state House of Representatives. The state troopers, who apparently had not studied the Washington State Constitution, mistook us for the lawbreakers and pushed us all out of the House chamber.

Not satisfied that our lesson plan had yet advanced the understanding of the legislature, SEE headed to the next building, where the Ways and Means Committee was meeting. Moments after legislators called the budget-slashing session to order, we declared the meeting to be an unlawful assembly, as I led SEE in a call-and-response “mike check”:

We, the educators of Washington State will not remain silent while the state legislature cuts funding to our schools. It is immoral and it is illegal. These cuts will hurt families. These cuts will hurt kids. These cuts will hurt educators. A King County Superior Court judge has ruled these cuts are constitutionally illegal. The Constitution of Washington State reads it is the paramount duty to fully fund education. We therefore issue a citizen's arrest of this Washington State Legislature.

At that point, I dug my hand into my pocket and presented a classic pair of gray, plastic toy handcuffs. Waving them back and forth, I asked the Legislature if they would “Kindly come with us.”

As my colleagues chanted, “Fund our schools,” a state trooper grabbed me, yanked my arm behind my back and asked me to come with him. I calmly informed the trooper that he had gotten the wrong guy and advised him to lock up the criminals who had broken the highest law in the state. The legislators' bewildered, caught-in-the-act expressions gave away their guilt, yet the trooper did not heed my words. I was quickly cuffed and escorted to an anteroom.

I sat back there, hands cuffed behind my back, for some time. The troopers said that escorting me though the hundreds of protesters back through the chamber “would cause a riot.” I listened to the chanting inside the committee room grow louder.

Suddenly, I was joined by a group of legislators hoping to escape from their constituents. Alas, there is no refuge for the lawless. When she entered, I asked one legislator, “Can you tell me what is wrong with our society? Clearly something is wrong when a teacher who is trying to advocate for more money for his students so they can have a bright future is arrested and the people who are breaking the education funding law and stealing their future walk around free.”

She stammered something about how her mother was a teacher and how she supported education. I asked her if she had voted for budget cuts to schools. Her pursed lips gave away her guilt even before she could form the word “yes.” I replied that she should then work on convincing the trooper to take her into custody rather than me.

Our conversation was cut short when a red-in-the-cheeks legislator came barreling through the room and pointed at me, “Don't listen to that moron.” I commented on the tragedy of seeing a grown man – an elected official – resort to name calling. I asked his colleagues in the room for his name, but none were brave enough to reveal his identity.

* * *

By the time the squad car pulled away from the Capitol, with me cuffed in the back, all the adrenaline had faded and I was much less confident of my actions. It was my first arrest experience, yet I was unsure if my symbolic act would have any effect. Further, I worried how my students and their parents would react.

The next morning, I pulled into the parking lot of Seattle's Garfield High School. As I got out of my car, a student from across the way yelled, “Free Mr. Hagopian!”

Oh, no, I thought, my students know. Of course they know! What do they think? What will their parents think? As I passed the giant mural of the school mascot bulldog, it seemed to be coming after me.

But as I walked through the halls, every fist bump and “right on” made it clear the Garfield Bulldogs were going to stand by me. I almost lost my cool (I could feel my lip quiver) when one student told me they had helped set up a Facebook page called Free Mr. Hagopian, and hundreds of students had joined it that first day.

“Did you hear? We are going to walk out,” one of my former students had a determined look on his face as he announced his intentions to me that afternoon. I asked him why they were going to walkout and he shoved a pamphlet in my hand that outlined the impact of the budget cuts:

  • Students who want full schedules have been denied them due to a lack of teachers. Many seniors were denied a science class due to a complete lack of state science funding.
  • Other academic courses, such as advanced math classes, have been repeatedly cut from our school.
  • The removal of summer school and night school has removed resources that allowed many students to graduate on time, thereby effectively increasing the amount the state must spend on those students.

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I couldn't believe it – that is, until hundreds of students came streaming by my room with signs that read, “Fund our future!” and “No more cuts!” When there were only a few kids in my final class of the day, I realized the students had organized a mass walkout in a single day. It was later estimated that over 500 Garfield students had participated.

The next day, the whole school was buzzing. The story of the student walkout had made all the local news networks, Seattle Times and Keith Olbermann's “Countdown.”

“We marched to City Hall and the mayor came out and told us we were right and to keep up the good work,” one student told me.

By the weekend, the students had published an op-ed in the Seattle Times, and a picture of their rally appeared in the A section of The New York Times.

If you had any doubt that we are at the dawn of new movements for social justice in this country, consider that high school students organized this walkout in one day and have now formed an organization called Students of Washington for Change (SWaC) to help coordinate the struggle across the city and the state – including an all-city walkout against the budget cuts on Wednesday, December 14.

I have often hoped that my students would one day learn the lessons of history I had taught them – from the struggles of the abolitionists and women's rights advocates in antebellum America, to student movements against the Vietnam War and the freedom riders of the civil rights movement.

Last year, many of my students did very well on the AP US history exam, but I am happy to say that, now, they have actually passed the test.