Ever since protests sprang up in support of Black lives, young people have been actively involved. Here, three teens from the Seattle area write about their experiences — what seeing, or participating in, the protests mean to them and what they are doing to fight systemic racism.
Noah Collier, 19, Kent, incoming sophomore at Green River College
Earlier this year, my girlfriend sent me an article about Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot and killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood. It left me feeling sick and heartbroken. I thought to myself: Here goes another Black death that’ll be pushed under the rug.
A petition calling for justice was promptly made. Millions of signatures later proved me wrong, along with the many others who demanded that justice be served. For George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Shukri Abdi, Sandra Bland, Kendrick Johnson and too many more to count — all victims of a system we have been fighting against since we were forced here on those slave ships.
Black death at the hands of police and white supremacists was nothing new, yet this time around it sparked a massive wave of protesting and nationwide activism from Black and Indigenous leaders. These were large-scale protests happening in Seattle and all of my friends acknowledged it was crucial to participate.
This led to a discussion I did not think for a second would be as difficult as it was with my parents. They’d been Black in America over 50 years — this was nothing new. My father was adamant about me not going — the risk was too high in the midst of COVID-19. My mom, my brother and I have asthma, a preexisting condition that could lead to fatal consequences if we caught the coronavirus.
I worked so hard to not let the feeling of helplessness devour me. I saw these protests as a way to express the rage that had been built up over my life. Every move I made growing up, not to mention how I did it, my Blackness was being questioned at every step. It stuck with me and is one of the many reasons I was so eager to do something, deep down still too weak to admit I was trying to prove myself. My Blackness is something I struggled with since I acknowledged it as a part of my identity, and I was unable to participate in my people’s liberation. The riots. The protests. The imagery of the revolution was inescapable, and I was in the stands while I watched my people on the front lines. That’s when the petitions and links to donate to defunding the police and obtaining justice for those who were murdered started being shared through social media. It still didn’t feel like enough.
I decided to take a break from social media to consume more Black media to educate myself. I purchased “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Davis, among other books. I took time to myself and practiced my drums while listening to artists like Pink Siifu and Knxwledge, who cherish Black art and Black expression in some of its purest forms. Too many are trying to lead discussions in a very important movement without first doing the knowledge.
I’ve coped with my conflicting emotions, realizing I can’t truly be a part of the solution I want to see without being at my best mentally. If you can’t speak in depth on the complexities of systems of oppression, you can still share helpful information. Reach out to your representatives through calls and emails demanding the arrest of killers who are still roaming free. It is not up to Black people to teach you everything, especially when not all of us know it all. The road to true justice for us is painful and extensive.
Marcel Feseha, 17, Seattle, incoming senior at The Northwest School
Do I go to the protest or not? A very difficult choice to make. I was conflicted, between the side of me that recognized the importance of the protest and the side of me that feared exposing myself to COVID-19. After careful consideration, I realized that no one in my family has an underlying health condition so I took my chances.
I went with my heart, which took me to downtown Seattle in early June. Marching with the crowd felt very empowering. I could feel the blood surging through my veins as I marched through the streets. I’ve been in my fair share of protests but this one felt particularly different. In the back of my head there was a constant voice telling me to be more careful. I wasn’t only worrying about maintaining my distance; I was worried for the safety of my friends and my fellow protesters. Also seeing the many police officers in riot gear did not help.
Everything was peaceful until we got to Seattle City Hall, where we were met by about 40 police officers dressed as if they were heading into combat. You could cut the tension with a knife. We were all in a face-off where the only thing between us and the officers was a little metal fence. After about 20 minutes of chanting in the rain, it had begun. One by one the officers took turns putting on their gas masks. When they had all finished, they began launching tear gas into the crowd of protesters. In response, a couple of protesters launched some fireworks at the officers. As this back-and-forth escalated, more and more tear gas was launched toward us. One taste of the tear gas was enough to send us running back to our car. We were soaked, our faces stung and it became hard to breathe. I was overwhelmed. I came to the protest to march; I did not expect such a violent reaction. Although if this is what it takes to dismantle this oppressive system, I’d do it all over again.
Ever since that initial protest, I’ve attended a couple of other marches and made it a goal of mine to truly educate myself on the struggles people of color are facing around the world. I’ve gained one perspective and I plan to broaden my research to encompass other world issues.
Bitaniya Giday, 17, Bellevue, incoming senior at Newport High School
The first poem I ever wrote, I performed at my eighth grade Martin Luther King assembly. The piece outlined a series of racist incidents that occurred both blatantly and institutionally throughout my elementary and middle school years in the Bellevue School District. I don’t quite remember when I first began to develop a sense of racial consciousness, but looking down on paper, there it was: from the time in second grade I got called a monkey to the years of microaggressions and singling out for being too loud, too angry, too energetic, and if we’re being honest, for being too Black for the white teachers, principals and students at my schools.
Still, I revise that poem, cataloging my experiences. Just this year, a student at Newport High School jokingly threatened to lynch a fellow classmate, students shouted slurs at basketball and football games with Black players, and my younger Black friends tell me they walk around school with targets on their backs as fellow students freely use the worst possible racist slurs and make other racist comments.
Yet, the response from our all-white administration lacks the proactive measures needed to end a culture of racism within our school. Their negligence comes at the expense of Black and brown students who have learned to keep our heads down and stay silent, as we produce the diversity numbers they need to keep up rankings. The district defends that they are unaware of the severity of issues within schools and offers us more and more token meetings for discussion, which never result in tangible action. The fact is Black people in our city have very little social capital to make any sort of changes; we are simply numbers to look past, voices to ignore, students that come and go.
In response to years of neglect and silencing by our school district, I co-founded eastside4blacklives, a grassroots organization made up of Black and brown youth fighting to reclaim our education. We led multiple marches in front of Bellevue City Hall, organized community celebrations and on Juneteenth met with our mayor, chief of police, superintendent and city manager. We communicated our demands to phase out the Student Resource Officers (SRO) program, which is an agreement with our local police department to provide armed police officers on campus, in order to make space for mental health professionals and Black educators.
Of course, these demands were nothing new; even now, a month later, after our Superintendent Ivan Duran watched Seattle Public Schools sever ties, he still chose to release a statement with intent to recommit to our SRO program rather than reallocating the funding elsewhere. Still, he chooses not to listen to the hundreds of Black and brown students, educators and parents who have signed petitions and marched in the streets.
I have spent hours in meetings with parents, teachers and students, drafting up emails, planning and participating in marches, speaking in interviews, holding community forums, organizing strategies and still, our voices aren’t loud enough to make our school district put politics aside to center their students; still, we do not matter in our own schools. In times like these, I am reminded that although a justice delayed is no justice at all, that this work is a matter of securing a future I may never experience.
Editor’s Note: Michael May, director of communications for the Bellevue School District, sent this statement in response to Giday’s essay:
“After reading the essay, it’s difficult to hear about Bitaniya’s experiences. What she describes goes counter to everything we believe in and are striving to achieve within the Bellevue School District.
For additional information regarding our SRO program decision, the following message was sent out by our superintendent Dr. Duran to our community: youtube.com/watch?v=evyRiFGz_MM”