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“Freedom to Learn” Protests Target Book Bans, Right-Wing Attacks on Education

If the right wants to take it away, says Kimberlé Crenshaw, it means it’s important.

This week, protests were held across the United States against right-wing efforts to ban books and antiracism education in schools. Fourteen protesters with Florida’s Dream Defenders were arrested Wednesday for staging a peaceful sit-in inside the office of Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis at the end of the state’s legislative session, in which he backed efforts to ban abortion after six weeks, deny gender-affirming care for youth, roll back rent control, censor discussions of LGBTQ issues and Black history in schools, and crack down on immigrants and unions in his political crusade against “wokeness.” We speak with one of the arrested protesters, Nailah Summers-Polite, co-director of Dream Defenders, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar well known for her work in the field of critical race theory, about the Freedom to Learn protests and the push to preserve the integrity of the AP African American Studies course attacked by DeSantis and other far-right activists.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

We end today’s show looking at the Freedom to Learn. This week, protests were held across the United States against right-wing efforts to ban books and antiracism education in schools. In Florida, 14 Dream Defenders were arrested for staging a peaceful sit-in inside the offices of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and possible 2024 presidential candidate, also protested new legislation banning abortion after six weeks, denying gender-affirming care for youth, rolling back rent control, banning discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools, and cracking down on immigrants and unions.

NAILAH SUMMERS-POLITE: So we’re going to sit here until Ron DeSantis deigns to come back to his office to meet with the people of Florida who have been directly affected by his nonsense and his hate and his pandering and his petty BS.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nailah Summers-Polite, a co-director of Dream Defenders. She was among the first to be arrested during Wednesday’s occupation of Governor DeSantis’s office. She’s joining us now from Miami. Also with us, professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia University, joining us from New Orleans.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Nailah, let’s begin with you. Explain why you were in Ron DeSantis’s office, the possible presidential candidate and governor of Florida? Why did you get arrested?

NAILAH SUMMERS-POLITE: Well, Ron DeSantis has been on a rampage, with our Florida Legislature, attacking the rights of all the people in Florida who don’t look or think like him. It’s been an onslaught of attacks on immigrants, on Black people, on drag queens, on queer and trans youth, on renters, on teachers, on union members. I mean, it’s just been relentless. And it’s the last week of legislative session. Today is actually the last day of our legislative session. And we couldn’t end it without, you know, taking courageous action and being heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the various bills, one after another made into law, that most concerned you, from reproductive rights to anti-LGBTQ legislation to issues of what teachers can teach in school.

NAILAH SUMMERS-POLITE: Yeah. I mean, DeSantis has been going after working-class people in Florida, against people of color, since he first started off in office. And so, he has been turning the dial, turning up the hate every year, and, I mean, the abortion ban, the six-week abortion ban, you know, taking books out of classrooms of children, expanding “Don’t Say Gay” ’til 12th grade. They cited the Fugitive Slave Act for a version of an immigration bill that they were trying to pass this year. I mean, it’s just undiluted hate. And the entire session, again, has just been a platform for that, and he’s attacking so many people in his quest to run for president. So it’s all concerning. It’s all, you know, attacking people, really putting people at risk in the state of Florida. So, yeah, it was time to do a little, a little extra, take a lot of action.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Crenshaw, if you can put the Florida action, which was one of more than a hundred actions across the country, into context, why you helped to organize this nationwide protest this week?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, as we’ve heard, Ron DeSantis and many others in the anti-woke campaign have gone after a number of constituencies. They’ve gone after the entire infrastructure that has been developed over the last 50 years to actually make equality a real aspiration. That includes the ideas around equality, the very idea that there is such a thing called structural racism, the very idea that intersectional forms of discrimination still shape the futures of all too many people. The time had come to draw a line in the sand. Too many people had been reading about this issue but didn’t know how to get involved in it.

And I think when the College Board took the opportunity after the George Floyd murder to offer a course on African American studies, to ride the wave of the demands for frameworks to help people to understand how, 60 years after the passage of civil rights laws, we could all watch a man be choked out by the police on the street. They were driving the possibility for a new course. And at the same time, this was driving the anti-woke cabal, like DeSantis, to create laws against actually using many of these ideas in public education. These two forces came together when the College Board decided to excise all of these ideas that were in demand from the course, after Ron DeSantis said that these were unacceptable ideas.

I think too many Americans finally decided that it was unacceptable to allow this censorship to go forward without being heard from. So, May 3rd was the beginning. It was the day of action, where 150 activities took place all across the country, including two protests at the College Board. It is just the beginning. At FreedomToLearn.net, people can get a sense of why it was important to draw the line, how they could get involved, and why this is a threat to our very democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about The Wall Street Journal exposé that revealed, through emails, that the College Board’s changes to its AP African American studies curriculum did not include input from members of its development committee. The article quotes Nishani Frazier, a University of Kansas professor on the African American studies development committee, saying, “We all know this is a blatant lie. In fact, the major changes which occurred came from my unit — and not once did AP speak with me about these changes. Instead, it rammed through revisions, pretended course transformation was business as usual, and then further added insult to injury by attempting to gaslight the public with faux innocence.” Professor Crenshaw, explain the significance of this exposé and all that it revealed.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, that was a letter written in fire. It basically confirmed what anybody who could actually read actually knew. The materials that were taken out, including intersectionality, Black feminism, Black queer studies, the idea of systemic marginalization, these ideas were exactly the ideas that DeSantis said were not educationally valuable, did not pass muster in Florida’s anti-woke legislative terrain. So, the fact that the very things that DeSantis didn’t like — the fact that those were taken out was met by the College Board saying, “Well, we did it with consultation of our experts. And some of the things we took out, we took them out because the ideas had been so assaulted by critique and attack that they were no longer educationally valuable.” You could tell that they were not telling the truth. But this was the smoking gun. This was someone on the committee saying, “We all know that they were not being truthful,” and we were basically being thrown out to justify it.

