“I think there is a problem with police transparency,” says Dov, the volume of his voice rising with that of the chanting crowd behind him. “The prosecutors don’t want to be in trouble with the police because they work so closely together and they need each other. We don’t know what’s happening behind doors—we need more evidence.”
Dov is a fifth grader at P.S. 10, a public elementary school in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. He’s wearing black horned-rimmed glasses and a canary yellow beanie with eyes and a beak knitted on to the front, and orange, webbed bird feet dangling from the earflaps. Behind him stood a flock of fifth-grade boys—and two second-grade girls—all of them wearing the exact same yellow hat. The mother of one of the other boys had purchased the hats earlier in the day, hoping the bright color would make it easier to spot the tiny activists among the masses.
Dov and his classmates were just a few of the thousands of New Yorkers who descended on Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square Thursday night, one of several launching points throughout the city for the second night of ongoing protests following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner. Encircled by mothers, the tiny yellow-topped posse waved handmade signs with messages that have become ubiquitous in the past few weeks, like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and “I Can’t Breathe,” joining the fully grown crowd in chanting, “Eric Garner, Michael Brown! Shut the whole system down!”
Though the mom who bought the hats (and declined to give her name) organized the outing, finding out about the Foley Square meetup through Facebook, it was the kids who really wanted to protest.
When asked whether he learned about Eric Garner in school, Dov replied, “No. I looked in the news and watched the news last night after the grand jury decided not to indict him. I’ve been following it since the Michael Brown case, since the guy that shot him wasn’t indicted.”
Demonstrations against police brutality and racial profiling have sprouted up in cities across the country over the past two weeks, ever since a grand jury decided not to prosecute Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown this summer, sending chaos tearing through Ferguson, Missouri. The announcement this week of a similar verdict for Pantaleo only added fuel to that fire, and kids are hardly immune to the national outrage.
On Monday, ahead of the Eric Garner decision, students from Boston to Denver to Oakland—rallied largely by the hashtag #HandsUpWalkOut—walked out of their universities, high schools, and middle schools to honor Michael Brown. Daily Kos writer Shaun King tweeted a screenshot of a text conversation with his 12-year-old daughter, who participated in a walkout at her Orange County, California, middle school.
“We marched around the school with signs and stuff and people took videos and teachers looked in awe,” the preteen told her father. “We all layed [sic] on the floor for 4 and 1/2 minutes to represent the 4 1/2 hours they left Mike brown there.”
King told ABC News that his daughter had received an email from her Harry Potter Hogwarts club about canceling their lunch meeting to participate in the protest.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that probably the most Internet-savvy subset of Americans would follow a movement that was borne largely through social media. Kids today don’t have to rely on their parents or teachers for a filtered explanation of what’s going on in the world. All they need to watch a video of Eric Garner repeat “I can’t breathe” as he is held in an apparent chokehold, or to find out how they can protest his death, is Internet access.
In Foley Square, a 6-year-old named Marabella sits under a sign that reads, “NYPD Explain This To My Child.” She is smiling, a pink-striped hat on her head and a mini rainbow lollipop sticking out of her mouth. Her mom, Michelle, stands beside her holding the sign—both of them squinting from the flash of four cameras aimed in their direction.
“We can’t explain to our daughter why there are no consequences for the death of Eric Garner,” says Michelle, a stay-at-home mom and PTA organizer from the Bronx. “She knows the basics and why we’re here—because it’s not fair that police officers who hurt people don’t have consequences.”
Marabella, suddenly full of energy, removes her lollipop. “I think I know why there are no consequences for police officers!” she says. “If that happened, the police officer would have to arrest themselves, which—that would be weird!” she giggles at the thought of it. Then grows serious again: “What if a white guy was like that, but then he stopped? He stopped being [bad], and he became a good police officer—and then he arrested himself.”
As she finishes the thought, a chorus of voices rises around her. “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE,” they shout. “NO RACIST POLICE.” Marabella, now licking her lollipop and tapping her foot, appears unfazed. This is the third protest she’s been to this week, her mom says, the other two for Michael Brown.
Additional reporting by Abby Haglage