LETTER: Keeping our youth safe during protests

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When we look back on 2020 and the historic changes and events, public protests will rank among the most significant social action. The United States was founded on the idea that social protest and free speech are essential to a strong democracy. When the colonists claimed independence from England, the Bill of Rights established freedom of expression and the right to assemble peaceably in the United States. We have protected these rights for 256 years.

The question today is should we counsel our youth on how to maximize and leverage their voices in a way that also protects them? Should we, as parents and educators and community leaders and mentors, have this crucial conversation with our young people? And, if so, how can we have these conversations so that they will listen and understand that being smart about protesting will not stifle their participation or support of the causes and ideals that are important to them?

The following suggested talking points are based on my academic research on human rights abuses and reconciliation in addition to supporting young people who have been involved in activism for many years. I believe that freedom of speech, assembly, and of the press are the most important underpinnings of our country. Helping our youth understand how to best embrace these freedoms in an effective and respectful way is vitally important.

First, we can start by recognizing the passion and depth of your young people’s feelings. We can point out that there are many ways to support social inequities and causes. Peaceful protest is just one of many support mechanisms.

Secondly, we can provide tools that our youth can use to channel their feelings and energy to be successful at the highest level possible. Recently, I offered the following guidelines to a meeting of our teen leadership program, Fayette Youth Leaders PRIDE (FYLP) just prior to a weekend of protests in Fayette County, Georgia.

1. Be clear about your purpose. Identify your key messages. Prepare your signs ahead of time. Design them for maximum visibility. There will be photos and videos that may last forever on social media. Is this a message that you would want your future children to see?

2. Choose wisely. Indiana Jones needed to think critically and so do protesters. Who is organizing the protest? Do you share the same ideals? Has a permit been obtained? Has this group of people been successful in previous protests? Who will you attend the protest with? Do you trust this person to act in a manner consistent with your beliefs? Will this person have your back if something unexpected occurs?

3. Know your rights and exercise them in a manner consistent with the law. It is legal to protest; it is illegal to damage property during a protest, for example. There are several social justice organizations at the national, state, and local level and they have many resources available.

4. Stay safe. Go with people you trust. Tell your parents and other adults where you will be. Charge your phone and cameras. One of our students pointed out that recording video will quickly drain a phone. Have a backup power source as it is highly unlikely that you will be able to stop to charge your phone. Have an exit plan in the event that the protests turn violent or something unexpected happens. Have a plan in case you get separated from others, are injured, or get arrested. Go to a safe place after the protest. Across the country, much of the violence and injuries have occurred once the protest or march ended.

5. Stay Informed. Many police departments are now posting updates about protest. During a recent march, the Peachtree City Police Department posted six updates about the event. If your local police department or another source is posting updates, monitor them to stay informed about developments. Especially during large protests, it is difficult to know what is happening ahead of you or behind you. Consider having someone who is not at the protest monitor television and social media coverage. Ask them to let you know of any developments.

The greatest legacy we can give our youth is a strong and fair democracy that allows all of us to share our voices and support one another. Our young people are strong and kind and brilliant and caring. We must mentor them and have these crucial conversations to keep them engaged in our communities. They are our future leaders. Let’s teach them well.

Tami Morris, PhD, APR

Fayetteville, Ga.

[Tami R. Morris, PhD, is CEO of AVPRIDE, a 24-year-old youth leadership development nonprofit based in Fayette County, Ga. AVPRIDE offers program for K-12 and beyond, as well as opioid and other substance abuse prevention programs in Fayette and Coweta Counties. www.avpride.com]