The Long Fight to Zero: Fighting for Police-Free Schools
By Selena Yang
Freedom, Inc. in Madison, WI
With the assistance of Jane JaKyung Han
University of Massachusetts Boston
Selena Yang is an Asian-American student who is currently a senior in high school. She has been working with Freedom Inc. in the campaign for Police-Free Schools in Madison, WI since she was in middle school. Having seen the racial-profiling and biased treatment of her Black and Brown peers at school, Selena has joined other leaders of the Freedom Youth Squad under Freedom Inc. to protest policing in their public schools. They have attended countless school board meetings to give their testimonies. On June 29, 2020, The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education unanimously terminated its contract with the Madison Police Department. The vote followed years of activism by the social justice organization Freedom Inc.
My name is Selena and I am South East Asian, specifically Hmong. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which has the third largest population of Hmong people in America. I currently live on the east side of Madison where I go to high school and where there are more people of color and Hmong. I previously lived on the south side where there is a large population of people of color, but I was required to attend middle school all the way on the west side. The west side is predominately white; I think that the city decided to have students from the south side attend that school just to have more students of color there. It was very hard to connect with the students there. There were very few students of color and I felt that I couldn’t connect with them personally. I often felt stigmatized. Sometimes, I wanted to hang out with white friends just to feel more accepted in that school, but inside I often felt guilty for leaving my friends of color for our white classmates. Going to high school was easier because it was a new space with more people of color and I already knew people there. I no longer felt guilty.
Some might say that my feelings of guilt from not associating with people of color stems from the value that I place on associating with my own culture or group. For me, being Hmong and learning about Hmong culture is important. Since I was seven years old, I was involved with different programs at Freedom Inc: the Hmong girls dance group called Viv Ncaus (Sisters) Dance Troop and a support group for South East Asian girls called Nkauj Hmoob (Beautiful Hmong). These programs gave me a space to enjoy my culture, dance, talk about my problems, and have a political education to learn about many subjects, including sex education, domestic violence, and healthy relationships. As I participated in these programs for several years, a couple of the Freedom Inc. coordinators thought it was time for me to become a youth leader, so I joined the Freedom Youth Squad. In that group, the most important subjects we talked about were school safety and the “No Cops in School” campaign. I was fourteen or fifteen years old back then, so I worried whether I would be a good leader and how I would be involved in the campaign.
Learning about Police and Anti-Blackness
Because we started the police-free school campaign when I was still in middle school, I already knew that there would be police at my high school. I remember the first day of school, walking through the door and seeing this small, sectioned-off office where the security officer was. He had to buzz the students into the school. There were four security guards in total, each officer was responsible for patrolling a different floor of our school building. We didn’t really see the police in one fixed area, but we knew they were around, and we could see them here and there. Although I didn’t have any personal confrontations with security or the police, I frequently saw teachers calling the security on students for being on the phone, for leaving class, or being disruptive. I thought it was unfair and that it had a lot to do with anti-Blackness. My school has a large population of Black students and teachers treat them unfairly, calling security on Black students for trivial things. It’s harmful.
The only time that I saw the police was during fights, which usually happened during lunchtime. Usually, the police tried to stop the fight but were unsuccessful and ended up escalating things. Having police involved scared me. I always wondered what would happen if during the fight the police tased a student or if he pulled out his gun or harmed the student. We never knew what would happen. We had seen so many bad things happening with the cops on the internet, and cops are harming very young students. At other schools, the police had tased students and we had that image in our heads. I worried if the police might do the same thing during a fight at our school. Although the cops didn’t do any harm, I didn’t understand why they were there in the first place.
Freedom Inc gave me a space where I could talk about the things that I had seen at school and the problems that needed to be fixed. I learned more about anti-Blackness there and worked with many Black peers. They shared about how they felt they were being controlled at school and about the things they were going through. A lot of us related because we had observed and had seen a lot of what they talked about at school. I could see that we had been treated differently and that my school had done a lot of racial profiling. I didn’t get stopped by security or the cops. They seemed to focus mainly on the Black and Latinx students, not on anyone else.
The “No Cops in Schools” Campaign
The other youth leaders and I were committed to working on the “No Cops in School” campaign, so we went to school board meetings and gave our testimonies to the school board members. At first, I was anxious because I was so young, just fourteen or so. There were also times when I thought we would never win this campaign. This issue mattered a lot to me, but it was draining and there were costs to going to meeting after meeting. For about four years, we continued to give our testimonies. At some points, I just didn’t feel confident we could win our demands. I felt as though we weren’t making any progress, and even when some changes happened – such as when a new school member was elected – it hurt our campaign more than it helped. That changed with the death of George Floyd. His death shouldn’t have been the main reason for reversing people’s mindsets. In fact, people such as Tony Robinson had been killed by cops and there had been so many others who had been killed by police. But the protests and riots after George Floyd’s death made people notice that the police do a lot of damage. That was when students in Minnesota campaigned to get cops out of their schools and that influenced what happened here in Madison.
When the Madison school board voted to end its contract with the police department on June 29, 2020, we were so happy. In fact, I think we all cried tears of joy as we were sitting in the meeting room at Freedom Inc. We were so happy that we had finally won one of our demands. Yet, we knew that the fight wasn’t over, and that there were still many things that we wanted to fix in our schools. Security guards and teachers continue to harm students, punishing them for behavior that is normal. We want to hold teachers and school officials accountable for their actions. We want to see transformative action shifting away from the idea that students should get punished to creating circles or spaces to talk. Another goal of mine is to give our parents and other trusted adults real decision-making power over student education. If parents want their children to learn more about their cultural history, then the school should hire teachers who have that cultural knowledge to teach those subjects to their children. We always learn about white culture and white history but not about other cultures, including Black history or Hmong history. Other demands that we have made to the school board include better lunches and free bus passes.
Having what it takes to persevere
My involvement in this campaign and with the Freedom Youth Squad at Freedom Inc has definitely changed me. I learned about anti-Blackness and racial profiling, and how to fight against racism. I also learned to listen to my peers and their experiences with racism, relating to them despite the differences in our experiences. I saw how wrong the system is and learned to write out my demands for change and to give testimony at school board meetings. I learned how change can take time and that I have what it takes to persevere. Although I will be graduating this year, I know that I will continue to be involved with Freedom Inc. I am not certain if I will continue to be a youth leader or student leader in the organization since I don’t know what my plans are yet. But I know that I will continue working with them to hold school officials accountable and to keep our students safe.
 Tony Robinson was a 19-year-old biracial man who was shot and killed on March 6, 2015 by Officer Matt Kenny, a white Wisconsin police officer. Though Robinson was unarmed, charges against Officer Kenny were dropped. Robinson’s death and Kenny’s exoneration sparked protests in the city of Madison, WI.