The Case of a Clock: America’s School to Prison Pipeline Personified

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Over-policing? Islamophobia? Writer Jamilah King discusses how Ahmed’s case is a part of a disturbing trend. – September 20, 2015

ANGEL ELLIOT, PRODUCER, TRNN: I’m Angel Elliott with the Real News Network in Baltimore.

In a country where math and science programs rank 51st in the world, you’d think scientific ingenuity would be rewarded. But no, here in the United States of America, in this age of mass incarceration, you get arrested. At least that was the case for 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed. He was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to MacArthur High School. A clock that school officials say they believe could have been a bomb. Ahmed is a Muslim-American.

Textbook kid behavior has been criminalized, and this isn’t the first time a kid of color has been arrested in similar circumstances. Joining me to discuss this is Jamilah King. Jamilah King is currently senior staff at Mic.com. Her work focuses on race, arts and culture. She’s appeared on Salon, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and Advocate, just to name a few. Thanks for joining me, Jamilah.

JAMILAH KING: No problem.

ELLIOTT: So for our viewers, could you just run through what happened to Ahmed Mohamed?

KING: Sure. So on Monday Mohamed, who is a freshman at a high school right outside of Dallas, he brought a homemade clock to school. Robotics is something that he’s been interested in since middle school, and this was his way of sort of ingratiating himself with a new school community. It turns out once he brought the clock to school, teachers were alarmed and they thought that it was a bomb. And so they called campus security, there’s a photo of him that was circulating on the internet of him in handcuffs, basically, as he was arrested for–I think the charge was something along the lines of making a fake bomb. And he’s wearing a NASA t-shirt. This is a kid who’s obviously really, really interested in science and was punished for it.

ELLIOTT: Right. And this isn’t the first time that a kid of color who’s interested in science has been arrested for basically doing their, their school job. Talk to me about Kiera Wilmot, and the things that you outlined in your article.

KING: Sure. So Kiera is now a freshman at Florida Polytechnic University. She’s majoring in mechanical engineering. But two years ago she was a high school student much like Ahmed in Florida. What happened to her there, she did a science experiment in her biology class that–it exploded. She used common household things like foil and toilet bowl cleaner to make it. And she was actually suspended, and she faced expulsion for essentially the same thing. Essentially putting people in danger because of her science project.

When I spoke to her on the phone recently, it’s something that’s still very, very scarring to her. She says that even though she’s still pursuing a career in science she was really, really worried that this incident would hold her back. And in fact the admissions committee at her school, at her university, actually asked her to explain the event. Explain what happened, and justify it. And this was before–she hadn’t been convicted of anything. But at the time her case got a lot of attention.

And so you see this as this very, very trouble pattern of kids of color getting caught in the crossfire of a few different competing forces. One is the fact that just–I think schools in general don’t know a lot about how science works. But also you see these kids who are kids of color who are punished for their curiosity.

ELLIOTT: Right, exactly. And you see the zero tolerance policies of schools played out on these children who are simply curious, and basically being fed into the school to prison pipeline. Talk to me about that.

KING: Right. So the school to prison pipeline is something that advocates have long, long tried to illustrate for the public. It’s something that’s coming much more into focus now. But it’s essentially the ways in which security apparatuses in schools, whether that’s campus security, whether that’s the use of suspensions which disproportionately impact students of color, those things become sort of the gateway to a child being caught up in a system of imprisonment, right. So if they commit an offense or if they even do something wrong at school they get in trouble for it. And instead of being, you know, punished in the way that we were traditionally thought of you go to the principal’s office, you get a stern talking-to, these kids are taken to jail, they’re processed.

And actually it’s been proven that if a child is suspended from school once that increases their likelihood of having some interaction with the criminal justice community by four times. And so it’s really, really, really dangerous. It’s something that folks are now paying a lot more attention to. But it’s something that becomes really pronounced when you see these gross injustices of kids who were just curious, and they’re being essentially locked up for something that normally would be rewarded.

ELLIOTT: Right. And speaking of rewarded, in 2008 when–there’s a nuclear physicist now who in 2008 he was 14 years old. He’s a white American kid. He built a nuclear reactor in his home. And instead of being locked up or looked at suspiciously, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy they actually contacted him and said hey, do you want to use our equipment? We will help you however we can. And they rewarded his ingenuity. So it’s a gross disparity that you see that has been played out for years and years.

KING: Right. And I think it also speaks to the fact that the science, technology, engineering and math fields are incredibly white. This is something that’s been talked about recently when you have places like Google and Twitter, they release diversity statistics every year. And every year you see that these companies are very aggressively white.

And so there’s been a lot of research done to say that you know, you have to start when kids are young. You have to sort of develop a curiosity, you have to harness that curiosity while a child’s education–in order for them to develop a pipeline that goes from school to college and then into creating things.

ELLIOTT: Right. And you know, back to Ahmed, folks are saying that it’s not just the zero tolerance policies that caused him to be arrested. It’s also a sense of Islamophobia. And you know, you saw in the headlines, Muslim teen arrested. Talk to me about that.

KING: Sure. So actually, the town that Ahmed is from, Irving, TX, has a pretty long and troubling history of Islamophobia itself. Its mayor, various people in power have had very contentious relationships with folks in the Muslim-American community. And I think that that speaks to the broader issue, right, of the fact that not just in the South or in places that might not expect to be racially diverse or religiously diverse, you do have a sense of a space in which Islamophobia is not actually addressed right. And so I think what you see is you see this [inaud.] of xenophobia.

And when I say people I mean white people, I mean the folks who are in these smaller towns. They’re afraid of folks who are coming to the United States, who are building communities, who are building–who are bringing their cultures with them. And this is sort of a tension that you’ve seen throughout American history. But I think it’s become especially pronounced in recent years, and you see it kind of explode in instances like this.

ELLIOTT: Right, and it’s even exploded for this presidential election that hasn’t really even happened yet. You have Donald Trump who has, who recently had a campaign rally. And one of his supporters stood up and said something like, our president is Muslim and the problem with this country is because there are all these Muslims here and they’re trying to kill us. And he didn’t do anything to negate that comment. He didn’t say, this is wrong, no, our president isn’t Muslim. But even if he was, why would that be a problem in this country?

KING: Right. And I mean, I think one of the things that you see in that instance is the fact that for–like, Donald Trump is very much playing to the most extreme sort of elements of the right wing establishment. But you’re seeing increasingly it’s not that extreme, right. He’s popular for a reason, and I think that reason is because you have a lot of folks who are afraid of sort of a new America. They’re afraid of what we’re calling diversity or demographic change. And he’s playing on that, and he’s building it up.

I think that you’ll see a lot more of that as the election goes on. And it’s something that’s going to become much, much more pronounced. And it’s very telling, the folks I spoke with this week about the story made a point of saying that it’s really disappointing that no president has really come out and stood alongside Muslim-American communities. They’re always on the defensive. And so I think that’s something that not just advocates but allies, and just Americans in general, are going to have to confront and deal with.

ELLIOTT: Right. You know what, unfortunately I don’t think that this is the last case of it that plays out on a national stage that we’re going to see in the foreseeable future. Thanks so much for joining us, Jamilah, I hope you come back.

KING: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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