This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Cimani Cox was sitting in English class when teacher Rob Paul brought up what had happened the night before in Ferguson — a grand jury’s decision not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
She decided she had to do something about it. After all, this is Constitution High School.
Before long, she had the support of principal Tom Davidson and teachers for a protest march.
Carrying signs and chanting, the students walked a little more than a block to the Liberty Bell, where they surprised tourists and were surrounded by police on bicycles. About 250 of the 375 students participated in the 45-minute action.
"I was so disappointed and heartbroken by the fact that Michael Brown didn’t get justice at all," said Cox, a 17-year-old junior from Northeast Philadelphia. The march was in support of Brown’s parents and family and to raise awareness about the killing of young Black men by police, she and several other students said.
Some students who joined in said they felt compelled to act, but were pessimistic that things would change.
"This could happen to anyone," said junior Keira Robinson, who lives in Olney. "Everybody needs to know what’s been happening, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. No person should go through this."
Said junior Yamir Adens, "Enough is enough." He said that he personally has not had bad experiences with police, but that most young Black men his age feel apprehension. "It’s the way things are, people perceive it that way," he said.
“It keeps happening. I don’t understand why. Nobody’s stopping it. People keep dying,” said junior Bersabeh Tekle. She added, "We still want to bring awareness."
Junior Andrew Lofton of Mount Airy was a bit more optimistic.
"The hope for me is that we can bring awareness and that enough people will realize there is a problem," he said. "Policies can be changed to prevent this from happening in the future."
Constitution is a citywide admission school that stresses the study of history and democracy. It has a partnership with the National Constitution Center. Social studies teacher Carl Ackerman knew when he walked in Tuesday morning that he would change his curriculum for the day to discuss the incident. "The students are excited, angry, upset," he said. "Some of them were arguing in class: ‘What is justice? What’s fair? What’s right?’ They were posing these hypotheticals to each other."
They also watched a noon press conference with Brown’s parents and the Rev. Al Sharpton. On Wednesday, the class will debrief further.
Several people spoke at the protest, including a student, teacher Aisha Mahdi, and Davidson.
Mahdi, who teaches social studies, said that she was disturbed by the grand jury’s decision.
“I felt that as a parent and teacher, it sent a really disturbing message — that is people’s right to safety with the law is not guaranteed.”
Mahdi said she was proud of the students.
"The protest was reflective of how students rise to the occasion and how they appropriate change," she said. "They make their voices heard at school during moments of conflict and crisis.”