The nanny state . . . and rubber bullets in MacArthur Park
What do you do with school-kids who want to skip classes and go on a demonstration? May-day in Los Angeles was the date for demonstrating for immigrants’ rights, as part of the campaign for giving legal status to the millions of “undocumented” immigrants.
It’s an excellent campaign. But it soon became clear that what was really exercising the local media was the question of the high-school students -- who this time last year were a major component in the huge demonstrations.
On Monday, the sternly entitled “Superintendent of Public Instruction” was urging kids not to bunk off – but to devote those precious hours to their education (while simultaneously urging teachers to host some immigration discussions in their civics lessons). A nice try, but hardly likely to deter many teenaged activists.
By Tuesday itself, the tune had changed a bit. Staying in school was still said to be the best option, but for those who did decide to go and demonstrate, there would be buses to take them there and back. After all, as the local radio insisted, you couldn’t have them walking a couple of miles (and certainly not along the freeway like they did last year) .. because the poor dears might get dehydrated (honestly!).
For those of us brought up on the idea that political action often entails some pain, this all sounded a bit odd. And it was a far cry from how our local Cambridge schools handled the walk-out of kids a few years ago to demonstrate, equally creditably, against the Iraq War.
My son’s school, I remember, rang me up to say that he had left the premises to go and demonstrate. The point of the call was really to say that, as he had gone of his own accord and contrary to instructions, the school did not consider itself responsible for his safety. There was no hint of a bus to bring him back at the end of the escapade, or fears of dehydration. Fair enough, I thought,
But even in tough old Britain a hint of sentimentality was beginning to creep in. What I inquired was to be the penalty for this misdemeanour? Nothing at all, was the reply, as this was an issue of conscience.
As I see it, issues of conscience come at a price, not with a pat on the head. So I suggested that they might like to consider some well chosen retribution – like a detention with a hundred lines of mindless copying: “Mr Blair is wrong to want to invade Iraq” or some other such, on-message slogan.
They thought I was joking and the young malefactor got off more or less scot free.. I thought it would have been a good lesson in the costs of standing up for what one believes.
What has happened, I wondered, to that generation of teachers who always had a witty and well chosen punishment to hand. Frightened off by the nanny state, I guess.
Postscript….Since writing this, I have heard what happened at the end of the immigration rally, which perhaps makes me look a bit hard on the LA schools. As the demonstration climaxed in MacArthur Park, it was dispersed by police with rubber bullets.
This has been followed by the usual recriminations, each side claiming that the other raised the temperature and started the fight. On this occasion though the police managed to injure a large number of journalists, who have been reporting their experiences by cell-phone from the Emergency Room. A good idea that the kids had been bussed out.