One Year Ago: Notes From A Student Activist

By Bretton Barber, Dearborn, MI

It is my sincere hope that there will be a time in everyone’s life that defines them. It may come during a time of peril, joy, or even ordinariness, when it is least suspected. For myself, that moment came one year ago this week in a time of great distress, when the nation was on the brink of war with Iraq. After having lived with the Bush Administration for three years, I was quite depressed. During the short time he was in office, the president had managed to instill fear into the hearts of countless Americans. He did this in the gay community with his support of sodomy laws, like the ones struck down by the Supreme Court last June. He did this to women with his support, and later his signature, of the so called "partial-birth abortion" bill. But now he was going to do this in the international community, with an unjust, pre-emptive war. It was time to speak up.

While I had always been active in the political scene, never before was I joined by so many others. There was a large, visible, organized, cohesive group of people that shared my sentiments. I attended anti-war rallies where hundreds of others were willing to come and show their colors. Having been involved with the movement, it was only natural that I would bring that sentiment into my school. So I decided to wear a shirt to spark some discussion regarding the war.

The t-shirt said "International Terrorist", with a picture of George Bush sandwiched between the words. Now all that I had to do was wait for someone to engage me in conversation, so we could discuss the situation. In my first hour class, we were assigned a "compare and contrast" essay, and students could share their works with the class. My essay drew comparisons between Saddam Hussein and George Bush. After presenting my essay with the shirt on, I was sure someone else would want to speak up about the situation in the country. But no one did. In fact, I wore the shirt for three hours, and there was little said about it. No one engaged me; no one wanted to talk. It seemed as though apathy was omnipresent in my high school, and no t-shirt could change that. But then it did, in a different form.

During my lunch period, the vice principal approached me. He asked me to either turn the t-shirt inside out or go home. He told me that it was "promoting terrorism," and that it was inappropriate. (Later the school would say they were also afraid it would stir up disruption because my school has a very high Arab-American population, as if all Arab-Americans feel the same way about George Bush, and they cannot control themselves in a school environment.) I refused to turn it inside out, and then went home.

I knew that his decision was wrong, as I had studied students’ rights in the past. In fact, the Supreme Court already settled the issue over thirty years ago. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the court ruled "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." For this reason I called some local media outlets and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). What I thought might lead to an appearance on the six o’ clock news turned into an international media story.

My defining moment had come. From CNN and the Today Show, to the New York Times and USA Today, the story was everywhere. I was interviewed dozens of times, including by international outlets such as Japanese TV, German TV, and the BBC. NBC even flew me to New York to appear on the Today Show. But the most exciting part was the dialogue that started. From my school, to the city I live in, to dinner tables across the country, people were talking about issues that mattered: the First Amendment, the war in Iraq, the rights of students. Although we still went to war, there is no doubt that in some, miniscule way, I contributed to the debate at the national level, and got some people thinking.

Further more, wheels started to turn in my head regarding the rights of student expression. While it was so obvious to me, there was a large group of people who felt it was appropriate to censor political speech in our public schools. Reaffirming this right on the national level was of great importance, as there are many students in this country that may not be aware of their rights. If I could do it all over again, I would not change a thing. With the ACLU, I did sue my school, and I did win that lawsuit in federal court. It was ruled that Dearborn High School had violated my constitutional rights to free expression, and I am now able to wear the shirt as I please. And now, not only have I been vindicated with regards to my right to wear the shirt, it seems as though I have been vindicated in my anti-war beliefs as well. No WMD’s have been found, the major premise for invading Iraq. Even gloomier, we are still counting the casualties. Over 500 Americans and thousands of Iraqis have died in this campaign, and the numbers are rising every day. My vindication is bittersweet, with news of every new death in Iraq. But death and destruction aren’t the only things that have happened since the shirt was worn.

After the lawsuit, many doors started opening. I began doing volunteer work with the ACLU of Michigan, particularly their LGBT project. Seeing the importance of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) during my work at the ACLU, I decided to start one of my own. With the help of friends and teachers, we were able to start a GSA at the local community college, where I take classes. I also became a columnist for Michigan’s LGBT newspaper, Between the Lines. My experiences and volunteer work will certainly be a part of my life forever. It has been rewarding and fulfilling.

My hope is that you, too, will have a defining moment. Perhaps, like with me, your defining moment will come as a result of your decision to become involved. And all I can tell you is this: When it comes, truly live that moment. Take it all in, and let it become a part of who you are. Because if you do, you will not only better yourself, but you will touch the lives of countless others, in ways that you have never could have imagined.

Bretton Barber is a high-school student in Southeastern Michigan. He is currently writing his first book, Being Different. Bretton has a particular interest in civil liberties, especially those of gays and youth, and may be reached at [email protected].