Op-Ed: What Makes Social Protest Effective? A Unique School Sends Teens Citywide Seeking Answers (Updated)

By Michael McQuillan

In November 1969 I with classmates at the Bronx High School of Science chipped in for a rickety school bus so we could march against the Vietnam War in Washington. In 2017 there is still much to protest: racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, militarized policing, gun prevalence, the President’s threats, Democrats’ caution and the risk of nuclear war.

“The measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” warned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1958 sermon on modern morality.

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But from abolition and civil rights to today’s “Take a Knee” and “Black Lives Matter” movements, what makes protest effective, King might have us ask before we next hit the streets. How can the past provide knowledge, insight and skill? How can that help us address present concerns?

Twenty teens from Brooklyn’s Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders this week tackled those questions. They put aside cellphones, pulled out their earbuds, opened their minds and inserted themselves into spirited exchanges with three top city leaders: Reverend Al Sharpton, the National Action Network’s President and Founder; Dr. Hazel Dukes, President of the NAACP’s New York State Conference, and Dr. Tracie Keesee, the New York City Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner for Training.

Rayhan Ahmed and I, teachers at Leaders High School on the Lafayette Campus, led this weeklong field course, a Police Academy tour and Columbus Circle survey of attitudes toward the controversial statue of the Italian explorer who sailed for Spain, perpetrating genocide against indigenous peoples while seeking trade routes toward Eastern spices.

Ray’s “first memory of people caring about something is when parents told us not to read Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses because Rushdie’s treatment of the prophet Muhammad was called blasphemous and provoked death threats against him.” “I think that protest comes with privileged people,” Ray adds. “When we protest we feel like there’s something more to lose than for someone who’s white.”

Posing that claim sparked students’ and speakers’ reflections on the costs and benefits of an activist life, Bayard Rustin’s belief that history proceeds in alternating cycles of activism and passivity, hope and despair, and the potential roles of our youth. The project, one of twelve week-long teacher-designed field course “Intensives” that make our school unique, sent students armed with reading research into unfamiliar formal settings that could have but did not intimidate.

“Intensives allow our students to get outside of the school building and engage in an in-depth exploration, connect with interesting people, and have unique hands-on experiences that they never forget,” Leaders Principal Tom Mullen asserts.

“…the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you know why, when you discover your purpose in life.”

“It impressed me that we met very powerful people in society and learned very wise and intelligent things,” wrote tenth grader Alex. “Where do you find the energy and motivation to continue trying to change society after sacrifices and so many years?” Alex asked Reverend Sharpton, who replied that “the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you know why, when you discover your purpose in life.” Inspired as a boy by hearing King preach, Sharpton said, he “joined King’s organization, learned from his example to make the people my mission.”

The Reverend’s tale of having been stabbed while leading a march to protest the 1989 killing of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year old African-American from East New York shot by white gang members in Bensonhurst, led him to this: “Those who try to change history are remembered forever while the people who tear them down are forgotten. Dr. King has a national holiday and public places that honor his name while those who criticized him and killed him are rightly ignored.”

While another student’s father asserted, she said, that “Sharpton makes easy money from preaching,” she grasped how NAN’s 125 chapters, voter registration campaigns, legislative lobbying and hate crime victim support were products of his personal work. Sharpton alone, like Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Reverend Jesse Jackson or Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun before him, could not alone have mounted his 2004 Democratic Party Presidential primaries campaign. “It’s admirable that Al Sharpton is still living after what he went through, still working for his people’s sake,” someone wrote at school.

“It surprised me that Hazel Dukes has been to jail and has been working for a long time with the company and met Trump,” another teen confided. Dr. Duke revealed an iron will beneath her gracious manner, relating how she and Reverend Sharpton “met the morning after the police shot Sean Bell with thirty-one bullets on the night before his wedding, and we decided to shut the city down by sitting down on the pavement in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel so no one could go in or out of Manhattan to force people to pay attention to that event and deal with it, although we knew we’d be arrested.”

Describing the NAACP’s historic service in policy, voting and legal arenas Dukes proved that effective change movements use street protests to fuel inside political pressures for progress by resistant government institutions. The organization’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas lawsuit to end school segregation, memorialized in the current (Thurgood) Marshall film, is a landmark example.

