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Students hold ‘die-in’ to protest grand jury decisions in Brown, Garner deaths

Photo: Kimberly Paynter | WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The grassroots outrage in Philadelphia continues after the non-indictments in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, N.Y.

On Friday, students at three of the Philadelphia School District’s top-performing high schools staged protests of what they see as miscarriages of justice.

At exactly 11:43 a.m., about 100 of Science Leadership Academy’s 500 students gathered in the second-floor hall and, at the sound of a whistle, dropped to the floor as if stamped out of existence.

The student-led protest, organized via Twitter, followed other "die-ins" that have occurred across the country recently. Similar student-led activities took place Friday morning at Central and Masterman high schools.

At SLA, the silence lasted four minutes and 30 seconds, a nod to the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street untouched after he was shot to death by Police Officer Darren Wilson.

"It’s sort of like a way of saying, we are not OK with what’s happening. Like, if we do nothing, then we’re saying we’re OK with it," said senior Nomi Martin-Brouillette, a White student who helped organize the event. "Silence equals consent."

Junior Soledad Alfaro-Allah, a Black student who is the city’s youth poet laureate, said she’s been overcome with emotion because of the recent rulings.

"Us falling to the ground symbolizes the possibility that it could have been any of us. …" she said. "Mike Brown looks like my brothers, and he looks like my father, and Philadelphia isn’t that different from Ferguson."

During the protest, students held signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "We can’t breathe," the latter a reference to Garner, who died after Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo forced him to the ground in a chokehold.

For West Philly senior Ruby Jane Anderson, recent events prove that prosecutors are too closely allied with law enforcement officers.

"Which is why we need things like civilian review boards," she said. "I think that, inherently, having prosecutors prosecute police isn’t going to work because they’re on the same side."

Not every student at SLA, of course, has reacted to the decisions in the same manner. Although some have been quicker to fault what Anderson called the justice system’s "institutional racism," others have been more defensive of the perspectives and responsibilities of police officers.

Teachers and staff, though, say that, despite disagreements, students have dealt with their emotions in a civil and productive way.

"Students have done a good job of saying, ‘This is how I feel, and this is what I’m wondering about’ – as opposed to, ‘This is what I think, and this is what I oppose,’" said English teacher Larissa Pahomov, who has used the Brown and Garner cases as the topics of writing assignments.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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