Alison The Alchemist: Race, Class, and Philadelphia’s Youth Movement for Police Free Schools

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Alison Fortenberry

By Alison Fortenberry
Philadelphia Student Union

With the assistance of Nicholas H. Johnson
University of Massachusetts Boston

Alison Fortenberry is a youth from Philadelphia whose own identity, experiences, and compassion have moved her to struggle in the movement for police-free schools and against the threat that the presence of police officers present to the racial and economic vulnerabilities of Black and Brown students and the greater community. Alison has tapped into the revolutionary ethos of a Black Radical Tradition that is engrained in the air and soil of Philadelphia. Her story warns us of the ways police officers in schools are positioned as gatekeepers of structural economic and social exclusion. She is aware of the moment of racial reckoning that has followed since the murder of George Floyd and has been inspired by the energy of the masses that followed, that echoed a bell for justice from Minnesota to Philadelphia, across the entire country and the world at large, and serves her community as a part of the vanguard of youth who are pursuing the justice of tomorrow, through using their voices today, an act of alchemy.

When I think of an artifact that symbolizes my organizing, I think of zoom links. I have hundreds of zoom links from town halls and meetings with local officials from last summer, but I don’t really have anything physical because I didn’t use any paper this summer. I guess that is good for the environment, but now I don’t have anything to remember those experiences.

The zoom links are also artifacts of accessibility, being related to my identity as a person with a chronic illness. It’s kind of hard to tell by looking at me, but I have a couple of physical ailments. I have a lot of different maladies which make it hard for me to perform many daily tasks. Over the summer, sometimes it was extremely hard to get out of bed and it wasn’t safe for me to go to an in-person protest. But I was still able to engage with my city councilors and I was still able to talk to my board representatives from my home. Things were a lot more accessible for a lot more people being at home, although I think there’s also a benefit to things being in person.

There are many ways in which my identities have shaped my participation in the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU).  I use she/her pronouns and identify as cisgender, as well as being biracial. Having a Black father and a white mother, my biracial identity has often meant different things according to the spaces I find myself in. However, I view my cultural identity as being primarily rooted in the Black community. The only white people I saw growing up were my mom’s family. I never really got in touch with the white part of my identity. I was the “whitest person” in my elementary school, but my middle and high schools were all-white schools and I found it hard to fit in. I identified more with the Black community, even though I identify as biracial. I think I found myself getting more into the Black community just because that’s what I grew up with; and even though I have lighter skin in a predominately white school, most people saw that I wasn’t white and treated me differently in that community.

I navigate the world with an awareness of how others perceive me racially, depending on the spaces I find myself in, including the biases that show up when I am in white spaces, and how my white peers regard me, especially at my high school. I attend Masterman High School, one of the top schools in the city, which is located in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia, near Center City. The school is also located around a lot of gentrification in the city as well.  Many of the Black families that lived in the apartments in the area have been forced out because of economic reasons. Masterman is an academically competitive school, where I enjoy the academic challenges and the friends I have been able to make. Despite this, there is still discrimination that mostly affects students of color in the classrooms, hallways, and admissions office.

To keep Masterman one of the top schools, they practice discrimination in admissions that keeps the school predominantly white. I am in some AP classes, where there are even fewer Black students. There is usually me and one other Black person in all my classes. And then, in those classes, the teachers have lowered expectations of me, so I feel like I must work hard to prove that I deserve to be in that class. I do enjoy being at the school, and I have really good teachers, but there is still this anxiety that pushes me to work harder to prove that I deserve to be there. So, it’s a “give and take;” I like some parts of it, I kind of hate others.

Experiences with being “Othered”

For many of my peers of color and me, we feel devalued in a white-dominated institution, especially in a neighborhood that used to be Black. Since my neighborhood has been gentrified, there aren’t police around as much, which has been kind of nice, but it’s a privilege of gentrification. What led to me being involved in Police-Free Schools, was noticing the difference in treatment between Black and-non-Black students. I was going to say white, but it is just non- Black students at school. Some police officers at our school are Black, but I think they still have an implicit bias against Black students.

