Protests and vigils continued in New York and nationwide on Wednesday, nine days after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
These protests have blossomed across the country with the presence of young people, inspired to speak up like never before, hounding their parents and caregivers to go out and join rallies and marches. They’ve remained, often unfazed, even when protests drawing heavy military presence have at times turned violent, with authorities breaking up peaceful gatherings with tear gas, hoses, shields and batons.
“What has been really beautiful, but also sad to see, is the protests are predominantly led by young people,” said Hernán Carvente Martinez, a New York City-based national youth partnership strategist with the Youth First Initiative, whose activism is inspired by his own experience being incarcerated as a young father. “Young leaders are actively fighting on behalf of black lives, because their own lives and futures are at stake. We’re repeating what past civil rights leaders like MLK and Malcolm X fought for – but it is now young people who are leading the way.”
In New York, more than 2,000 people have reportedly been arrested in connection with the protests and looting, but that hasn’t stopped young people with criminal or delinquency records – who risk elevated consequences with a re-arrest – or those who are otherwise vulnerable, living in homeless shelters or foster care, from joining to make their voices heard.
Media coverage shows thousands of young people have joined recent protests, but numbers shared by New York City agencies suggest those under 18 do not represent a large share of those charged with looting, vandalism and other more violent incidents that have stolen attention from mostly peaceful demonstrations over Floyd’s death.
According to the state’s Office of Court Administration, only two youth younger than 18 have been arrested on suspicion of protest-related delinquency since last Friday. In the past two days, officials said, 17 other minors have been arrested on higher-level charges, including felony burglary connected to looting. The city agency responsible for juvenile detention, the Administration for Children’s Services, said it has 87 youth in its two secure detention facilities, up from 85 last Friday, indicating there has not been a great uptick so far this week related to the protest movement sweeping the city and country.
The New York Police Department did not respond to requests for more details by press time, and the city’s Department of Probation said 93 juveniles had been processed for “incidents that are alleged to have occurred over the weekend,” which could include both protest-related and non-protest-related incidents.
On Tuesday, the Legal Aid Society of New York filed an emergency lawsuit in the state Supreme Court, on behalf of 108 New Yorkers who the pro bono law firm claims are being detained illegally, violating a 1991 legal decision requiring no more than 24 hours from arrest to court appearance.
According to Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project, a handful of those 108 are juveniles, with some youth being held in police precincts, waiting for their cases to be processed.
Ginsburg’s colleague Marty Feinman said he had heard of one youth who had been held from one morning until the following afternoon, in excess of the 24-hour limit.
“It seems like it’s taking NYPD longer to contact parents,” Ginsburg said, noting an often confusing set of circumstances in a city wracked first by the coronavirus and then a mass uprising to protest racist police violence. “It’s frustrating for parents to not know where their kids are.”
There are signs a flood of local court cases is expected – in adult courts. The courts – severely backlogged and operating virtually due to shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic – are reinstituting what Ginsburg called “lobster shifts,” operating overnight and through the early morning hours, a highly unusual practice over the past decade.
The juvenile justice system in New York has undergone major reform in the past three years, since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the so-called Raise the Age law in 2017 that mostly rerouted 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system. Most significantly, the law required anyone under 18 to be removed from adult prisons and jails like Riker’s; the law also mandated immediate parental notification for 16- and 17-year–olds who are arrested.
But the law did not change protocols for police encounters on the streets, where brutal, seemingly unwarranted acts by police against people of color – most recently the killing of 46-year-old Floyd, but also many, many before him – have been videotaped and spread on social media. The national outrage prompted by Floyd’s killing on May 25, within days, is now being measured in historic terms on par with the civil rights era.
Amid the heightened energy and call to action, young people want to hit the streets too. But many of their advocates and caregivers are urging them to stay home from protests to avoid potential violence or exposure to coronavirus in large crowds. Why can’t you post powerful memes instead, some of their caregivers ask?
One 18-year-old from Harlem who is pursuing a computer skills certification and hopes to join the Air Force someday – is among those being asked to sit out the protests for his own good.
He is currently in a court-ordered rehabilitation program and has faced robbery charges, and Brian Stanley – his mentor through the nonprofit Avenues for Justice – is advising his young clients to steer clear of protests. Even though Stanley – who at age 15 had five officers draw their guns on him while he took out the trash – has no criminal record and sympathizes with the demonstrators, he too feels obligated to skip the protests.
“I can’t lead the people I’m guiding while I’m setting a different example, given their legal matters,” Stanley said. “It makes it harder for that message to stay credible.”
The 18-year-old, who The Chronicle is not identifying to protect his court-involved status, said he too knows the dangers firsthand. And although he understands the young people with a come-what-may attitude, he’s following Stanley’s advice.
“I’m always getting stopped for some reason. I didn’t like cops at all,” he said. He said he has come home from work after hours and been thrown on the ground by the police.
And he has watched, just this past week, as his friends have been arrested at protests.
Ginsburg at Legal Aid Society has also advised all of her young clients to avoid leaving the house.
“There are other ways to participate,” she said. “We would never discourage them from participating, but there are a lot of factors outside of their control once they leave. The safest route is to stay indoors.”
While Legal Aid and many other defense firms have long pushed for policing reform, other nonprofits paid by the city to care for youth in out-of-home placements – including those in the juvenile justice and foster care systems as well as runaway and homeless youth – are speaking out, releasing statements condemning police brutality and racism.
“We cannot be silent. All of us must stand up and speak clearly on behalf of our clients, our staff, our communities, and ourselves,” said a statement from Jim Purcell, president and CEO of New York’s Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. “The murder of George Floyd by a police officer is unacceptable in a sane and fair society.”
Youth at one homeless and runaway youth shelter have also been eager to join the protests. Many of the 100-plus young people living in the shelter run by the LGBTQ-serving nonprofit Ali Forney Center have attended protests during their scheduled outside time before the curfew, according to Heather Gay, the deputy executive director of operations.
“We recognize the protests are directly relevant to the youth we serve, and we understand the need to go out and participate,” Gay said. Residents have been attending in small groups and sharing a car home, and none has reported being involved in any serious incidents while at the protests. On-site staff members spoke with residents about how to protest safely, and, starting next week, the young people will have more freedom to set their own schedules during the day.
“We’re not going to stop them, and we’ve had conversations about how they can participate as safely they can –use a mask, try to stay socially distant, write the house phone number on your arm in Sharpie in case you do get arrested,” Gay said. She and others just keep telling young people, even those without parents and families to rescue them, that they are not alone: “You can call us, and we can try to figure out how to get you out.”
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Megan Conn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Updated June 4, 2020: This article has been updated to protect the identity of a vulnerable young adult.