The Seattle drone rebellion

Given new (positive) developments in contract talks, looks like school may start on time after all. Credit: Photo: Don Brubeck

Seattle is decidedly anti-drone. The community has rejected the Seattle Police Department's use of unmanned aircraft and Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered Police Chief John Diaz to return the model planes to their maker. It's as if a child has gotten ahold of an inappropriate toy — like a BB gun — and has been ordered to march right down to the store to return it.

The controversy could have been avoided, possibly, by using another term for the things, like "model airplanes." "Drones," as they have come to be used by the U.S. military, are viewed as Big Brother's mindless killing machines, violating privacy from the air as well as reigning death. Odd to call it a drone, which is a male bee whose sole job is to have sex with the queen. Are our military drones performing a bizarre kind of imperial impregnation in places like Pakistan? A form of rape from the air?

It is not possible to completely separate the potential value of a drone as a piece of police technology from its use in warfare, where civilians might be surveilled and killed collaterally. In recent decades military technology has been trickling down from the Pentagon to local law enforcement, and the trends — so evident in the streets during the WTO demonstrations in '99 — have only accelerated since 9-11.

We can't seem to ban assault weapons, nor can we hold back the growing arsenals of our own police departments. If common citizens are paranoid about the cops, could at least some of that fear be due to witnessing a steady arms-and-armor build-up on our city streets? Or due to the increasing use of surveillance and tracking technologies, whether setting up cameras in parks or scanning the license plates of parked cars? Could a lack of confidence in city policing at least be somewhat tied to the fact that too many cops look and act like soldiers or spies? The security state can also increase the sense of insecurity.

Mayor McGinn did the right thing sending the drones back to the vendor. If nothing else, they were proof positive that people are willing to imagine the worst of a department that is under the eye of the Department of Justice and various appointed overseers for being too quick to violence.

In another way too, Seattle is rebelling against drones — in the sense of opposing mindless monotony. The teacher-student protest over the MAP tests at Garfield High School have raised a question about the school district's use of tests: Tests that don't reflect the curriculum and are used to determine the fate of teachers, not students.

This comes at a sensitive time as "education reformers" are gaining traction in Olympia. Apostate Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina says that schools don't need more money so much as they need to better measure inputs and outcomes. And Sen. Steve Litzow of Bellevue wants to begin grading schools from A to F, just as the young inmates are graded.

The "reformers" seem seized by a mania for testing and metrics and demanding measures and accountability. The focus is on making schools more like machines or software. "Reform" seems to involve assigning everyone a grade or a number and pushing people toward the jobs for which industry wants people trained, or conditioned.

While we "reform" education, what about returning to a true mission of education? To cultivate independent, thinking, creative citizens capable not simply of employment but of functioning productively in a democracy. Our schools as institutions still seem far too much like widget factories and daycare centers, not places where critical thinking is cultivated from an early age.

Tom is right that it's not solely about more money. But too much of the reform is focused on increasing metrics rather than humanity. And the definition of education is wrong: It's not simply per-student spending, but funding a social safety net that can make serious education possible for more people.

The Garfield rebellion is a welcome sign of life; a sign that a school system committed to tests for the sake of tests is not acceptable. Neither is producing more drones.

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