When I was in 10th grade or 11th grade, I brought a portable charger to school because I walk there, and sometimes my phone dies. The security guard didn’t know that there was a portable charger in my backpack. She thought it was an e-cigarette. But she didn’t tell me that she thought it was an e-cigarette. And so, she took my backpack off and put it on scanners which are similar to the scanners that you have for bags at TSA in the airport. She took it off, and then shook it upside down, and then put it back once they realized it was not an e-cigarette, and then told me to go. It was just humiliating because I was already running late for school. I didn’t do anything wrong, and she stopped me without telling me what was going on. If she just told me, I wouldn’t have had a problem clarifying; obviously I shouldn’t have an e-cigarette in school. But I know white students who have brought them into school, actual cigarettes. Someone brought their blowtorch in the school once and wasn’t stopped at all. For me, it just feels like we are openly treated differently. That’s when I thought there was a problem.

The difference in treatment threatens the students of color in the school, who are reminded that they can be expelled and removed from the resources at Mastermen, that don’t exist in the underserved high schools in the city. When I was in eighth grade, some other eighth-grade kids brought drugs to school and they hid them in their locker. They were white kids, and they were pretty rich. This was followed by an assembly where a person from security came and told us (students of color) that if we kept doing that, then we would all go to Camelot, which was the school that I think is in-between prison and school. It was a threat that didn’t exist for people with privilege and wealth. If it were any other school, they definitely would have ended up at Camelot and I don’t think anyone should go there; it’s not fair that the rules don’t exist for everyone. So, I think those kinds of experiences were what got me involved with police-free schools, just seeing the blatantly unequal treatment.

PSU and Mobilizing

I became interested in PSU because they were talking about police-free schools. The goals of PSU have helped me to imagine what change could look like, calling out the police budget and ending the school district’s memorandum of understanding with the police department.Participating in this movement has made me a little more comfortable using my voice. There were a lot of things that I was passionate about, but I was sometimes afraid to speak up about them. But because I feel very passionately about all of this, the passion overwhelms my fear and it makes me a lot more bold in speaking up for what I believe in. PSU helped me learn how to organize and contribute to the organization. It connected many of us to police-free school movements around the country. The rallies also allowed me to think deeply about what change could look like at Masterman.

We have two officers at our school, and one has always been friendly to me even though I was uncomfortable with going through a metal detector and putting my bag on the scanner. I know officer Taylor, he’s pretty nice and I don’t want him to lose his job. But when I went to the PSU organizing event, I started thinking about my experiences. I realized that it was messed up what happened to me. I listened to experiences from other students in predominantly Black schools in the city. They were talking about elementary schools having four to five police officers in the hallways and getting handcuffed for throwing a pencil in fifth grade. I realized how different the treatment was at my predominantly white school versus predominately Black schools.

 I also realized I was getting treated differently as a Black student in a white school. However, even in a white school, I was getting treated better than students in predominantly Black schools. While listening to others and taking that time to analyze my own experiences at the Philadelphia Student Union rally, it changed my mind and then I started speaking out. This became a way to educate students and faculty of the inequities that exist within the entire school district of Philadelphia and how the presence of police officers harms students of color. One of the biggest obstacles is getting others to think of these issues systemically and push past their own immediate experiences that are influenced by privilege.

Some people are afraid because there’s a lot of gun violence in Philadelphia. Some people are afraid of guns coming into the school. They think if there are police, then guns are less likely to make it into the school; they want to keep kids safe in school and on some level I kind of understand their point of view.  There are a lot of school safety officers that want to keep their job and are fighting hard to do that. I shared my personal story with a school safety officer at a meeting one time, and he turned it around and used it as a reason that we need police and why we need to retrain police. I felt like that was slimy of him to do, but I understand that he wanted to protect his job. I think fear and job security are the biggest reasons that people want school police. I don’t think many people believe we need to use police to oppress children. That’s not the mentality of people that want school police, but I think that’s the outcome that stems from it. It was hard to convince some people. But when I talked about my experiences and talked about the unfair experiences of students at other schools, they realized how unfair it was that people were being treated differently and so they got behind me, but it took a little bit of thinking.

I want to take these lessons with me and use them wherever I go.  Currently, I am preparing to graduate. Although I don’t know where exactly higher education will take me, I know that it will be outside of Philadelphia. Before I go, I want to leave the school district better than it was when we inherited it and to take the skills I have gained and apply them to the movement for police-free schools in other cities. I hope to study African American history and French in school, but I also want to study the government because I want to understand the system better so that I can change the system. I hope that my time in PSU combined with the mix of the three will better prepare me to do so.

PSU has provided tools and a foundation for my activism. The organization gives me an organizing community to learn from and with. I listen to others, reflect on my own life, and want to make an impact from what I learn.