Illusory Protection: Chess & The Prison Industrial Complex

Posted By on December 02, 2015 @ 2:30 PM | OP-EDs

He confused science fiction with science facts, He couldn’t separate the block, from recorded tracks – GZA, Illusory Protection

In 2006, I created the Hip-Hop Chess Federation to teach kids chess and correlating life skills. A few years ago, a young Black female student tried to sneak past me in the lobby at John O’Connell High School where I worked as a security guard. She was late. Being the ever inquisitive security guard, I slipped into stealth mode. It was a hot morning. As she tried to skip through the lobby entrance I playfully popped outta the shadows and said “What time is it?!”

The girl grabbed her phone from her front pocket and glanced at her phone- it was off. “ I dunno what time it is!” Half startled and irritated from my AM kung-fu moves.

For a soundless second her eyes blinked between my face and the face on the clock. Her shoulders sagged- her chin dropped like a scolded toddler. “I can’t tell time” she confessed. “Please don’t tell anybody, it’s embarrassing. Nobody knows.”

I shook my head “I won’t tell anybody, but you better learn to tell time. It’s not cool. That is a fundamental life skill. Get to class.”

I spent the next few weeks just looking at misgivings in the academic and emotional maturity of a lot of Black and Latino high school students. Gaps in basic math and English are present among these populations and according to NPR, “a new report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education says that only 58 percent of Latino male ninth graders graduate high school in four years. Only 52 percent of black males graduate in that length of time and that’s compared to 78 percent of white non-Latino ninth graders.” Beyond that, we are witnessing what appears to be a near total collapse in past cultural standards, such as eye contact when meeting and proper etiquette when speaking with teachers and administrators, which have almost vanished from youth culture.

Arash Daneshzadeh speaking at Pitzer College.

In chess there is a positional situation called “Illusory Protection”. Essentially your opponent puts you in a position where when you in a threatening situation. In your counter move, you think you are protected- but you are not. You are still vulnerable to attack and being checkmated.

We get up every morning, kiss our kids on the head and go into work. Most of us feel like they are getting an education that will give them an edge. The truth is, that is not happening. These schools are giving parents and children a sense of illusory protection, simply because they attend. With the dropout rates as high as they are, it’s clearly not a safe move to keep on the path we now stand. The structural imbalance between communities and school personnel is reflected in broken relationships that, at times, fester into symptoms related to the school-to-prison pipeline. And students are blamed for resisting curriculum that fails to acknowledge their autonomy and their cultural loam. In short, “school norming” is a euphemism for cultural erasure and student defiance amounts to self-defense. Enter: The intersections between conscious resistance, hip hop as an echo chamber of historically marginalized communities, and martial arts as defiance of oppressive indoctrination. There’s a contradiction in terms that schools give “voice” or “protection”, and by extension–power–to students. Students have voice and power, their narratives and voices simply need to be heard and their identities acknowledged through a compendium of channels. The illusory protection is borne from this false binary that students, children, are empty receptacles who require development, rather than space to develop and be their own protectors–with elastic guidance, of course.

I recently saw a quote that said “Violence is Black children going to school for twelve years, but only getting a sixth grade education.” That used to apply mainly to Black people, but now it’s pretty much a nationwide theme. My friend Cheo Coker once referred to it as “the niggerization of America.” What was once reserved just for us, is now an American standard.

As a parent, this is more than just flipping the coin between public schools vs. charters. This is about what appears to be a collapse of the American Education system itself- across the board. This is about an intellectual avalanche of underfunded districts, broken families, out of touch administrators, and ill equipped teachers. We are currently squandering the cornerstone of America’s most precious resource- our children.

In the HHCF we have a life strategy concept called “The Three C’s: College, Career and Crime”. The first C teaches kids that college is a proven path to greatness and sustaining a good life. The second C guides those who are not fans of college to focus on a trade like computer coding, construction or mechanics. If an individual neglects to do either of the first two, crime is the predictable outcome. This crime will happen not because of a bad moral core, but from a fundamental need to survive. This helps HHCF kids learn the value of staying focused on their life path with a sense of purpose.

HHCF teaches concepts beyond common chess themes such as “unity in diversity.”

Today everyone is talking about the reality of The New Jim Crow. Yet we fail to understand that the failing American Education system is the breeding ground for The New Jim Crow to thrive. These undereducated, unemployable boys and girls are lost in a rap video fantasy so far from reality- it’s terrifying.

Walking into the four-storied concrete building that houses John O’Connell High School in San Francisco’s Mission District, I notice the flyer that my partner—Adisa Banjoko with Hip Hop Chess Federation– has taped on the inside of the front door. It reads, “Parents come support your students tonight!”

