Was a protest on school grounds a proper way for the girls to express their beliefs?
One girl is raising both fists and chanting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” Behind her, two other teen girls are dressed in black and wearing backpacks, holding poster-board signs high in the air. Other kids join in the chant behind them, raising the volume, and we can see that this is happening not in some far away city but in the green-locker hallways of our very own Flagler Palm Coast High School.
I learned about the protest when someone emailed the Observer and said some students were being threatened with suspension or possible expulsion.
I thought, Oh, no. Expulsion? Did something happen at the protest?
How did the school district respond?
I soon discovered there was no reason to be alarmed. The school district said that, yes, there had been a protest, but no one had been disciplined.
On the contrary, “We understand there are social undertones around this country, and we haven’t put a damper on their thoughts or their beliefs,” said Jason Wheeler, Flagler Schools spokesman. “It’s just that there’s a proper way to express their beliefs.”
I asked Lynette Shott, a former FPC principal who is now in the administration at the district level, if she thought the protest was, in fact, a proper way for the students to express their beliefs. If not, what was improper? Shott was noncommittal.
“They expressed their opinion, and they went to class when they were asked,” she said. “They learned from there where to continue to have an impact in their society.”
I’m not criticizing Wheeler or Shott for their reactions. I like and respect both of them quite a bit. I’m sure the school district is reluctant to encourage protests, and, as a parent, I’m glad that they are committed to promoting a distraction-free environment for my own children.
But it leaves the question unanswered: Was this a proper way for the girls to express their beliefs?
Critics of the school response
Among the Facebook users who were critical of the school district was Anthony Tabbitas, who wrote, “This is not acceptable to be happening in our schools. I'm sure there was plenty of students that felt threatened as this protest was happening because of what they have seen on TV, how the people of Black Lives Matter protests end up with shootings, looting, robbing, beating of innocent white people, burning of buildings, cars, etc.”
Based on the video I saw, and considering that this protest occurred before school started, the students didn’t disrupt much of anything (in the video, you can see students walking the opposite way down the hallway, unimpeded by the marchers).
In fact, I think these girls were brave by organizing this protest, and it showed that they are being educated to think for themselves. They were successful in raising awareness about an issue that all too often is perceived as a problem that is neatly contained in other cities.
Who started the protest?
Kanisha Lee, a junior at FPC, is one of the girls who organized the protest. Like-minded students gathered at school on the morning of Sept. 30 and began with a moment of silence. Eventually, officials took away their poster-board signs, she said, but even then “we still looked at it as something positive that we did. We didn’t start saying anything negative.”
She continued: “I don’t think about violence when I’m doing this. I want to make peace, to turn all this negative energy into positive energy. Me and my group of friends didn’t do it put down others.”
Some of her friends of different races also joined in the protest, she said. “A couple of them surprised me,” she said. “It made me feel like, ‘This is actually something good that we’re doing, that a different race is joining in and supporting us.’ It made me feel good.”
Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter
It’s inevitable that as soon as someone posts “Black lives matter” on Facebook, someone will follow with “All lives matter.”
Tony Keen wrote this on our Facebook page: “All lives matter, and all this does is to allow these privileged brats to continue to voice a divide in this country instead of coming together.”
Another reader, Patrice Paterno-Lewis, called me out in particular, saying, “Brian, take your notebook and pencil and rewrite your resume and go find a real career. The media causes this growing racism.”
To blame the media is to pretend nothing is happening. Would people prefer not to know that unarmed blacks are being shot?
A senior at FPC, J’vaughnna Neesmith, said she wanted to participate in the protest because she feels some people don’t see the dangers that her race faces.
“They’re oblivious to what’s going on,” she said. “They don’t see that we’re being targeted. It’s not that all lives don’t matter — it’s not that our lives matter more — but as of right now, no other race has to deal with what we have to deal with right now.”
Victims of racism?
Every one of the protesters I spoke with had one thing in common: They did not feel they personally had been the victims of racism.
To me, that’s what made this protest even more remarkable.
They marched because they care about not only their siblings and friends, but also about the victims that they don’t even know around the country.
That is a noble motivation.
J’vaughnna Neesmith’s mother, Monika Middleton, tried to explain how the girls are feeling: “If it happens to one, it happens to all,” Middleton said. “We are our brother’s keeper.”
Anthony Tabbitas is right: Some Black Lives Matter protests have descended into chaos. But this one didn’t. These girls got it right, and hopefully as a result we are all a little bit more sensitive to what our brothers and sisters are going through.
SIDEBAR: What she said
“Yes, all lives matter, but all lives aren’t going through what the black community is going through right now.”
Kanisha Lee, FPC student
“I thought it was fantastic that she’s trying to be involved in something like that and wants to speak her mind on it. I applaud her for doing it.”
Harvey Lee, Kanisha’s father