by Julia Robertson and Rio Rodriguez
In this intimate interview, LeRoi Newbold speaks to collaborative organizing in removing police officers from schools, strategies that failed, and co-founding Black Lives Matter Freedom School, a three week long summer program for children aged 4-10, which was a response to a lack of humanizing, self-affirming, queer-positive schooling and education. In the interview, LeRoi spoke to the need for educational opportunities for Black children in the GTA that teach Black Canadian and diasporic histories of resistance, and explained the role of educators in creating cultures of prison abolition.
“Police have no place in schools working with children. They are not trained to do that. It’s just not safe to have police in schools.” – LeRoi Newbold, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Freedom School
Julia: Your work towards removing School Resource Officers (SROs) from schools has been called a monumental moment for the prison abolition movement in Toronto. Could you tell us the story of how the decision to remove cops from schools materialized?
LeRoi: When the school resource officer campaign started, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM-TO) had been involved with several interventions into anti-Blackness in schools. A catalyst of the campaign was an incident in 2016, when a 6 year old Black girl in Mississauga was having a temper tantrum or a meltdown at school, and she ended up being placed on her stomach and handcuffed by the wrists and ankles for 24 minutes by Peel police. It was such a horrible and jarring experience to hear about, and it really got the community to mobilize around defending our kids’ safety. We understood it not as a single incident, but as an incident that is part of how the system is overwhelmingly violent and criminalizing towards Black children and youth. As someone who does advocacy work for students who are experiencing suspensions, expulsions and/or different kinds of anti-Black violence within their schools, people contact me a lot about having the cops called on their kids. As outrageous as it sounds, it wasn’t really a unique incident – people have called me numerous times to tell me about the police being called on their eight year old child. I worked in a school where I’ve seen the police called on a five year old kindergarten child, who actually was in daycare at the time.
Even before that specific incident, BLM-TO had named removing police from schools as one of the larger demands of the movement for Black lives. But after that we really decided to zero in on getting rid of the SRO program; something that Black activists have been trying to do in Toronto since the program started ten years ago. The program never had community buy-in or community go-ahead.
The decision to remove cops from schools is a no-brainer (laughs). We’re part of an abolitionist movement, we don’t believe in the police or prisons period. We definitely believe that police have no place in schools working with children. They are not trained to do that. It’s just not safe to have police in schools.
Julia: Can you expand on the various organizing strategies that were used to achieve the removal of SROs?
LeRoi: The school resource officer campaign was a collaborative campaign including BLM-TO, LAEN (Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, Education Not Incarceration and Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty. But there were a lot of different groups, and I would say that was one of the strongest points of the campaign, to have people come with their different experiences and strategies. The biggest take away for me was that you try many strategies when you want to achieve something, and many of them will fail. But you just can’t give up. That’s really what I remember from the campaign. Because at first in 2016, we started trying to remove SROs from the whole city by deputing at Toronto Police Services board meetings. They had armed officers, and they would use their bikes to keep the community from coming in, in high numbers. But we would go to the meetings. About 50 Black parents deputed, story after story about how this program is violent towards our kids, how our kids are being affected by having armed officers within their schools. A lot of youth deputed as well. And then the Toronto Police services board brought literally busloads of white Catholic school educators to come and depute about how they love SROs, and how they eat pizza and play hockey with the kids and it’s so great. When you want to depute, you have to have your name on a list, and they put all of us at the end. So we were there until 11 o’clock at night. At the end of the meeting, when it looked completely desolate, they started to let us depute. After our deputations, there was a member of the police services board who moved to suspend the program until it was reviewed, and the board voted against it. So, after that, we wondered what other angles we could try.
After that, in 2017 we had a Walkout for Black Lives. There were over 100 parents, teachers and youth who walked out of their classrooms for the day, to protest what happened to the six year old girl in Mississauga, but also the overall conditions of anti-Blackness within schools. That was a really powerful strategy, I think. The director of the TDSB John Malloy ended up coming, and we used a strategy that I guess is known as a strategy of BLM-TO at this point; of questions from community members while on camera: “Will you remove police from schools? Will you look into the violence that’s being done to our kids?” And because the person is on camera, the person has to be accountable. That point is when the TDSB started looking into what a review of the program could look like, and at that point we were kind of disappointed, because they already know all the violent things that the police are doing. We didn’t have to do another review. But the TDSB review was kind of unique because it did not look at overall students’ experiences with police, but the most marginalized students, like students that have a lot of expulsions or suspensions, or students who are vulnerable based on their migration status, and based on those students’ experiences, the trustees voted to remove School Resource officers from the TDSB, which is the largest board in Canada. That was amazing.
