With one hand gripped tightly in his mother’s and the other hoisting a homemade “Black Lives Matter” poster above his head, 4-year-old Abdul Kane marched to the front of a pint-size protest in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park last week.
“I have something to say,” the boy squeaked. “Black lives matter!”
The crowd cheered, and Abdul turned, bashfully running back to the bench where his 13-year-old brother, Musa, sat silently, holding a sign reading “Stop Killing Us.”
“You think an 8-year-old or a 5-year old, they’re not going to understand what’s going on,” said Melvina Williams, a West Philadelphia mother who organized the family-friendly “Justice for George” rally in the park in the wake of nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death from a Minnesota police officer’s kneeling on his neck. “You think, ‘I don’t understand, so how could they possibly?’ But kids get it. And they get it so much more than what we think.”
As thousands of Philadelphians have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice, some parents have made the demonstrations a family affair and brought their children, from infants to teenagers, along.
Whether to take the kids, though, is a precarious question for parents, depending on the children’s age. In the days after Floyd’s death, a handful of protests turned into physical confrontations with police, who in Philadelphia fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds.
Physical confrontations have slowed considerably since those initial days, and since then, some protests specifically advertised for families have cropped up across the region.
Students have helped organize marches, and kids have stood alongside parents holding signs that say everything from “defund the police” to “be friends with everyone.” At a Center City protest, 7-year-old Theodore Gay-Hall held a sign that read, “When do I go from cute to dangerous?” Isaac Gardner Jr., 11, told Philadelphia protesters last week: “I want to grow up to be as long as I can live … not with a knee on my neck, not with a bullet in my back.”
Parents and teachers who organized family-friendly protests said the goal is to empower kids to use their voices. “This was a way for them to literally put action to words,” said Natalie St. Louis, principal at George W. Nebinger School, which organized a “Children’s March for Justice” in South Philadelphia on Saturday.
Williams said adults must teach kids “never to be silent against any form of injustice.” She recalled how her grandmother, a West Philadelphia nurse and Freedom Rider who lived through the MOVE bombing, taught her the importance of protesting and voicing her concerns even as a child.
“I also wanted to let [the children] know we are listening,” Williams said.
For decades, black children and teenagers have fought for their lives through protest. During the civil rights era, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was made up of young people pushing for broader social change beyond integration, and icons like Rep. John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, served as chairs.
The Little Rock Nine fought segregation as teenagers, and Ruby Bridges was 6 when she became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
In 1963, thousands of kids participated in the “Children’s Crusade,” a school walkout protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala. They were met with fire hoses, police dogs, and mass arrests. Among them was Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who was 12 and imprisoned for five days. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited hundreds of detained children, Hrabowski recalls, telling them: “What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born.”
“For the children, what we see today that we saw then was, parents want children to feel empowered,” said Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It goes to the core of the American democracy of civic engagement, that all of us have the opportunity to speak our truth and to ask for a better society and to ask for fairness and social justice.”
Taja Peterkin-McLean, a school counselor who has a private practice in East Mount Airy, said involving kids in demonstrations is especially complicated for parents of black children.
“We want to guard them from unnecessary trauma,” she said. “Especially for black children, they have enough navigating being black in America.”
Sitting on a picnic blanket after the Clark Park rally, Tiffany and Jared Jenkins eyed their 2-year-old son, Jonah, as he toddled in the nearby grass, crushing fistfuls of chips in his hands. The young black North Philadelphia family created a colorful protest poster together. “#BLM This is 4: My dad, My brothers, My husband, My son, Me,” it read.
“The movement that’s going on right now, it’s very powerful, and also we wanted to send a message and include him, too,” Tiffany said.
“It’s kind of trying to find a balance between breaking their innocence and also keeping them informed of what’s going on,” Jared added.
Peterkin-McLean recommended parents start by taking younger children to demonstrations that are small or advertised as family-oriented.
That’s what Ashley Carmichael did. She was outraged at the killing of Floyd and wanted to take part in a protest, but worried about her 3-year-old Leah’s safety. So last Wednesday, she joined a few dozen fellow staffers from Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia, and protested environmental racism and asbestos in her school and others where thousands of black and brown kids learn.
“She’s young, but you have to have these conversations with kids,” said Carmichael, a fourth-grade math teacher. Her colleague Lauren Priest, the school secretary, brought goddaughter Kaylee, 4, who sat with Leah and took in the scene around her.
“Small, peaceful, this is the perfect way to start,” Priest said. “Our kids have been in these buildings — them being here matters.”
Experts in child psychology said parents should plan to talk before and after a protest to help the children process. Kim Wheeler Poitevien, a Chestnut Hill-based counselor who works with kids experiencing racism and classism, suggested parents ahead of time validate their children’s fears, and afterward ask questions about how they felt. Those conversations foster empathy, she said.
The small rally in West Philadelphia gave Kea Banks and her husband, Matt, another opportunity to talk with their daughters, London and Nevi, about racism and Floyd. Earlier in the week, they watched CNN’s Sesame Street special on racism together, discussing the recent news.
At 2 years old, Nevi, who held a sign reading “I matter,” is still too young to understand, Banks said. But London, 10, already knows about racism.
“Treat us the way you want to be treated,” the girl’s sign read. “We are family everyone.”