Article and multimedia by Seth Cerrate
The inaugural ninth-grade class at the South Bronx Community Charter High School hope it’s on its way to becoming the next movers and shakers in New York City.
Through an organized effort with Black Lives Matter, the students led a crowd of more than 500 people to march for a National Day of Remembrance for victims of police brutality.
According to Mario Benabe, who teaches STEM courses at the school — science, technology, engineering and math — the 14- and 15-year-olds were troubled by the victimization of someone from their community. So the students decided to organize young people to actively fight for justice.
Students at the school are used to working on both independent and cooperative projects; South Bronx Community Charter High School is one of six project-based learning environments in the city. Project-based schools “have kids organized around a central theme or a idea and do a deep-dive discovery, and then actually produce some original work as a result of it,” said Harvey Chisms, the school’s founder and executive director. “So they’re constantly in the mode of creator and leader.”
One schoolwide project titled “The DREAM” sent students to survey community members on their definition of the American Dream. While canvassing, a group of students met Hawk Newsome, the local spokesman of the Black Lives Matter movement, and invited him to the school to discuss with students the priorities of Black Lives Matter.
Shortly after, the wheels were set in motion for the ninth graders’ involvement in the march.
“As soon as they told us, everyone wanted to do it and be a part of it,” said Brianna Vasquez, 14, a student from Harlem.
Activists chose to march on Dec. 3, to honor the memory of Eric Garner and other victims of police brutality and force politicians to observe a National Day of Remembrance.
Two years ago, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who was selling loose cigarettes outside of the Staten Island Ferry. The officer used a chokehold on Mr. Garner, leading him to cry out “I can’t breathe,” a phrase that is now associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
People walking and shopping in Harlem at noon were surprised to see the students leading such a large group. The 12 busy lanes of the intersection of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard were at a standstill, as the march entered the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Office Building.
Chants of “No justice, no peace,” “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe” could be heard several blocks away as the marchers strode down Malcolm X Boulevard.
Tourists and New Yorkers alike stopped to see what was going on in the street. Children hopped on their parents’ backs; people took out their smartphones to record the event. On the street, some cars honked to show support, with drivers pumping their fists in the air as a sign of their approval.
Their fists raised in the air resembled the practice at the school, where students raise their hands with a peace sign to attract attention and ask for silence. Once silent, the 106 students begin the community-building with a single word, ‘Ashé’ (osh-AY).
With this word they begin a call and response activity where the leader, which changes daily, sends out a positive message with intent for the group followed by “Ashé.”
“Let there be laughter in the halls.”
“Let us be heard.”