There were a few different moments. Like I thought that the moment at the Police Services Board was gonna be the moment where we got rid of SROs – it was looking in our favour (laughs). I hope there’s gonna be more moments. Like I hope that the Catholic School Board has their moment of getting rid of police in schools, I hope the Peel District School Board has their moment, too. And I know right now in Peel, a lot of parents are doing activism and are really like amped up about that, and they had a motion, somebody just told me last night, they had a motion that a Trustee made to remove police from schools in Peel 1. So we’ll see, I hope there’s gonna be more moments like that.
Rio: What did it feel like on that day?
LeRoi: Sick! (Laughs)
Rio: Was it hype in there?
LeRoi: Yeah, it was really hype, it was one of those moments, it was like, “See, activism does work!” When I was really young I remember being told that when you grow up you could become a police officer, or you could work in the government, and then you could make choices about things, if you think it’s so wrong (laughs)… and I remember feeling like everybody should have a voice, whether they’re grown up or not! I love that feeling of being part of a movement where that’s happened.
Rio: You mentioned that there were a few strategies that did not go as well as you thought they would. Which strategies did not work well?
LeRoi: Appealing to the Toronto Police Service Board for any type of justice (laughs). I think all the strategies we used were powerful. I think collaborative organizing is powerful, especially with different stakeholders. We organized with trustees, principals, even some people within the Police Services Board, activists, community service organizations, youth, parents, teachers, and that was powerful.
Julia: Do you think that it’s important that the Freedom School Program exists outside of the school system?
LeRoi: Yes. Before starting to do Freedom School, I worked in the School Board for ten years in the Africentric school. I think that was a really powerful initiative that the community advocated for, but it was a challenge working within the school system, because at the end of the day, they have the policies that the school system has. There are mandatory suspensions for certain things, there is a need for parents to get police checks in order to participate in field trips. Some of those things are anti-Black. So, I think having Freedom School run programs outside of the system is important because it’s energizing. Doing the SRO campaign was important, but it was a huge test to my mental health, because coming up against the system is hard on your mental health and hard on your body. So, getting to do something outside of the system where you can just be free and just see Black kids be happy and cared for, and learn things that are meaningful to them, that gives me the energy to do other kinds of work for kids in the system who don’t have a choice whether they’re going to be there or not. So I do think it’s very important that it exists outside of the system. We do do some very intentional collaborations with community schools, and that’s just because not everybody is going to get to go to Freedom School! So if we can even do a workshop in a school, and school sucks, but on that one day we got to learn about Marie Joseph Angelique, or we got to vogue, and we got to learn about something powerful. I never had a day like that ever, where I learned about Black resistance, especially within my own cultural context. So we engage within the school system sometimes, but existing outside of it is also very important.
Julia: Could you ever see it incorporated, would you ever want that to happen?
LeRoi: Well, one summer we did a collaboration with Rose Avenue Junior Public School, they wanted to do an anti-Black racism plan specific to their school, which is mostly African and South Asian, and they wanted to address anti-Black racism there. So we did a program with their kids about uplifting Blackness, it was specific to their community, so it brought in community members to talk about their immigration stories, and then they did activities about that, and talked a lot about building solidarity between the communities. So I do think that the TDSB needs to implement Black resistance curriculum, and I actually think that Ontario as a province needs mandatory Black education that needs to be focused on Black resistance. But I would still always want to keep Freedom School as a separate program, and maybe that’s just because I don’t want to deal with the policies of the school board. So I would want to keep doing activism to change some of those policies that are anti-Black, and that are harmful. Of course, our community is going to keep holding the school board accountable. But I think work both inside and outside of the system is important.
Rio: Do you have any curricular content that talks about prisons?
