Rise in Harrisite activism amidst nationwide protest movement

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Expressing your right to protest isn’t always as easy as holding a picket sign. However, students at Townsend Harris have expressed their right by participating in marches, protests, and other movements.

Recent events, such as the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, have sparked so many political protests that major streets in Manhattan have been forced to close. On the days after the Michael Brown decision, thousands of New Yorkers gathered in Manhattan to protest this decision, leading to the arrest of dozens of people.

Senior Nijah Phills participated in the Union Square march on November 25. “The first protest was intense from the start. When we arrived in Union Square, we counted five helicopters surrounding us. Everyone was angry and ready to march. We chanted things like ‘Hands up, Don’t Shoot!’ That day, I held up a sign that said, ‘A system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect,’” she said.

For Nijah, participating in the protest not only gave her a chance to voice her opinion, but it also helped her to discover a large support group. “When we were walking through cars, a lot of people were not only filming us, but cheering us on. Some even stuck their hand out their car window and high-fived me.”

Senior Ashton Santo, who attended the same event, described the ambience at the large political protest. “There’s so much passionate energy and the participants are by far some of the most peaceful and polite people I’ve interacted with in New York City. We’re all standing in solidarity, united, never to be defeated,” he said.

When asked how she got the desire to voice her political perspective, senior Erin Robinson said, “A lot of times people (usually adults) will try to dismiss you and say that you don’t know what you are talking about, you’re too young to have an opinion and you haven’t had enough experience. Sure, you might not have been alive as long as your parents have but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion or that you are wrong.”

In addition, junior Jensine Raihan stressed the importance of making a change, no matter how old you are. “We are taught that we cannot do anything significant. For a long time, I thought that I have to wait to make an impact until after college. But that’s not true.”

For some, however, taking part in protests and social action events is not easy. Freshman Dina Selimovic agreed, commenting, “I wouldn’t necessarily participate in [political activity] but I find it amazing that kids our age are really going out there and contributing to the fight they believe in.”

For some, however, protesting isn’t the ideal way to express one’s views and create lasting change. Junior Jonathan Hang believes that social activism isn’t an efficient way to make a difference. “It’s really hard to change someone’s mind about controversial topics,” he pointed out. “It is effective to a degree, but you don’t see the effects for a long time.”

Jonathan explains that extreme and violent protests can be detrimental to the cause, saying that there are virtually always people with extreme viewpoints in a group or faction, and these people are the ones to cause problems for those with more peaceful and moderate opinions. “They speak the loudest and ruin it for everyone else,” he said. “You don’t hear about the moderates in the news.”

While Social Studies teacher Alex Wood condemns violent protests for potentially causing harm to other people, he acknowledges that more extreme demonstrations can play a key role in working towards the main goal of the protest. “Would [Michael Brown’s] death have received national prominence if the protests surrounding his death hadn’t been violent? Would everyone have been talking about it if there hadn’t been a bunch of stores burned?”

For freshman Tara Jackson, the problem with protesting lies in the ignorance of some of the protestors. “People get so caught up with protesting they forget about the facts,” she explained. “The people who try to cover that kind of ignorance with a lot of shouting and violence can get each other hurt.”

Social Studies teacher Aliza Sherman also feels that protesters sometimes lose sight of the facts surrounding the issue, saying that “perpetuating a myth” can lead to negative consequences “on a baseless charge.” However, she believes that people who protest are entitled to speaking their minds and spreading the word about their ideas, explaining that “we need people to stand up for… what is fundamentally right for human society.”

Mr. Wood feels that the most effective way to bring about change is through open communication: “I think [extreme/violent protest] gets attention. I think it makes people say ‘we have a problem’ but I think in the long term it doesn’t solve anything… You have to go to the dialogue phase, or no one’s going to ever understand each other.”

Ashton maintains that there are many other ways to allow your voice to be heard, even if participating in marches and protests is not an option. “If you can’t go to marches, read, write, and read and write some more,” he said. “Post about it. Talk about it, because that’s how we had 50,000 people walking with us on the 25th. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, because there are often more people on your side than you think.”