Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, July 7: The perspiring temperatures outdoors were outdone by the racial climate created by years of police killings.
Indoors, the climate was slightly less heated as hundreds of college students and community members crammed into the African American Cultural Center and the adjacent Women’s Center on the campus of the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
They were gathered to make protest signs in response to the killing of Alton Sterling, who, two days earlier and less than 10 miles away, was shot dead by a police officer in front of Baton Rouge's Triple S Food Mart.
“We wanted to let people have a space to just talk, be and make signs because I know that making signs is a form of grieving,” said Joseph Coco, matriculating doctoral student in sociology at LSU and a principal organizer at the “sign-making and information meeting.”
Whether it’s in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Minn., or elsewhere, for black and brown youths, race and proximity to unjust killings compel them to act. Students don’t really have a choice. Not yet stunted by the sludge of complacency and outmoded political strategies that seemingly come with age, young people counter unflinchingly with brains and emotion.
Video footage that sparked national outrage revealed that Sterling didn’t brandish or present a weapon in such a way to warrant the fatal shots from his killer. Just a day after Sterling’s death, the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in suburban St. Paul was captured in real time through social media by his girlfriend, who proclaimed in a news conference, “These police are not here to protect and serve us; they are here to assassinate us … because we are black.”
Communities should not worry whether young people will mobilize around tragedy and racial injustice. Instead, they should fret over how adult school leaders move during strife. How schools respond to unrest—particularly police violence against black communities—reveals and predicts how those institutions serve current and future students.
“We have a lot of concerned students that want to see things better, want to see things change, and we’re giving them every opportunity to get their voices heard,” said F. King Alexander, president of the LSU system and chancellor of LSU. King was flanked by LSU board member James Williams and Baton Rouge City Council member Tara Wicker as they addressed the crowd. The officials didn’t offer prescriptive solutions; they just provided space.
Kudos to university leaders who choose to learn from students.
Research on campus racial climates suggests that universities’ responses to integration in 1954 shaped the philosophy regarding how institutions treated students of color thereafter. Similarly, institutions have a choice as to how to respond to the integration epoch of this generation.
Universities and school districts that resisted integration in the past have a choice to make today.
Police violence is evidence of school failure. Schools have not effectively taught the values of diversity, democracy or equity. In many cases, schools are explicitly used to divide communities. Last year the wealthier, mostly white section of Baton Rouge campaigned to secede from the city to create the city of St. George after failed attempts in 2013 to create a separate school district. Baton Rouge residents showed whom they consider members of their community and who deserves protection. So we shouldn’t be surprised by Sterling’s death.
The St. George’s effort failed, but the “separatist movement” goes beyond education.
Nor should we be surprised if schools, universities and other educational institutions don’t weigh in on police violence. Silence is the accomplice of bigotry. Inaction is a by-product of being ignorant of its consequences. The test-based accountability that leaders are apparently more responsive to is but a flame to the sun in comparison with the unjust accountability systems that our students face every day and sometimes die in.
Schools that choose to stay silent are actually teaching students, funders and the community to continue to bury their heads in the sand while bodies are buried in graves and prisons.
“Hopefully the momentum generated from LSU and all over can coalesce into something that is sustainable, accessible, intersectional, fully inclusive and can really work for this community,” said Coco.
The following Sunday, hundreds gathered at the Wesley United Methodist Church for a rally organized by the student group the Wave to march to the state Capitol less than 2 miles away. A scattered, waiting crowd flocked to the clarion calls of “Student-led, student-led, student-led!”
Donning bright-yellow T-shirts, approximately 35 young people headed a procession to the steps of the state Capitol, on which students forcefully presented a poignant list of demands. Then, accompanied by a brass band, the students pranced in second-line-parade style back to the church, reminding the crowd why youth makes the difference in social movements.
"Hasn't it always historically been the youth?" asked Myra Richardson, 17, a Baton Rouge High School senior, and one of the founders of the Wave. “So shouldn't we take ownership of that?”
Unfortunately, after the rally concluded with the departure of the Wave, a SWAT team dispersed a lingering crowd with tear gas. Arrests were also made.
As I march toward the centers of power that uphold the laws and policies that facilitate unjust policing, I will follow young people. It’s time for our schools and universities in Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota and elsewhere around the U.S. to get in that lineup.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education in partnership with The Root.