LeRoi: Yes. Each year in Freedom School, the kids would create some kind of action, and they would do, and they would decide what they would want it to be. In the first year, the kids learned about Matulu Shakur, who was part of Black Liberation, who did acupuncture to help treat addictions within his community, because he grew up within the crack epidemic in New York. Acupuncture was the way that he engaged in the Black liberation movement, and he was also part of the escape plan for Assata Shakur, his sister. We were teaching kids about Matulu Shakur, and how he was incarcerated, and they were like “that’s not fair!” You know how kids are motivated by justice and fairness. The action that they decided to do, was a protest for the release of Matuma Shakur outside of the US consulate. They did a protest for the release of Matulu Shakur, and also for the end of immigration detention in Canada, because they learned about the prisoners in Lindsay, Ontario who were doing the hunger strike against immigration detention. Migrant detention is basically when you go to jail because you’re being deported, but you can’t go back to the country which you entered from for various reasons. So they have engaged in protests around political prisoners, they have also written letters to people who are incarcerated. Because police and prisons are literally part of our lives from when we are children, it’s natural for them to have those conversations.
Julia: What role does education play in prison abolition activism?
LeRoi: Well I think that education plays a big role in prison abolition activism because we literally have to understand things differently to create a different world. A lot of times when we start talking about writing to prisoners or going to a prison the kids will be scared because even though they’re Black kids and even though they might have family members who are incarcerated, they’re still always taught the story of bad guys and good people. They’re always taught to see people who are incarcerated as bad guys and they’re always taught that police catch bad guys. So we literally have to break those things down for them and let them connect the events in their lives to talking about police and prison, and let them come up with different solutions to problems. We read this book, it’s called Afrotina and the Three Bears. And it’s like Goldilocks but the story is Afrotina’s going for a walk and she’s hungry or whatever. She’s tired, so she breaks into these people’s house and she eats up their food and sits on their stuff and breaks it like Goldilocks. But then the story takes a restorative justice angle, she has to instead go home and bring them food from home, say sorry, and repair the chair she broke. We ask the kids what would happen if she didn’t have any food at home to bring them or what would happen if her dad wasn’t home to help her fix the chair. And they’re like, “Oh she would get eaten,” and we’re like, “Doesn’t that seem kind of harsh?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s not fair.” So we asked them what could have been done instead to solve the problem? They’re like, “Oh, they could’ve made a community garden, all of them together, like the three bears and Afrotina, and then they would all have food.” So kids have a lot of creativity and they’re able to think outside of the systems and come up with creative solutions, I think, a lot of the time more than adults. But it’s about giving the space and the tools to think about things differently. That’s what we try to do. I don’t know if we’re gonna ever like see a moment in our lives as Black people where we don’t experience oppression or where there’s no need for us to do activism. But at least when you create alternative spaces there will be like moments of freedom that you experience with the kids or with each other.
I definitely think that the removal of SROs was like the most important moment for me of doing activism or resistance to anti-Black racism in my life. Because I know the experiences that our youth have with police and even including within my own family. I also know there’s so many times when you’re doing resistance work, and you will be given something as a token to be quiet. For example when the Toronto District School Board agreed to do anti-Black racism training for every level of staff, they already agreed to do that in the 1990s when Black Action Defense Committee was advocating against anti-Black racism in schools! And then they agreed to do it again because of the pressure of Black Lives Matter. But the removal of SROs at least felt like something to me where tomorrow, everyone’s going to go to school and there’s no armed police within the school (sigh of relief). So that was important. The decision itself was made at the Toronto District School Board Trustee Meeting. The Trustees had to vote and I think only one person voted to keep the SROs. There was a community audience, me and my daughter and my best friend and co-founder of Freedom School Nauoda Robinson were there.
Julia: Who are some of the people or moments that continue to inspire the work that you do?
LeRoi: Ericka Huggins, who was part of the LA chapter lead of the Black Panther Party, and she was also the principal of the Oakland Community School, which was part of the Black Panther Party movement, and the idea that they created their own school inspired me. They centered Black people and Latinx people within it. They taught kids about Black revolutionaries and how to be revolutionaries. And just like how they took care of the kids, they made a place for them to sleep if their parents were like doing movement work. They fed them all their meals. They bussed them there and that’s something that I’ve always been inspired by. In Canada, who inspires me includes Black Action Defence Committee and people like Lennox Farrell, who did this work in the 90s against police brutality and for better treatment of Black people in schools.
Also, my daughter and my kids inspire me. My daughter did a protest when she was in junior kindergarten during her morning circle at school. She just like took the mic and started chanting Black Lives Matter and got all the kids to march. She’s just really fearless and powerful as a young Black trans kid. All our kids I think are really powerful. Like they demand people to see who they are from this age, and that’s really inspiring for me, and I want to be able to protect them. That’s why I think this work is important.
- SROs were suspended in Peel in July 2020 and removed in November 2020. ↩