At 1:10 p.m. Monday, two students dressed in dark suits pushed a red library cart down the middle aisle of Commons dining hall and grabbed books from about 30 students, all wearing red, who then individually filed into the procession. The group marched in a line and audibly chanted, “No book ban, no book ban!”
The protest was staged against Arizona’s House Bill 2281, signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in May 2010. The law bans all public school curricula of which race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes, according to an email sent to multiple student groups by Katherine Aragon ’14, who helped lead and organize the event. Aragon said the protest’s objective was to “simulate the stealing of books from students during lunchtime, in order to help Yale students visualize the academic and emotional effects of this type of legislation.”
The event was primarily organized by MEChA de Yale, a student group that seeks to “promote Chicano empowerment” through education and political activism, but also drew supporters from various cultural groups across campus.
Immediately following the procession, which lasted a few minutes, Aragon spoke through a megaphone to a lunchtime Commons crowd to urge Yalies to educate themselves about the consequences of the law.
“Under the vague language of the bill, the ban could include anything from historical explorations of slavery in the United States, to momentous events in American history such as the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement,” Aragon said. “Who decides where to draw the line in deciding what history and perspectives are valid to teach?”
Some school districts had been resisting implementation of the law, but in January of this year, Tucson Unified School District, one of the largest school districts in Arizona, was found to be in violation of state law for having one or more classes “designed primarily for one ethnic group, promoting racial resentment and advocating ethnic solidarity instead of treating students as individuals” by an administrative law judge. The district was to have 10 percent of its monthly state aid withheld until it complied with the law, but opted to implement the law by disbanding its Mexican American Studies program.
Paulo Costa ’14, another leader of the demonstration, said that it was events like these that inspired him and other Yalies to get involved with MEChA’s protests.
“I want to be a professor and I think that it’s very undemocratic for the government to ban books in a society that is supposed to be free,” Costa said.
Protest participants interviewed had different reasons for their support of its cause. Christofer Rodelo ’15 said that he felt it was important for Yalies to be educated about events that happen around the country and “make room for discourse about these important topics.”
For Marlena Vasquez ’13, the law carried consequences that hit closer to home.
“I care about this bill because I’m Latino, and because these books tell my family’s history,” she said. “When people are trying to remove our stories from the American narrative, I feel personally attacked.”
Proponents of the law, however, say it is a way to emphasize students’ individual identities and to prevent students from grouping themselves solely on the basis of race.
“Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds,” Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said in an April 2010 press release. “This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.”
Monday’s protest is one of multiple events that MEChA plans to host in order to raise awareness about the law, Aragon said. After the initial protest, students passed out flyers that detailed the time and location of a “teach-in,” in which Yale professors Stephen Pitti, Alicia Camacho and Birgir Rasmussen will dine with students and discuss the effects of the law.
At an organizing meeting on Sunday night with MEChA members and other protest supporters, Aragon said she hoped the group’s actions would make an impact beyond campus. MEChA has been working on activist efforts in conjunction with some high schools in Arizona, and hopes to send them a video montage of their protests to show support.
“We want to be a spectacle, and create awareness against this horrible bill,” Aragon said. “We want to let students in Arizona know that we’re here to support them, even if we’re all the way on the other side of the country. We want legislators in Arizona to know that we are watching.”
The “Teach-In” will take place at 7 p.m. in William L. Harkness Hall on Wednesday.
Clarification Feb. 27
An earlier version of this article implied that Arizona’s House Bill 2281 bans public school curricula of which race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes. That statement should have been attributed to protest organizer Katherine Aragon ’14.