You could feel the fear in the room. Students—all graduates from the Social Justice Humanitas Academy now studying at UCLA—gathered to talk about their college experience, and they did a little. But mostly they talked about what would happen to them and their families under the bullying regime of Donald Trump. “How will I care for my little brothers and sisters (born in the U.S.) if they take my parents away,” said one. Given what the Los Angeles Times called plans to deport up to 8-million people, the student’s fears are justified.
These are the kids who did everything right. They went to school, got good grades, stayed off drugs, and avoided gangs. They had grasped the golden ring of a highly selective university, and despite struggles were thriving. Then Trump replaced hope with hate, fear mongering, and pandering to the alt-right.
Mature adults surrounded the students. Some had been their high school teachers; all formed a shield of empathy, and defiance. This little scene, which I witnessed at the Teacher Powered Schools conference, is playing out all over the state as California resists Trump and articulates a counter narrative.
The state is clearly positioning itself to battle Trump. Gov. Jerry Brown offered up fiery defiance in his state-of-the-state speech, an address that most commonly features a laundry list of achievements and aspirations.
The often-taciturn Brown, said “This is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance.” His last sentence was a call to arms. “California is not turning back. Not now, not ever,” he said.
The state has thrown down several markers. Former U.S. House Democratic Chairman Xavier Becerra, has been confirmed as the state’s attorney general replacing Kamala Harris, now a U.S. Senator and visible presence at last week’s protests. The legislature has hired the law firm of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder.
In the last week, there have been rumblings that the state might withhold taxes it collects from the federal coffers. It’s a serious strategy being explored by the powerful former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
And a secession movement, dubbed Calexit, is bouncing around. It’s mostly entertainment value, but it marks the distance between the Golden State and Trump’s minority-elected administration. (For those interested in historical footnotes: California was for a short time “the Bear Flag Republic.” The bear survives on the state flag along with the words “California Republic.”
The distance is great and the stakes high. As the news and commentary service Capital & Main said, “For the past two decades, California has been on the cutting edge of social and economic change in America. Now, with Donald Trump about to enter the Oval Office, the Golden State is poised to take on a new role: leader of the anti-Trump resistance.” Even so, the state is vulnerable. More than a third of the state’s budget is money passed through from the federal government.
More than 61% of the state’s voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton. The state has enacted a $15 minimum wage, has its own clean energy standards and vigorous air quality enforcement. It has established an automatic retirement saving plan for workers. Obamacare eligibility has been extended to undocumented residents, and Brown in his speech vowed to protect that coverage. Brown has vowed to oppose any efforts to roll back its pioneering environmental policies. A number of California cities have declared themselves sanctuaries, and they show no signs of softening.
The California Counter-Narrative transcends resistance; it’s a model of a nation-state that fundamentally differs from Trump’s and particularly the anti-institutional rhetoric of his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. His well-articulated political philosophy is important because Trump talks mostly in 140-character tweets, and he pays a great deal of attention to Bannon. Whether or not Bannon said the oft-repeated, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” his documented statements and political speech come close enough.
However imperfectly, The California Counter-Narrative is built on diversity, inclusion, and empathy. It’s also built on a belief that a state can encourage both wildly successful entrepreneurship and government that works. The root difference between California and the pack of GOP-led states is that California believes in its institutions, particularly its public schools. California wants to make them better rather than undermine them. Its education reform measures disrupt the status quo, but don’t destroy it. It’s new finance and accountability measures have been called the most substantive in four decades. It’s not Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, or Indiana that will lead this country; it’s California. More often than not, it’s on the right side of history.
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.