At a Brooklyn School, Kids Staged an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Die-In

By
Students at the Arts and Letters school in Brooklyn staged a slient protest and walkout of their classes. Arts and Letters is a K-8 public school on ALdelphi Street in Brooklyn, NY.
reporter :Tim Murphy, timmurphynycwriter@gmail.com
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Amid the massive protests in recent weeks over the non-indictments in the cop killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we’ve seen walkouts from Black Congressional staffers in D.C., New York City Councilmembers, and countless college and high-school students. Grade-school kids seem to have been few, though, among the civil disobedients.

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Until yesterday afternoon, that is. In Clinton Hill, hundreds of students, some as young as fourth-graders, at the racially diverse Arts & Letters public school enacted an organized walkout at 2:30 p.m., 40 minutes before school let out. Wordlessly, carrying their giant backpacks, they filed out into the schoolyard, many holding signs that said “Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Silence Is Key” — the protest had been intended as a silent one. But within minutes they were chanting those same slogans, as well as “Black Lives Matter!” and “No Justice, No Peace!” Eventually they conducted a die-in, lying down on the playground tarmac in silence for a few minutes as their teachers and parents captured the moment on their smartphones. Then they got up and marched around the streets that make up the perimeter of the school, moving most of the neighborhood passersby to get out their smartphones as well.

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

One middle-age black man observed, “Maybe there’s hope.”

According to several students, the protest — which was spearheaded by the eighth-graders but eventually drew the interest of the younger kids, who were required to have parent chaperones to participate — was sparked because, on top of recent events, the school has been studying social justice and civil-rights movements this year. An eighth-grade boy, Asaru Wahls, got the organizing started. “I saw some other schools doing walkouts,” he said, “so I emailed the principal here and he said to put a team together and get media. I walked into a room today, and it was full of kids making posters.”

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

A fellow organizer Kayla, 13, was by his side as he spoke. “I have a 19-year-old brother and that could’ve been him who was killed,” she said. 

It could’ve been me!” interjected Wahls, who is very tall for his age. 

Allana, 13, said, “The police get away with too much stuff. They’re supposed to be protecting us.”

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Bella, 13, said, “We moved here from Aspen, where there was one black family. I’m more comfortable here. You can feel what the real world is like. We choose to go to this school because it’s diverse.”

Kayla broke back in. “It’s gonna take time for things to change because people of color have been oppressed for so long that it’s the norm.” (Yes, Arts & Letters is that kind of school where 13-year-olds talk like juniors at Berkeley or Brown.) “We say, ‘Oh, well, another black kid got shot.’”

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Sudani, 13, said she wanted cops to know, “If you see me on the street, I’m just a kid trying to get home.”

I’m a young, black, educated woman!” Kayla added. 

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

While the students protested, their white principal, John O’Reilly, stayed inside. (Various assistant principals and teachers were outside supervising the kids during the protest.) Finally, as it broke up around 3:30 p.m., he stepped outside and agreed to talk. He said that once the students alerted him to the protest, he contacted the superintendent and safety team.

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

As the students filed out, he stood silently by the door, pointing to a sign he’d put up that said that if students chose to walk out of school, it would be considered a civil disobedience and that there may be consequences. “Leaving school is cutting,” he said, “and it usually involves calls to families and maybe suspension. But this was such a large number that it’s going to be hard to mete out consequences on that scale.”

Image
Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

This is a tough one,” he added. “They’ve been studying these issues, so the protest came out of that as well as what’s been happening.” O’Reilly said that as some of the kids walked out, “I could see they were worried to walk by me. I could feel that they knew they were taking a risk. And that was very moving to me.”