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Students urging Gaza ceasefire say their voices are being silenced

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Students urging Gaza ceasefire say their voices are being silenced
New Mission High School in Hyde Park. PHOTO: BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS

As New Mission High School senior Kameela Blackmon and other students exited the school’s Hyde Park building Dec. 2 to demonstrate for a ceasefire in Gaza, the school’s principal, William Thomas, issued a stern warning.

“He told us we would not be allowed to re-enter the building, that parents would be called and that there would be consequences,” Blackmon told the Banner.

Other students had already left the building. As one of the walkout’s key organizers, Blackmon left anyway, as did a few other students, while some — deterred by the principal’s warning — remained in the school. The students marched down Metropolitan Avenue and were joined by City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson.

When they returned to the school building, Fernandes Anderson prevailed on Thomas to allow the students to return and collect their book bags. High school students in Boston Public Schools have a right to leave a school building for protests or any other reason.

The New Mission incident is just one of many that members of the Boston Students for Palestine coalition say illustrates how they have been stifled in their efforts to call attention to the Israeli military’s indiscriminate killings of civilians in Gaza.

During a City Council meeting Dec. 6, Fernandes Anderson issued a citation honoring Blackmon and New Mission student Aliyah Mohamed for their years of student activism. After the pair gave speeches on the council floor calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, four councilors — Frank Baker, Sharon Durkan, Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy — walked out of the Iannella Chamber as the other councilors gathered for a photograph with the students.

Council President Ed Flynn later told a Boston Herald reporter he would not have signed the citation had he known the students were pro-Palestinian.

“I was surprised and dismayed when the two students began their speeches, which included language that deeply hurt the Jewish community,” he told the Herald.

Speaking before the council, Mohamed repeated the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” While some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, consider the slogan to be antisemitic, Palestinian activists say it speaks to their desire to live free from what they see as settler colonialism engineered by the Israeli government.

Blackmon said none of her or Mohamed’s statements made before the council were antisemitic.

“I cited U.N. statistics,” she said. “I spoke about the genocide in Gaza. There was nothing antisemitic.”

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Boston, condemning both Hamas” Oct. 7 massacre on Israeli military bases and settlements and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, during which Gaza officials say 18,000 people have lost their lives, including at least 5,000 children. More than half of homes in Gaza have been destroyed, and 1.9 million of its 2.2 million population have been displaced. Additionally, several thousand Gaza residents are unaccounted for, many of them believed to be trapped under the rubble of bombed buildings.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Israel-based B’Tselem have called for a ceasefire, as have 57 members of Congress, including Massachusetts representatives Ayanna Pressley and Jim McGovern.

Students on college campuses have demonstrated, in some cases calling on universities to divest from companies selling munitions to Israel.

“A lot of young people are seeing this as the moral issue of our time, like South Africa was,” said Amrita Dani, an ethnic studies teacher at Boston Adult Technical Academy. “It’s young people who have moral clarity right now.”

Dani noted that the Boston Teachers Union unanimously passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Fernandes Anderson’s efforts to do the same on the council failed to pass.

On the evening of Dec. 6, Blackmon, Mohamed and other students called on the School Committee to issue a resolution calling for a ceasefire. The School Committee previously had issued a statement in support of Israel following the Oct. 7 massacre.

“You have taken a moment of silence for Israel and condemned Hamas, but you have not condemned the illegal state of Israel or its murder of thousands in the past two months,” said student Valerie Dam-Nguyen. “Instead, you are silencing students who are merely stating ‘Genocide is wrong and we should do something about it.’”

Victoria Mabington, a student at Boston Latin School, said administrators there prevented students from presenting on Palestine during the school’s annual student-run Human Rights Day. The directive was issued at 9:30 on the night before the event, she said.

“Despite its undeniable relevance and importance, we were not allowed to address the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Mabington told the School Committee. “Students who ran the event were told that those who even wore the colors of the Palestinian flag would not be able to participate.”

School Committee members did not comment on the students’ testimony. Superintendent Mary Skipper called a brief recess.

“When we have students who are passionate about something, we often take a recess so School Committee members can actually greet the students, so I suggest we do that,” she said, bringing a temporary halt to the meeting.

She and School Committee members then met briefly with students in a separate room before returning to a chamber.

Blackmon, the New Mission student, said Skipper left the students with BPS staff who did not directly address the students’ concerns.

“They asked us whether we wanted to implement a new curriculum,” she said. “We said ‘What do you mean? We’re asking for a resolution calling for a ceasefire.’ We didn’t get anything out of the meeting. There’s been no follow-up.”

A BPS spokesperson did not answer specific questions about whether Thomas’ threats to bar students from returning to New Mission High School is in compliance with school policy, but shared an Oct. 26 letter the head of school at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics had sent to parents  warning that students engaging in a walkout the next day would not be allowed back in the school building and would be marked absent for classes they missed.

“This decision ensures that all students who choose not to participate in the walkout and remain in school are safe, and that only authorized people enter our school buildings,” the letter reads.

A 2019 letter sent to parents by former BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in advance of a global climate walkout contained no warning that students would be barred from re-entering their school buildings.

Blackmon said her experiences at school, in the City Council and at the School Committee have not dampened her desire to speak out against what she sees as a major injustice. But some of her classmates would not leave the New Mission school building after the principal warned of calls home and disciplinary consequences.

“I know a lot of other students found this intimidating,” she said. “They felt their speech [was] being chilled. It’s a really scary thing they’re doing to young people. The adults seem silent and complacent. There are kids dying in Gaza, and we’re not allowed to talk about it.”