For years, African American citizens have been dying at the hands of police officers. The issue was vividly and tragically brought to the forefront from a video of the police-involved killing of George Floyd in broad light as people watched helplessly as the 46-year-old Minneapolis man begged for a white officer to let him breathe. That disturbing image of the officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck as fellow officers stood by prompted a cultural reckoning that led to protests across the country.
It is young people of various races, backgrounds and experiences who are leading many of these peaceful demonstrations. Young people’s leadership role in drawing attention to the racial inequities in education, criminal justice system and workplace was no different in Baltimore County. In recent weeks white, black and brown community members, elected officials and families marched for justice.The words and images on their T-shirts and placards expressed their outrage.
One of the first local rallies held after Floyd’s May 25 death took place in Reisterstown. A small crowd gathered outside Franklin High School waved signs and shouted “Justice for George Floyd.” Cars honked as they passed by.
Determined to inspire action, 17-year-old students Brianna Cains, Janiya Johnson and Sanaa Jones organized a June 7 rally, which drew hundreds pf people. They led supporters in a march from the school on Offutt Road to the police substation on Liberty Road. Demonstrators chanted “I can’t breathe,” the final words of Floyd and others caught in fatal restraints. They took a knee and reflected in silence for the symbolic period of 8 minutes 46 seconds that Floyd was expiring.
“It was important for young people to lead the march because we truly believe we are the future. And even though the issue of racism didn’t start with us, it will end with us,” said Jones, a senior at Western School of Technology.
“I want us to make changes, so I thought we should start in our own community,” said Johnson, a junior at Marydale Preparatory School.
After the march, supporters settled on the school grounds to hear speakers. County Executive Johnny Olszewski told the crowd, “We have to not just listen. We have to have a fierce sense of urgency to act.”
Two days later, at the Patriot Plaza in Towson, another student-led demonstration was held. Omer Rashed, the student member of the Baltimore County Board of Education, and former Baltimore County Student Council president Ruben Amaya organized the June 9 event that attracted about 150 mostly young people. Police Chief Melissa Hyatt and officers mingled with the crowd.
Omer Reshid, the student member of the Baltimore County Board of Education, told the crowd, “This fight for change did not start with us, but it sure as hell will end with us.”.
Another speaker, school board member Cheryl Pasteur, recalled her activism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She lamented, “After all of those years, we’re still having the same conversation. The only difference now is that resounding cry that black lives matter.”
In Catonsville, the group marched on June 24 from the high school to the elementary school to push for reform. Some of the organizers, listed as high school and college students Nusrat Tusi, Beth Wolde, Stephen Hook, Ian Miller, Maddi McLean, Cathy Wange and Hazel Montgomery-Walsh, and other students spoke on the changes needed in the classroom: bias training for teachers, removing resource officers from the schools, and a deeper dive into black history.
Others spoke on their experiences, such as being questioned why they’re not in class even though their bright yellow hall pass was visible.
“Today is not a time for me to act like I know what it feels like to be a student of color,” said Hook. “Today is a time for black voices to be amplified and a time to demand real change in our country but more specifically in our school.”
Woodlawn youth are organizing a Black Lives Matter rally to be held July 25, 4 to 7 p.m. at Powhatan Elementary School, 3300 Kelox Rd. in Woodlawn.
Meanwhile, elected officials are exploring how to reform local police department policies and practices. Olszewski and Councilman Julian Jones are putting forth police reform initiatives. Del. Adrienne Jones, Speaker of the House, is establishing a police reform workgroup to improve transparency and accountability of police departments in Maryland.