A lesson in civics: What can we learn from the Baltimore youth sit in?

On October 14, 2015, high school and college aged students went to a hearing at City Hall in Baltimore. The goal of the hearing was to install the interim police commissioner in a permanent post in the city. City hall hearings can be long and boring, and so why did this group of young people decide to go to the meeting?

Sit in at city hall

    In April, Freddie Gray, a black man living in Baltimore, was killed by police. The protests that followed his death have awakened a new group of youth to modes of civic participation that they had not been involved in before. While there has been a long history of civic engagement and participation from youth, especially young people of color, from lunch counter sit ins to demonstrations to watchdog journalism, there is a new group of young people in Baltimore getting involved in issues of the day.

Today in Baltimore, one of the most important issue to young people, one that they are willing to risk arrest for, is the issue of policy brutality. Black communities have been the victims of police brutality in many cities, including Baltimore, over many years, but the Freddie Gray case was a turning point. Young people have formed groups at their schools and coalitions across the city, without adult leadership, to have their voices heard on police brutality.

At the October 14th hearing, they went not only to listen, but to be heard. The emotions from the spring protests are still very raw. The city and the police department have done very little to address the anger that people have over police brutality. Protests continued this fall as the pre-trial hearings for the police in the Gray case began. Again and again, young people are saying that they want reforms in the police department, to have their side of the story heard, and to see justice in police brutality cases.

Adults have failed them. The mayor, the police commissioner, city council, the governor, and the state legislature. None of them have been able to adequately address police brutality and to bring justice to consistent attacks on Baltimore’s black community. Recently, a video surfaced of a police officer spitting on a suspect. This only confirmed what young people have been saying, that the police have no respect for the black community.

So, on Thursday night, October 14th, young people went to the hearing in city hall in Baltimore to say, once again, enough is enough. They had their voices heard by occupying the meeting, and police made arrests. Sixteen of them spent the night in jail. As they did this they were engaged in critical civic praxis.  According to Ginwright and Cammarota, Critical civic praxis is focused on the civic engagement of youth, and urban youth in particular. More specifically, it is a practice in which people are “engaged with ideas, social networks, and experiences that build individual and collective capacity to struggle for social justice” (Ginwright & Cammorata, 2007, p. 693) It acknowledges “structural constraints in communities, but also views young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions” (p. 693). Under critical civic praxis, people “critically assess social, political, and economic structures that uphold inequality and consider collective strategies for change that challenge injustice” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2004, p. 3). Once they identify structural inequity, they may develop strategies that put pressure on elected officials to respond and undo the structures that continue inequality.

Some may view these young people as angry and without a plan. Adults usually say that about young people who protest, but these young folks do have a plan. They demand police reform including an end to the use of riot gear by police, police accountability measures, and $27 million for community schools which would provide low income communities with the services that they need to support them, like day care, healthcare, food pantries, and recreation. They cannot be easily dismissed as young people that are simply emotional; these are thoughtful demands that demonstrate that they have thought critically and are willing to engage fully in the praxis to demand justice for themselves and their communities.

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