Equity & Diversity

‘It’s All We Can Talk About': High Schoolers React to Protests Over Police Violence

By Arianna Prothero — June 08, 2020 6 min read
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Across the country, high school students have joined in protests over police brutality following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

They have also organized their own demonstrations in Seattle, Wash.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and St. Paul, Minn.; to name a few.

The massive nationwide protests against police violence and racism mark a historical moment that is coming on the cusp of adulthood for many teenagers belonging to a generation that has been flexing its activism over climate change, gun control, and racial inequality.

They see parallels in the inequalities that people of color face in the greater world within their own school buildings. They are scared because they see themselves in videos of black men being killed. But they also see reason for optimism in the sheer numbers of people turning out to protest in their own communities and across the nation.

Education Week spoke with five graduating and rising seniors from New York, the District of Columbia, and San Diego to get their take on how current events are shaping their views on education and their futures.

“Seeing that video, I didn’t think it would become as big as it has been,” said Obrian Rosario, an 18-year-old from New York City. “When it first dropped on my timeline, it was just another black person being killed and it was something that I had grown numb to, unfortunately. And to see how it has sparked actual change and protest throughout the nation has been really fulfilling.”

Rosario is a graduating senior from Brooklyn Technical High School and lives in the Queens borough of New York. He’s been participating in protests over George Floyd’s death and has organized one for students outside his school in Brooklyn for Monday.

“As a black man in America today, I feel like I have a target on my back,” said Rosario who is Afro-Latino.

Most of his advocacy work until now has been with IntergrateNYC, a youth-led organization that advocates for greater racial integration and educational equity in New York City’s public schools. He’s attending Howard University in the fall to major in political science

Rosario said that the conditions black people are protesting now start in school.

“Schools in New York City, specifically schools that are predominantly black and Latinx tend to have more punitive practices imposed upon them,” he said, such as more metal detectors and school resource officers and fewer guidance counselors.

“What happens with that is we end up creating a school-to-prison pipeline,” he said.

Protest But Vote

It was in 9th grade when Marion Johnson, now 18, said that high-profile police killings of black men started to register and hit home for him.

“As a black male, you are going to be born with challenges,” he said. “Those challenges—there are two options: You’re either going to face them or let them overcome you.”

Johnson, who is graduating from KIPP College Preparatory in Washington this year, said his feelings on violence from protests and police are mixed. He sympathizes with police and the dangers they face on their job but says that is no excuse for harming peaceful protesters.

And while on the one hand he’s against looting, on the other, he said that peaceful protests did not seem to be working.

“It really caught the system’s attention—the people who are in leadership,” he said.

Johnson is attending North Carolina A&T State University in the fall with plans to play baseball for the school while majoring in engineering with a minor in pathology. He sees personal success as a means to chip away at a racist society.

That, and voting.

“That’s why people should take voting seriously,” he said. “If everybody votes, you can express your ideas and even your one vote can make a huge impact on society.”

As proof, Johnson points to the thin margin of around 70,000 votes with which President Trump won the electoral college in 2016.

Bias Big and Small

“The murder of George Floyd was so, so draining,” said Sikirat Mustapha, a 17-year-old rising senior in New York City’s Queens section and a daughter of Nigerian immigrants, “seeing this repeatedly through our country’s history and seeing how easily someone can take a black man’s life with no repercussions.”

That hasn’t stopped her from agitating for change. Although Mustapha said her mother won’t allow her to join the ongoing protests in person because of the pandemic, she has been doing what she can to show her support from home, such as donating money and signing petitions.

Mustapha lives in Queens but commutes an hour and a half to a specialized high school in Brooklyn. She said she got involved in IntegrateNYC after seeing the disparities in resources for students in her predominately black middle school and her admissions-based high school—both of which are public schools.

She said that she feels her skin color affects how adults treat her, but that they aren’t aware of it.

“Being a black American inside of America, you definitely start to notice things, you start to notice how you are treated, and most of the time it’s due to your skin color, and how you look, and how people perceive you,” she said. “Teachers, principals, administrators, people hold implicit biases, they tend to assert that on you. Implicit biases are unconscious, and microaggressions do happen.”

Change From Within the Ranks

Courtney Elliot’s initial reaction to watching the video of George Floyd’s death was visceral: “The video of George Floyd disgusted me—to see that police would use their power to do the opposite of their job, not to serve, but to kill.”

But that has not deterred Elliot from her plan to one day become a cop in her DC hometown.

While Elliot has joined the protests outside the White House, her long-term plan for affecting change within the police force is to join it now that she’s graduating from KIPP College Preparatory.

She has applied to the police officer training program through the University of the District of Columbia.

Elliot has wanted to become a cop since she was 16, although it’s taken a while for her family to come around to it, she said—especially her father.

“He was against it, knowing that it’s dangerous with everything going on; he was worried it would change me,” she said. “There are a lot of black police officers who are using brutal force, and they didn’t want me to be one of those people.”

“It’s All We Can Talk About”

Stephen Abrams was already active with Team ENOUGH, a youth gun-control group affiliated with the Brady Campaign. Prior to George Floyd’s death and the eruption of protests, he had been trying to raise awareness about potential dangers stemming from a surge in gun sales related to the pandemic. He had also been part of a lobbying effort to get the state legislature to pass a bill that would use technology to better track guns used in police and civilian shootings.

Abrams immediately joined the protests that sprung up in San Diego, where he lives and attends Del Norte High School as a rising senior. Speaking out against police brutality is a natural extension of his advocacy work around gun violence and reform. But on this issue, in contrast to his other advocacy work, Abrams said he has a phalanx of peers wanting to get involved along with him.

“I have a bunch of friends texting me asking where is the next protest? Where can I drive by? Where can I march next?”

Abrams is awed by the level of interest among his classmates—it’s nothing like he’s seen before.

“It’s all we can really talk about right now,” he said. “I think also the pressure that people have put on people to not be silent— that your silence is showing your privilege and that you don’t care about systemic oppression. People don’t want to be viewed that way. People want to be on the right side of history.”

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Photo: Participants raise their hands as they march to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Louisville, Ky. Taylor, a black woman, was fatally shot by police in her home in March and Floyd, a black man, died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

All other photos courtesy of the students.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.