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It was Nov. 25, the day after a Ferguson, Mo., grand-jury decision triggered protests across the country against police brutality and bias in the criminal-justice system.

Longtime Seattle civil-rights activists and leaders of the city’s African-American community gathered outside Mount Calvary Baptist Church in the Central District.

Then the future came marching up the road: a large crowd of students from Garfield High School who had walked out of their classrooms to join the adults.

Leading the way were members of Garfield’s Black Student Union (BSU), a decades-old club that has found a new sense of purpose in confronting issues around policing and race.

“This is our time, as youth, to speak,” 17-year-old Issa George said in an interview, sitting with other BSU members at Garfield recently.

“I believe this is something not on the level of but similar to the civil-rights movement, because we are still fighting oppression and we are still fighting for our lives.”

“The waking up that America has done in the past couple of months — something that us as youth get to witness and get to be a part of — has been extremely powerful.”

Formed in the ’60s

The Garfield BSU formed after civil-rights and Black Power Movement leader Stokely Carmichael visited the school in 1967, said Kristina Clark, a faculty adviser to the current group. Membership in the club has waxed and waned since then: There were only five or six active members at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, Clark said.

Today the BSU regularly attracts 30 or 40 students to its twice-weekly meetings.

News coverage and public outcry over alleged bias in recent police-involved deaths have contributed to the club’s growth, members said. The idea of cops being more likely to use force with black teenagers than with other citizens scares the students.

They talk about Michael Brown in Ferguson. Eric Garner in New York City and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

“For me, it started from the Michael Brown situation, hearing how his body had been left out for so long,” said Elijah Haynes, 17, referring to the reported 4½ hours the 18-year-old’s body was left on the street after he was fatally shot by a police officer.

“That just felt like immense disrespect, not only to him but to black youth in general.”

Brown’s death — the circumstances of which have been intensely debated — set Haynes on an activist path.

“I wanted to be involved to help create a better society,” he said.

“I started to realize that when I go down to am/pm and get approached by a cop on the way, my life is in danger, even if I haven’t done anything wrong,” Haynes added.

He and other BSU members learned about incidents of police violence in Seattle. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice found the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had been using excessive force and raised concerns about discriminatory policing.

Several weeks before the Ferguson decision, BSU members decided to take action. They marched from Garfield to the Police Department’s East Precinct on Oct. 22, a date marked since 1996 by anti-police brutality marches in various cities.

“Planning the march was difficult,” George recalled. “Some of us had gone to a couple of marches on our own, but we’d never really gotten down to the logistics of it.”

Initially, the members had trouble persuading other students to participate, George said. Some she approached joked about the issues she brought up. A greater number of students took part in a protest the next day over the loss of a teacher to budget cuts.

“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, I have things to do,’ ” she said. “But we were like, ‘Take a stand with us because we’re fearful for our lives. Our parents worry the minute we walk out the door.’ Trying to convey that to other high-school students was hard.”

“It all became real”

The Oct. 22 march was a pivotal experience for a number of BSU members. When they and some students from other schools reached the precinct, there were officers standing outside with batons, helmets, visors and horses, they said.

“The minute I saw the horses and batons it all became real,” said Asha Noble, 16.

“You have riot gear out and we’re children,” added Alyssa King, 17.

Ayanda Chisholm, 17, remembers feeling hurt and discriminated against.

“During the summer I went to a couple of protests that consisted of mostly middle-aged, white adults and some anarchists. Never once did the police come out in riot gear and behave the way they behaved toward us (on Oct. 22),” Chisholm said.

Haynes reacted differently. He drew confidence from the demonstration.

“I don’t remember having a smile on my face because it was a serious moment, but it was very moving to be out there and to understand I have power,” he said. “I’m not 18, so I don’t have a vote. But I have power in my voice and I’m using it.”

The Oct. 22 march was a harbinger of larger protests that erupted a month later, after the Ferguson decision not to indict the officer who killed Brown. Dayjha McMillan, 18, was ready when that news broke.

“There were three of us who were downtown, and as soon as we heard the verdict we were ready to go out and be heard,” McMillan said.

Hundreds of people, by some estimates, marched in downtown Seattle that night. The protest dwarfed the BSU’s Oct. 22 march, but it didn’t feel right to McMillan.

“I left early because it got too crazy, because a lot of allies were getting into the faces of the police officers and yelling obscenities,” she said.

“They were ready to get aggressive, and I knew that if it did get aggressive that I would be targeted, that people of color would be targeted.”

An interaction at a later protest bothered Chisholm.

“We met up on Capitol Hill, and the anarchists came running down in their all-black outfits with this huge speaker playing their techno rave music,” she said.

“They’re raging and doing whatever and setting off their flares, so a couple of us went up to them and respectfully asked them to turn off the music, because it wasn’t a celebration. We were mourning. The response was generally, ‘Sit down and shut up.’ ”

On Nov. 25, King emphasized the club’s commitment to nonviolent activism. “There’s been enough violence in the lives that have been taken,” she said.

With some protesters in Seattle lashing out at the police, the students decided it would be best to lead their own protests when possible.

Difficult lessons

The students are grappling with thorny issues, and they’re trying to sort through a barrage of information on television, on the Internet and at school.

The Dec. 20 killing of two New York City police officers has further inflamed debates. There are pundits, politicians and social-media users hawking half-truths.

The students can draw from their own experiences, however. Chisholm smarts when she talks about repeatedly being pulled over by police while driving with her mother.

McMillan said she can’t shake the memory of her 15-year-old brother being forced to leave a gas station in Arizona after being falsely accused of stealing.

“I’m constantly worried for his life,” she said.

When BSU members accepted a Rising Human Rights Leaders award from the Seattle Human Rights Commission on Dec. 10, they were adding to their school’s activist history. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke at Garfield. So did Jesse Jackson.

But the BSU members insist they’re marching to the beat of their own drum.

“When I’m out there marching, I’m not thinking about Garfield’s legacy,” Haynes said. “I’m thinking about the problems I’m trying to solve.”

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or