On Thursday, I attended a protest organized by Philadelphia Student Union, Boat People SOS, and Asian Americans United.
When I arrived at the school district’s central office at 4:30, a small group of young people and adults already stood gathered on the steps under a large banner, “IT’S OUR DUTY TO FIGHT FOR FREEDOM.” Other people trickled in, and slowly a crowd built. Periodically an organizer would ask the new arrivals to come up onto the steps and plaza, making clear alignments between the youth and their supporters massing on the steps, and the press and police still lining the Broad Street curb.
A young woman standing near me carried multiple hand-lettered placards. As the late-afternoon wind gusted, several other students approached to help her hold the signs:
Black Lives Matter
Fund Schools, Not Prisons
KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE
I was strongly reminded of how all activism, like all politics, is local.
As opening speeches by PSU members made clear, students aligned their action not only with the demonstrations arising following the extra-judicial killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner but also as part of ongoing efforts to protest Philadelphia school closures and budget cuts that have further decimated the city’s already broken and violent education system. Defining violence as “the power to hurt someone’s chances at survival,” student leaders put forth a set of demands, such as adequate funding for school staff, including nurses; an end to building new prisons, especially at the expense of schools; and the return of militarized weaponry from the city and district to the military.
During the die-in itself, protesters lay (and allies sat) for six minutes, in honor of 6th-grader Laporshia Massey, who died last year following an asthma attack on a day when her school had no nurse on staff to properly identify the 12-year-old’s level of distress and get her to a hospital.
Space was limited, in the middle of the crowd, and a small tangle of young men next to me ended up bunched up awkwardly against one another as they lay on the paving. Someone’s head lay against another’s abdomen. A backpack got crammed under a neighbor’s knee. They alternated between giggling and being solemn. More precisely, they alternated between striving to make each other giggle and working to maintain their own composure. (Let me here fully own up to my own bleary-eyed middle-aged sentimentality! that gave me such as glow to overhear these young people negotiating their way through the proximities of such embodied protest.)
“Black stomachs matter!” whispered one of the teenagers near the end, setting off one final round of suppressed chortles.
I went to the protest with a friend, a former teacher in the Philly public schools who studies (among many other things) the histories and strategies of various protest movements. Like me, A is a middle-aged white woman, and at some point we shared our appreciation for how the position of “ally” is actively articulated in the context of such die-ins. Separated as I was not only by race but also age and school-affiliation from the organizers and other subjects of this event, I wanted to be very clear (to myself, as I had no expectation for anyone else to notice, barring obviously inappropriate behavior) why I was there and whom my physical presence was supporting. Basically, remembering that it’s on me to be a help not a hindrance — or to just stay home.
After the six minutes were up, we all stood. Students in the front-and-center space of the crowd gave more speeches and performed poetry, aided by a portable PA system that directed their voices outward, towards the press. In the back of the crowd where I stood, their words were difficult to make out. I was not there as either audience member or spectator. I listened the best I could.
Mostly I heard voices from a small group of other white people standing near me.
First, an older white man — stooped with age, his hair gone fully white though his beard remained grizzled — approached two white women who looked about my age. “Have you heard about our town halls?” he asked. The last one had been “really big,” he added, as he offered them each a small xeroxed page. “I just made up these flyers today.” After exchanging chitchat and smiles, the short old man continued on, and the two women turned back toward the direction where the young people were speaking.
Next, a tall white man standing just in front of them turned around and smiled down at them. He had apparently been listening to the previous interchange and had his own upcoming protest to hawk. “Have you heard about our MLK action? Gonna be really big. Really coalitional,” he grinned.
I wish I could say I had a better response then (or had thought of a better one by today) that might have redirected these people. Or drawn their attention to the offensiveness of ignoring the black youth and other young people of color we were all ostensibly there that afternoon to support — instead currying support for future actions they themselves would lead. I feared drawing even more attention away from the distant voices.
Though I did chant loudly in their direction during the next call-and-response of “No justice! No peace!” I’m sure the gesture was noticeable only to me.
Hard to know, what all the layers of power imbalances were playing out in that back-of-the-crowd chatter. Unchecked white privilege, I’m sure, and age disrespecting youth. Also gender norms, I thought, struck by how the men approached the women and not one another, as they sought — and found — polite reception for their impolite actions. The power divide between teachers and students was a strong factor too, I finally realized, as a few other white women came up to my neighbors and began introductions: almost all of them were professors of Education at local-area colleges and universities. Introducing the only non-education professor in the group, her friend said reassuringly: “She believes in Ed. She’s one of us.”
As the event broke up and the students led a final cry of “Black lives matter!” a narrow-faced white man behind me shouted over them: “MLK DAY OF SERVICE!” As we made our way back to A’s car, she confided in me how the shouter reminded her of so many former teaching colleagues, aging activists unwilling to acknowledge the capacity of students to lead themselves.
The young people of the three groups that organized the die-in (Philadelphia Student Union, Boat People SOS, and Asian Americans United) clearly have that capacity. I want to end this recap by sharing a powerful staging choice they made, so effective a demonstration of allyship that in the moment I didn’t appreciate how fully orchestrated its appearance of spontaneity must have been.
About 15 minutes after the stated start time, I and others noticed a crowd of people far down Broad Street, carrying signs and marching towards us. Too far away for any details to be clear, even the messages drawn across the brown corrugated cardboard many of them carried.
As they drew nearer, I began to see faces and read signs. Like the posterboards held by those already on the steps, their signs read “Black lives matter!” and “No justice = No peace” — and also additional messages in logograms of Chinese or other Asian languages. In a moving demonstration of solidarity and support, these representatives of the Asian-American and Asian immigrant populations of Philadelphia — led by youth — marched up the steps and took their place beside the protesters already assembled.
I’m sure mine were not the only eyes tearing up.
Young people’s voices matter. Communities in solidarity matter. Leadership by students — and the ownership they assert over their own lives and destinies — matter.
And yes, #BlackLivesMatter.
[Credit for all non-Twitter photos taken by my friend A, who’s much quicker and more skilled with her camera-phone than I!]