Dr. Dukes, we learned, grew up amidst segregation: “I saw “Colored” and “Whites Only” signs at bus stations, restaurants and stores,” she said “and was not allowed to put money in the white woman’s hand when as a young girl I made my first purchase.”

“Our school doesn’t believe in mere memorization,” Devorex declared to explain why we’d come. “We do hands-on learning in classroom subjects because we have projects called PBATS,” she said. Rigorous thesis-like research ventures with required presentations to faculty teams at Leaders High School, a New York City Performance Consortium member, transcend Regents exams.

Leaders High School insists that students explore more than one side of an issue. Thus our three-train-plus-bus-with-long-walk journey from Gravesend, Brooklyn to the two-year-old state-of-the-art Police Academy in College Point, Queens. There students spent an hour with Deputy Commissioner Tracie Keesee, whom ninth-grade Oumar asked to discuss “the flaws in the system that cause some police officers to do the wrong thing in minority communities.” “Rigorous mental, physical, legal and procedural programs should screen out those who are unfit for this work while they prepare the men and women who are,” she replied. “Cadets spend six months here in classroom lessons, with fitness and life-saving drills in our swimming pool, obstacle course and gymnasium. They role-play real-life scenarios in the mock subway station, restaurant and street scene of our Tactical Village,” Keesee added

“The necessity of making split-second high-stakes decisions can cause mistakes in the field,” she explained.” “When cadets graduate from the Academy to be sworn in as police officers their precinct commanders oversee their performance, evaluation and accountability.” Veterans return periodically for the Academy’s in-service training though human nature’s vagaries prompt serious judgment or action errors and intentional racial profiling. “Some cases (of police abuse) I take personally, others I don’t because people make independent decisions,” said Keesee.

Leaders students saw the extreme self-control of a cadet class gathered for fitness tests, members running in sequence then standing stock still in assigned gym floor spots, awaiting instructions. Elsewhere on an obstacle course, our kids vaulted walls, raced over and back and over again across flights of stairs, dragged a mock 175-pound body to safety and strained to meet other demands. Hardest was to fire a mock pistol fifteen times with each hand through a small space without hitting its sides (and having to start again!), to conclude the challenge.

“Beecher advocated resistance to the extension of slavery, counseled disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Law and urged his 2500 congregants to become active in the Underground Railroad…”

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, a nineteenth century abolitionist center then pastored by Henry Ward Beecher, placed our visits in context. “Beecher advocated resistance to the extension of slavery, counseled disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Law and urged his 2500 congregants to become active in the Underground Railroad,” tour guide Joe Louvier told us.

Abraham Lincoln worshipped there on the eve of his House Divided speech at Cooper Union (planned for Plymouth delivery until demand to hear him outgrew the Plymouth sanctuary’s seating capacity. Dr. King much later shared his vision of a “Beloved Community” from Plymouth’s pulpit.

Plymouth people hid fugitive slaves, evading bounty hunters. Congregants purchased the freedom of enslaved African-Americans, providing them jobs and housing in Brooklyn. “I was interested to learn about Plymouth Church because it relates to my ancestors,” said Denzel.

Student surveys of commuter and tourist throngs moving through Manhattan’s Columbus Circle mirrored national monument and “Take a Knee” controversies explored in the media, proving both issues’ importance. Autographed portraits of Ossie Davis, Magic Johnson, Reverend Sharpton, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. seen on the burnished wood-paneled walls of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem extended the time perspectives of students whose electronic devices foster a “now” culture. “You have to stick with it if you want to change something for the better,” one said over ribs.

They debriefed at school through poems and power-points, speeches and music, presenting to groups from other Intensives. “Creating a thematic social justice song with the youth of Leaders inspired me because they are fully aware of the challenges that society faces and are willing to compose art to uplift humanity!” Y?, one of two guest artists who helped kids link their own meaningful lyrics to hip hop beats and inevitable chants of “No Justice, No Peace.”

“The youth are aware of the dangers of social justice,” Anthony, Y?’s partner, confirmed. “Empowering them to share their voice is important for building a better future for them and their families.”

In fact for us all.

Michael McQuillan, former U.S. Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, served on the NYPD Training Advisory Council. He teaches history and mathematics at the Exploratory Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn.

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