The real question is whether there will be any accountability for this. What made the College Board think that they could basically say that DeSantis, in trying to abide by anti-wokeness, had nothing to do with it, when they knew there was a paper trail that was going to show otherwise? It’s telling us that the same lack of accountability for taking Black lives also potentially applies to taking our voices and our responses to this history of our lives being taken. So, that’s why so many people were willing to say, “Not on our watch. Enough of this. We’re going to hold DeSantis accountable, and we’re also going to hold institutions like the College Board accountable, as well.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kimberlé Crenshaw, of course, we should say that it was your work on intersectionality — you really have coined this term that has become so powerful, linking so many different movements — that was moved out of the required curriculum of the African American Advanced Placement course. Your response to that?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, you know, we have to ask: Why is it that the ideas that the anti-woke cabal are so upset about are ideas that people have found incredibly useful? People all over the world use the basic concept of intersectionality to make sense out of facts. You know, a lot of people say, “Well, it’s a concept. It’s a term. Why do we need it?” Well, why do we need grammar? Why do we need to have rules to help us understand how to make meaning out of random phenomena? That’s what structural inequality helps people understand. That’s what Black feminism helps people to understand. So, taking out these ideas takes out our ability to analyze the situations that we have inherited, and, importantly, to plot, to understand, to organize strategies for transformation. If they want to take it away, it’s because it’s important. Just like they want to take our votes away because that’s important, they want to take our voices away because that’s important. That tells us where we have to take the fight.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida telling reporters in February why he opposed the original AP African American studies course. Then, Nailah, I want to get your response.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: This course on Black history, what are one — what’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids. And so, when you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that’s a political agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: And last April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law House Bill 7, also known as the Stop WOKE Act, which he claimed will take on critical race theory in the workplace and in schools.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies opposed upon you without your consent, whether it be in the classroom or whether it be in the workplace, and we decided to do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Nailah Summers-Polite, you got arrested over his views this week because you were protesting them in his office. Your response?

NAILAH SUMMERS-POLITE: I mean, I think it should tell us what kind of man Ron DeSantis is. He’s unabashedly hateful. He is doing his very best to split us into silos. I mean, what — it’s like he’s never heard of Bayard Rustin. It’s like he’s never heard of so many Black queer pioneers, like Marsha P. Johnson. I mean, he just — he thinks it makes it easier to pick us off if we are fighting in silos.

So, really, what we were doing in his office on Wednesday was we were made up of all the kinds of people he’s been attacking. We were queer. We are Black. We are immigrants. We are people who need abortions. We’re teachers and union members. And so, we’re not going to let him split us up or silo us off. What Dr. Crenshaw was saying about intersectionality is exactly it. Like, we need a multiracial movement to beat people like Ron DeSantis and the Greg Abbotts and the Sarah Huckabee Sanders, all these sort of new Confederate anti-woke people.

So, yeah, this is what he’s doing on his trek to the White House. He’s spewing this kind of nonsense. And, you know, we’ve got to fight back against it. We’ve got to come together and really resist this kind of rhetoric.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dr. Crenshaw, do you think people are taking what is happening across the country — what, the Missouri Legislature voting that they might defund the libraries; Llano County, Texas, saying — when a judge said, “You have to keep the books on the shelves,” saying, “We’ll just shut down our library system”; how many books are now being taken off the shelves across this country — do you think progressive forces, perhaps the majority of people in this country, are taking this seriously enough?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, I think they finally are. I mean, one thing we know is that the majority really is on our side. Americans don’t like censorship. They don’t like the idea that there are certain things that they’re told that they’re not able to read. And they especially don’t like being told that they’re doing this, or they’re being told, because they’re fighting indoctrination. There’s indoctrination at foot in saying that these are ideas that are so dangerous, so divisive to the republic, that the autocrats can dictate whether we can engage them.

Look, the whole point of academic freedom, the whole point of education, is to present material for people to engage in, to develop critical thinking about the world in which they live. Yet, the DeSantises and the anti-woke cabal have the exact opposite orientation. Look, I have no worries whatsoever about people being exposed to ideas that are critical of intersectionality or critical race theory or structural racism. I know the ideas are strong and powerful enough to survive debate. But when the response to ideas that they don’t like, including democracy itself, is to try to suppress these ideas, well, that’s when we have a problem.

And I think now many Americans are waking up to it. It was slow. They thought that it was just about something called critical race theory, without understanding that critical race theory was the entire infrastructure that allowed people to identify racial inequality, racial power as a problem that still undermines our democracy. Now with the College Board doing what it did, people are seeing that the fight is against the anti-woke cabal. And the fight is also against institutions who need to be putting their money where their mouth is. You can’t be pro-freedom of education and pro-anti-woke at the same time. The lines are drawn, and they’re going to have to choose a side.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds. But, Dr. Crenshaw, I saw you on Tuesday night. We did not know at the time what was happening at Broadway-Lafayette subway stop, but Jordan Neely was killed by another passenger. He was Black. He was unhoused. You tweeted, “Being Black and poor in America should not be crimes punishable by vigilante death.”

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: And that is exactly the question about how the lack of accountability for taking Black lives extends to this current moment. We have to worry not only about police officers taking our lives, but individuals thinking that they’re empowered enough to exact discipline, to exact lethal punishment for the possibility that they might be in fear of someone who needed help, rather than needed death.

AMY GOODMAN: Kimberlé Crenshaw, I want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, professor at UCLA and Columbia University. By the way, a very happy birthday to you!

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Thank you!

AMY GOODMAN: And thank you so much to Nailah Summers-Polite.

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