We have seen over the past several years that many on the right believe that too much democracy is a bad thing. We see it in the voter suppression laws passed all over the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, including attempts here in Arizona by Republicans Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Kelly Townsend. And Nancy MacLean explored the deeper ideological roots of this idea in her book Democracy in Chains.
Simply put, as the US changes and becomes more diverse, and as large majorities reject Republican policies and politicians, to the point that only one Republican has one the popular vote for president in the last 30 years, the right wing is attempting to rig the game against popular democracy to give more weight to the conservative, the old, and the white, while exploiting existing mechanisms like the Electoral College and the highly unrepresentative Senate.
I experienced all of this playing out on Wednesday night at one of the smallest and most local forms of government, the neighborhood school board meeting, which shows just how deep this anti-democratic rot goes.
Standing Up to Harassment
To understand what went down at the first Chandler Unified School District governing board meeting of 2020 in the southeastern Phoenix suburbs, a little background is necessary. For months, the group known as Purple for Parents — an offshoot of the notorious hate group Patriot Movement AZ that formed in response to the #RedForEd movement — has been harassing board member Lindsay Love, the only woman of color on the board, with racist and sexist attacks on social media and at previous meetings.
Purple for Parents is opposed to any acknowledgment of or attempts to address the needs of students of color and LGBTQ students and to teaching sex education in any form. They have been targeting Chandler because of an equity training program for teachers that was implemented and which was recently featured on Tucker Carlson’s White Supremacy Jamboree on Fox News. They have targeted Love because of her outspoken advocacy for equity and for comprehensive sex education and, well, for other obvious reasons.
So at this week’s meeting, Chandler parents in favor of equity organized with education and equity advocates from around the Valley to make a show of support for Love, for equity, and for comprehensive sex education. Sex ed was recently dealt a further setback when district Superintendent Camille Casteel capitulated to the Purple for Parents by removing in-class instruction in Human Growth and Development for 5th and 6th graders. This despite the fact that it, like all sex education in Arizona, is opt-in and 90% of Chandler parents choose to opt into it.
Changing the Rules on the Fly
Equity supporters started filling the Chandler board’s chambers more than an hour before the board meeting started. By the time the meeting started at 7:00 pm, the crowd was spilling into the halls, and the number wearing “Equity in Education” stickers clearly overwhelmed the small Purple for Parents contingent.
While Purple for Parents has been allowed to speak unfettered at past board meetings, Board vice president David Evans, who was presiding in the absence of the board president and openly friendly with many of the Purple for Parents leaders, decided that tonight would be different. Noting that over 80 people had filled out cards requesting to speak during the Citizen Comment period, Evans decided this was too many and made a unilateral decision to change the process.
He first offered the option of having each “organized group” designate 10 speakers. This arrangement would have been convenient for the clearly outnumbered Purple for Parents contingent and would have turned the debate into two equal sides despite that not being the case in the room. Many of the Purple for Parents were amenable to this idea, but the majority of equity advocates were not. When that was rejected, Evans then made the unilateral decision to not allow comments at all. Given that the Citizen Comments were listed on the public board meeting agenda, this was a violation of state Open Meeting laws.
Refusing to Go Quietly
After his decision, Evans tried to move on to other Board business, but the equity advocates would not go quietly and engaged in civil disobedience to shut down the official business and not allow it to continue. Police were called and multiple uniformed officers staked out the rest of the meeting. Finally, Love showed the leadership Evans lacked and stepped in with a request to revisit the comment question at its allotted time on the agenda, which was 8:40pm, about an hour and a half into the meeting.
If Evans was hoping the delay would make some people leave, it didn’t work, and the equity advocates sat through riveting presentations on proposed to school boundaries and were still there at 8:40. At that time, Evans completely reversed course under pressure from the other board members and allowed everyone to speak for one minute each.
And so citizen comments started and stretched on until almost 11:00pm. Equity advocates gave facts on the benefits of comprehensive sex education and told personal stories of why equity training is so important. The Purple for Parents mostly spun wild stories of victimization and Planned Parenthood conspiracy theories and gave a working demonstration of Robin DiAngelo’s concept of “white fragility.” By the end, the idea that this was a debate between two equal sides was put to rest, as comments in favor equity and comprehensive sex education and in support of Ms. Love outnumbered those opposed by 63-11.
Students Speak Out
But to me, the most important indicator that this was not the “both sides” issue that Evans wanted to make it came from the people most affected by these policy debates, the students themselves. All of the current Chandler students and recent graduates who showed up to speak spoke in favor of increased equity efforts, comprehensive sex ed, and a more inclusive curriculum that recognizes marginalized groups. These students, many of whom were students of color and/or LGBTQ, withstood abuse and homophobic and transphobic comments from the Purple for Parents to speak on their own behalf.
Extremists like Purple for Parents thrive on the inertia of us regular people who typically have better things to do on a Wednesday night than sit through a four-hour school board meeting. We outnumber them, but when they show up and are loud, they are able to bully complicit or cowardly public officials like Evans into doing their bidding. This one meeting showed what happens when those of us who support things diversity, equity, science-based education, and plain common decency show up and get loud as well. We outnumber them, and we can win, which is why they will keep throwing up barriers to our participation in democracy, from speaking at school board meetings to our right to vote, and we have to be ever vigilant.