A group of public school teachers in Staten Island planned to wear T-shirts supporting the New York Police Department to the first day of school yesterday, but most backed off after warnings from their union, the United Federation of Teachers. The Staten Island Advance reports that more than 600 shirts reading “New York’s Brightest Supports New York’s Finest #ThankYouNYPD” were purchased from a specialty T-shirt printing company in Staten Island earlier this month. A group of teachers, pictured above, reportedly from P.S. 220 in Queens, posted photos of themselves in NYPD shirts in an apparent act of solidarity, although it’s not clear if they actually wore them to class.
The teachers are angry that the UFT officially supported last month’s Al Sharpton-led march protesting the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner, who died in July after being placed in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. A statement posted to the UFT’s Facebook page on August 16 read, in part, “The UFT has a long history of activism on behalf of our students, their families and all the communities of our city. UFT members who choose to take part in Saturday’s march will be continuing that history. We support the right to due process for all people, especially police officers, who often do difficult jobs under trying circumstances. We know that justice in the wake of Eric Garner’s tragic death will best be served by a thorough and transparent investigation.”
Almost immediately, an online petition was circulated calling on UFT President Mike Mulgrew to resign. It was started by Diane Morton-Gattullo, a paraprofessional at P.S. 29, and garnered about 1,700 signatures. Meanwhile, a Facebook group, UFT Members for the NYPD, has 156 members. They expressed their rage after teachers got e-mail and text reminders from their union Wednesday afternoon reminding them to “dress professionally” for the first day of class, according to the Advance. The paper says the message added:
The DOE has reason to believe that there may be protests in the form of tee shirts that will be worn to school tomorrow. They would like us to remind you that as public employees, one must remain objective at all times. Certain tee shirt messages may appear to be supportive, but individuals may see a different meaning in that message. Principals may report any inappropriate apparel to the chancellor.
A few defiant teachers, though, said in the Facebook group that they would wear the shirts regardless of the UFT’s directive. Raymond Cottrell, a science teacher at Myra S. Barnes middle school, vowed, “I will be wearing NYPD shirts all week.” Maria Stokes, a physical education teacher at Tottenville High School, said she’d worn one to the first day of class, and posted the picture at right to prove it. And several teachers said they’d cancel their monthly payments towards COPE, the UFT’s political action fund.
The Police Benevolent Association is also furious. The PBA is the NYPD’s largest union; its president, Patrick Lynch, has released a series of defiant and often controversial statements in the wake of Garner’s death. He accused the UFT of using “management-like scare tactics” to suppress the teachers’ right to free speech. His full statement reads:
Teachers wearing NYPD shirts to school only underscores the solid relationship that exists between rank and file teachers and police officers. Mike Mulgrew needs to consider the opinions of the vast majority of his members before misusing their dues money to support anti-police issues. Besides, what could be inappropriate about showing support for the police department that protects teachers and students alike? I also find it odd that a union would use management-like scare tactics in order to suppress the free expression of their members’ ideas. That goes against all of the principles for which unions stand.
The other side of the argument is pretty clear: that a teacher, especially a white one, wearing a shirt supporting the NYPD to class would create a hostile learning environment for black teenagers. In a widely shared tweet, MSNBC segment producer Jamil Smith said just that:
I’m a black kid in a classroom, and my teacher walks in rocking an NYPD t-shirt, protesting black protest. I’m supposed to learn from her?
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) September 5, 2014
The UFT hasn’t officially commented on the T-shirt kerfuffle, although its Facebook page is filled with angry comments from teachers who feel their shirt-wearing liberty has been trampled upon.