Immediately a windfall of concentric community issues raid the recesses of my mind like autumn leaves in an abandoned park. As the former Director of Community Programs at John O’Connell and Director of Educational Programming at HHCF, I am responsible for forging the intersections of play and learning central to after school programming. Behind me, the disruptive cacophony of traffic whistles urge motorists to skirt the emerging condominium construction sites incrementally placed like wildfire across the crevasses of the urban enclave, no doubt a hallmark of the city’s decades-wrestling with gentrification’s unrelenting grapple. I think about the parents, and where they’ll possibly park on this displaced road. Subsequently, I think about the administrators and sundry supervisors who will –like clockwork—blame the parents for their lack of imagination and will for “failing” to show up for their children during our Hip Hop Chess event.

The implications of under-employment, misrepresented public policy, elusive health care, trapping poverty, and other human-made malaise span broadly across our social milieus. In the case of gentrification, and its corollary symptoms upon infrastructure, one can reasonably forecast the cycle of community persecution that will ensue at the next staff meeting, if parents are scantily represented at yet another event at the school whose only parking lot is actually the outdoor basketball court which shares a space with the neighborhood Garden Project and is only open during after school hours, if not usurped exclusively for school board personnel. Nonetheless, the opportunity to connect competition to opportunity for institutional protection looms large for students, many of whom bashfully admit to Adisa and me that they are novices at the table and will need a refresher course of identifying their rooks, pawns, and queens.

Leading a short orientation on the illusory protection of one’s king via specific and sequential moves involving the knight and bishop, Adisa demonstrates the futility of sovereignty in chess, if one does not have a larger understanding of how the entire dynamic of power interplays. One student, Donzel whom we fondly refer to as “Zelly”, whispers in no uncertain terms that he’s just happy to be out of his group home. A sophisticated analysis of Donzel’s comment may unfurl layers of context to find intersections of racial isolation and poverty that bend into a lens of marginalization. Nonetheless, the ownership that Donzel, no longer a fledgling at chess, feels for his school manifests into the leadership he demonstrates during the event. On this day, Donzel who is a senior, sits at a chess table with a freshman student, playing with only half the pieces whilst several students carefully exchange words of allegiance, encouragement, and friendly competition behind them in an oblong crowd. It is at this moment that I realize that Donzel has fomented his own impromptu learning opportunity. One that rests on the fundamental understanding that leadership is learning: the willingness to learn from others and share—not hoard—knowledge in order to refine what understanding was pre-existing. Asymmetrically, the principal asks how many students showed up for our event the next day, I say about 40, and he makes a hollow attempt to placate my assumed disappointment by saying “well, you’ll do better next time,” adding, “hopefully they show up with their homework done today”.

Adisa Banjoko before speaking at Harvard University in 2013.

With dispiriting regularity, educational successes and failures are measured by outcomes easily corrupted by context such as language barriers and circumstances germane to poverty and our racialized economic model. It is the illusory protection of social fractures which cajoles the citizenry to participate in its civic obligation to pay taxes in a market-based society. This daft protection is a promise fraught with distortions that suggest poor students, particularly those of color, are only validated by their economic contributions whose vestiges start in the form of appraised value in the classroom. This idea, by my estimation is bankrupt as an intellectual design.

As demonstrated by Donzel, whose appetite for teaching (even unbeknownst to him) resonates with his peers given that his leadership was borne of mutualistic understanding. He is still learning. He is still a student—just like them, and vows to never stop being a student. That is the pillar upon which his bold attempt to facilitate a learning opportunity rests. Leadership is not subpoenaed by destiny, but rather a close juxtaposition of teacher and learner, inclined by parity to enjoy the process itself, of understanding another’s opponent. Of course, in this model, it is incumbent that the chess player assumes the opponent as a mentor and thereby a worthy adversary deserving of meticulous preparation.

The disparities in educational opportunities can be redressed. The underlying question is, what is the purpose of education? To endorse the economic model of subservience or to subvert hegemony by encouraging creative action and igniting agency. The former often amounts to a purpose far below the lofty expectations arranged for students from wealthier whiter areas of San Francisco. In those communities after school chess is an expectation that does not need to be validated through test scores or retroactive attendance strips. However, student leadership (no less potent as that of adults) is rendered dormant through paternalistic expectations. It will only come to the light of curricular norm when we channel the perspectives of the very students we’ve written off as disposable, rather than emerging leaders. Inoculating these leaders in academic vectors, requires more than a promise to protect them through security guards and stringent class schedules, but rather, a space like after school chess, in which electrified curiosities can cast light over the grim shadow of shallow purpose.

Written By: Adisa Banjoko and Arash Daneshzadeh

Adisa Banjoko is Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. Arash Daneshzadeh is Director of Education Programs at Hip-Hop Chess Federation and a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership at the University of California, Davis. For more information visit or follow @hiphopchess on Snapchat.

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