How One Educator Transformed an Act of Police Brutality into a Force for Good

After he was pepper-sprayed in the face, activist and Seattle Public School teacher Jesse Hagopian founded a racial justice scholarship

Turning an act of violence into a force for good, a Seattle public school teacher who was pepper-sprayed by police announced Monday that his $100,000 settlement will be used to support students “who have demonstrated the power of activism in pursuit of racial and social justice.”

Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian, who helped organize the school’s historicstandardized test boycott as well as racial justice protests, was sprayed in the face by a Seattle police officer while talking on the phone shortly after addressing a Black Lives Matter protest held on last year’s Martin Luther King holiday.

Though the act—which was caught on video—was unprovoked, the offending officer only received a verbal reprimand, a punishment that was downgraded from a one-day suspension after the Chief of Police personally intervened. Hagopian filed a $500,000 claim against the city and, according to the Seattle Times, reached a settlement last month.

“This isn’t justice. Justice would be actually disciplining for the officer and insuring accountability for the police,” Hagopian said at a joint press conference and award ceremony along with the Seattle NAACP. “But this money will help us support youth and community organizations who are in the struggle for justice.”

With a significant portion of the settlement, Hagopian has now founded the “Black Education Matters Activist Scholar Award,” which was awarded to its first recipients on Monday.

The award, which includes a gift of $1,000, will be given annually to Seattle-area students “whose actions demonstrate Martin Luther King’s belief that, ‘Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.'”

This year’s recipients include:

  • Ifrah Abshif, whose work founding the Transportation Justice Movement for Orca Cards—among other volunteer activities— secured transportation funds for all low-income Seattle Public School students who live more than a mile from their schools. Abshif is headed to the University of Washington as a Pre-Med student with a Social Justice focus.
  • Ahlaam Ibraahim serves as an advocate for marginalized communities, particularly the Islamic community, each year hosting the “Global Islamophobia Awareness Day” event at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. According to the press statement, Ibraahim “uses journalism to advocate for student needs,” from “sending tweets regarding potentially dangerous school building conditions to writing articles and contacting school administration when students have faced racism or destination due to religion.” She will go to the University of Washington, majoring in Education Policy with a minor in Journalism.
  • Mercelas Owens is an activist and transgender student whose advocacy for the LGBTQ community “has help to support students at Garfield High School and helped her gain an invitation to President Obama’s recent LGBTQ gala event.”

According to the press statement, the recipients “have demonstrated the power of  activism in pursuit of racial and social justice in their school and broader community.