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As high school Ferguson protests snowball, East students search for the story

Students at East High School review footage of Ferguson protests.
Students at East High School review footage of Ferguson protests.
J. Zubrzycki

On Thursday morning, a group of students at East High School was trying to digest the story of a protest that had taken on a life of its own.

For the second day in a row, hundreds of Denver high schoolers had taken to the streets to protest police brutality and race-based inequity, spurred by a grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer who shot an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo.

Hundreds of East High School teens walked out of class in protest on Wednesday, and students at George Washington, Montbello, and Lincoln high schools followed suit on Thursday.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my four years here,” said East senior Azen Jaffe.

Jaffe and his classmates, part of a TV production class, had collected several hours of video of the protests at East. They scrolled through footage of students pouring down a grassy hill toward the capital building, of the organizers describing their causes and administrators responding, of students shouting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as they walked backward in front of a cop car.

They had already decided that they would use that footage to create a documentary about the protests.

“I think what we can add is the student voice,” said Collin Metscher, a senior.

But they had not yet agreed on what that voice should be.

Someone suggested a video on student activism. Another thought the girls who had organized the protests—who were, they agreed, awesome—deserved a profile. A thirdpotential angle: Talking to black students at East about their experiences with the police.

“In a place as big as East, it’s always hard to see the whole picture,” said junior Zach Morris.

The Denver students’ protests were just some of hundreds around the country tied to the grand jury’s decision, which has been seen as part of a broader pattern of discrimination. They also came just after a series of student-led protests against standardized tests and school curriculum in nearby Jeffco and Boulder.

“We wanted other students to be aware of the case,” said Ashley Davis, part of a group of students who organized the protest at East, told one of the video students in an interview Wednesday. She said the students passed out flyers and spoke about police brutality and its disproportionate affect on minorities.

The East protests were marked by several unexpected turns. The protest, which had been intended to stay at the school, had evolved into a march toward the capital. And during that march, a car driven by a person in medical crisis ran into and injured several police officers.

As of Thursday afternoon, no one had been injured in the next series of protests.

District officials framed the protests as learning experiences. “We appreciate the cooperation we have with the police department and the example our student leaders are setting on how important it is that these be thoughtful, respectful, peaceful expressions about issues they care about deeply,” said superintendent Tom Boasberg in a district press conference.

“It’s important for our students to join these critical community conversations, and they have demonstrated their engagement in these important issues by interjecting their voices in thoughtful and peaceful means,” wrote East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg in a letter to parents. “We hope to see this thoughtful dialogue carry into the classroom.” Mendelsberg asked parents to keep the injured police in their thoughts, and clarified that not all East students had protested or supported the protests.

Students said that some teachers had been leading conversations about Ferguson during and after the protests. One English class read a poem from the 1930s about police brutality.

Mark Ajluni, who teaches the journalism class at East, said he was struck by students’ engagement with the issue. “They were really listening to each other. They really wanted to talk about it…a kid was killed that was about their age.”

But the discussions aren’t always straightforward.

Before they began planning their documentary on Thursday, the East students were deep in a conversation about the connection between race and class. Was gentrification in Five Points just capitalism at work, or was it an example of the workings of a society with race issues?

The students and their teachers bantered back and forth for a few minutes before junior Morris interrupted: “We’re not going to solve this here.”

Morris wondered if they could narrow the focus and examine whether the protests would affect their own school.

“Remember when you were talking about the whole walk-out of the standardized testing thing, and you were saying, if kids could make a big protest it’d make national news and it would change something?” Morris asked one of his classmates.

“Well here’s the big protest—kids could obviously get together and voice their opinions—but what if that protest refused to fight the problems within our school, not in our country? We could show, how do we keep the excitement going?”

Students discuss Ferguson
Students discuss Ferguson

“But that sounds like an activist piece,” a classmate responded.

Jaffe thought that might not be a bad thing. “I think our documentary should take a stand.”

The students said they thought most of the coverage of the protests had been fair, and had disentangled the police injury from the students’ cause. But one student said he had had seen an article on a site called Young Cons that blamed the protesters for the cops’ injuries.

“Yeah, and if we were never born they wouldn’t have gotten hurt either,” replied another.

Sorting out rumors from truth was a topic of conversation. Someone had heard about a break-in; another said one of his classmates had thought his car was the one that had hit the police.

So too was naming the reasons students protested. “There were a lot of kids who I think were protesting for the right reason. But also, kids just love to be involved,” said Morris.

Metscher said other protests in Colorado had had an impact. “Seeing other kids, that not only were they able to organize a successful walk out but they got voices heard, it showed you can make your voice heard.”

“Some people were like, why is walking out of school even going to help anything,” said Jaffe. “To me it was like, we’re students, and this is what we can do. A grievous injustice took place in our nation and it’s continuing to take place.”

“As I was filming inside, I was getting a shot of everyone’s feet coming down, and I just got goosebumps.”

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