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A Student Uprising in Arizona

In Tucson, lawmakers want to cut ethnic studies programs. But they’ll have to unchain these students first.

Arizona Student Protest, photo courtesy Javier Gonzalez

Students in Tucson protect their Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies curriculum by chaining themselves to board member chairs and chanting, "Our education is under attack. What do we do? Fight Back!" They prevented the board from voting on a resolution that would terminate the program curriculum.

Photo courtesy of Javier Gonzalez.

Has Wisconsin finally come to Arizona?

In an extraordinary uprising at the Tucson Unified School District board meeting last night, students in the district's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies (MAS) program chained themselves to the board members' chairs, derailing the introduction of a controversial resolution that would have terminated their acclaimed program's core curriculum accreditation.

"Nobody was listening to us, especially the board," said MAS high school student and activist Lisette Cota. "We were fed up. It may have been drastic but the only way was to chain ourselves to the boards' chairs."

While hundreds of their supporters packed the district meeting room, nine MAS students and activists defied security officers and literally took over the board members' places minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin.

Over the past two years, the Ethnic Studies Program in Tucson has been subjected to a controversial and costly witch hunt by Attorney General Tom Horne, formerly the state's superintendent of public instruction, who wrote the Arizona law that outlawed it (passed last spring during a rush of anti-immigrant legislation that included SB 1070, the "Show-me-your-papers" law). Horne has called the class a form of "propagandizing and brainwashing."

"We'll keep coming back, with twice as many people next time, each time ... We're not going to let this happen. We're going to make it impossible for them to vote."
-Student/activist Lisette Cota

"Just like the people of Wisconsin took a stand and said 'enough is enough,' the youth of Tucson are standing up and letting it be known that they are fed up with these attacks on their education and on their future," said Sal Baldenegro, Jr., a TUSD Ethnic Studies alum and member of the Southern Arizona Unity Coalition.

Popular Tucson blogger and activist David Abie Morales called it a "field trip for civics and democracy in action."

"I'm very moved by their passion and commitment to maintain these courses and curriculum," said MAS teacher Sally Rusk. "They're brilliant. This is not a one-time event. It looks like they're not going to stop until they have an impact on this decision."

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TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone canceled the board meeting, but students have vowed to return to the district office until TUSD board president Mark Stegemen withdraws his proposed resolution.

The students feel differently. Through the evening, they and their community supporters chanted: "Our education is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!"

"We'll keep coming back, with twice as many people next time, each time," said Cota. "We're not going to let this happen. We're going to make it impossible for them to vote."

"As Arizonans, we absolutely must stand behind our youth and say 'enough is enough' with these attacks on their education. There has never been a more critical time to stand behind our children as they fight for their rights and for their futures," Baldenegro, Jr. said.

Tucson resident and education activist Mohur Sidhwa, who attended the meeting, added: "A wonderful show of civic engagement on the part of the students. It gives me hope for the next generation."


Video courtesy of panleft on YouTube.


Jeff BiggersJeff Biggers is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona and Illinois. His latest book is Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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