Here is a column that I wrote for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram; see it on their site here. The column will run in their print edition Wednesday or Thursday. The Star-Telegram is the major metro daily newspaper in the area of the Wylie School District, in Texas.
A testy confrontation has developed in the Wylie Independent School District about an editorial cartoon included in a lesson plan, with Gov. Greg Abbott demanding that a teacher be fired and police insisting on an apology. Cartoons can indeed drive people crazy.
A few months ago, a flood of similar editorial cartoons were published, criticizing police brutality after George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Arizona Daily Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons drew a cartoon showing white oppressors over the years, ranging from a slave trader to a member of the Klu Klux Klan, kneeling on the neck of a Black man who is saying, “I can’t breathe.”
The final panel in the cartoon shows the infamous image of a Minneapolis officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
I run a newspaper syndicate, CagleCartoons.com, that distributes Fitzsimmons’ work. Over half of America’s daily, paid-circulation newspapers, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, subscribe to our service. Fitzsimmons is one of the most popular editorial cartoonists in the country.
A teacher posted Fitzsimmons’ cartoon on the Wylie district’s website as part of an assignment for eighth-grade students. In a letter to the district, National Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Joe Gamaldi demanded an apology for posting a “abhorrent and disturbing” cartoon.
“We are willing to sit down with anyone and have a fact-based conversation about our profession, but divisiveness like your teachers showed does nothing to move that conversation forward,” Gamaldi wrote.
Fitzsimmons noted that the day after he saw Gamaldi’s indignant tweet, a Wisconsin cop shot a Black father several times in the back. In front of his children.
“This cartoon was my response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer, diagramming the historic roots of our systemic racism,” Fitzsimmons said. “Perhaps it requires too much moral courage or honest clear-eyed reflection for the National Fraternal Order of Police to funnel their fury at the few racist police officers who disgrace their oath and their badges by disproportionately murdering African Americans.”
Abbott tweeted that the teacher should be fired and called for the Texas Education Agency to investigate. Fitzsimmons called Abbott a “red meat vampire.” “Shame on him, calling for that teacher’s head on a pike.”
The interpretation of an editorial cartoon is part of state-mandated AP History testing in 8th and 11th grade throughout America. School textbooks that “teach to the test” are big clients for editorial cartoonists. Some of Fitzsimmons’ best clients for licensing cartoons are test-preparation companies.
It is the role of eighth-grade teachers to prepare students for these tests and teach them to evaluate controversies in the news by exposing them to different points of view about the issues of the day. There’s no better way to do that than through editorial cartoons. Fitzsimmons’ cartoons are widely used in middle and high school curriculums, not only in the U.S., but around the world.
Fitzsimmons is among the most republished editorial cartoonists in the country, and this cartoon in particular was printed widely in newspapers.
The visual metaphors that editorial cartoonists use can be difficult for some students to understand, and the study of cartoons in schools most often involves the “interpretation” of the cartoon. Cartoonists’ email boxes are filled with variations of a common message: “Please explain your cartoon to me. My paper is due tomorrow.”
Classroom discussions of “what did the cartoonist mean by this?” effectively engage students and prompt them to think about issues from different perspectives.
The Wylie district apologized for using the cartoon. But Fitzsimmons asked: “And what did we learn, children? We must not criticize law enforcement. Ever. Sacred cow.”
Cartoons about issues that don’t evoke passionate views on both sides of an issue don’t provide valuable lessons. The school district is teaching the wrong lesson by removing Fitzsimmons’ cartoon and apologizing.
Fitzsimmons and I give the teacher who used this cartoon an “A” for her assignment. The timid school district, the National Fraternal Order of Police and Abbott each get an “F.”
This is what the column looked like in the newspaper:
This article from television station WFAA tells much more about the school assignment that included David’s cartoon, among others. The assignment “was designed to start a conversation about the Bill of Rights, protests, democracy and freedom of speech.”
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