Palumbo lives matter
The 3:04 p.m. bell rang Friday at Hawthorne’s Academy at Palumbo, 1100 Catharine St., and a handful of organizers were ready with signs, bullhorns and a student statement.
“We are the students of the Academy at Palumbo. We are here today to show the world that we care. We are here today to demonstrate that people of all races and backgrounds can join together to die-in, stand-up and speak-out against injustices that target black people and other people of color within the criminal justice system. We are students from all backgrounds, and we stand together today to say that Black Lives Matter,” their statement read. “When violence targets just some of us, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to come together and create change.”
Shortly after the end of their day, what felt like a 100 students lay down on the ground in their school’s first-floor main hallway for four-and-a-half minutes — a minute for each hour that Michael Brown lay dead in the middle of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo., on the afternoon of Aug. 9.
When they stood up, they linked hands and chanted a quote from Black Freedom Fighter Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” They got louder with each round and by the fourth or fifth reprise, a handful of eyes were wet with tears.
A “Speak-Out” followed in the fourth-floor library, where students were able to share thoughts and poems. It was remarkably sophisticated. Even if high school students in Philadelphia seem distant from Ferguson or the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island, N.Y. (where Eric Garner was choked to unconsciousness and died shortly thereafter in the ambulance from a heart attack on July 17), the headline-grabbing stories of these victims of police brutality have been rippling towards their section of South Philadelphia for months.
The 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, combined with the lack of indictment for both New York Police Department police officer Daniel Pantaleo (announced Dec. 3) and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (announced Nov. 24), has caused a furor of frustration and protest across the country, including die-ins at 30th Street Station and at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue Dec. 7. Black lives matter (#BlackLivesMatter) has emerged as a galvanizing phrase for all demonstrations of protest in the past two months, and it was a refrain on Friday afternoon, as well.
Senior Van Sam led the charge for a die-in and accompanying speak-out.
“I applaud Van for saying there’s not enough dialogue in this school and saying ‘We need to have these conversations and enact change,’” Dr. Latoyia Bailey, an English teacher at the school, said. “She’s definitely a mover and a shaker here, and I have to clap my hands for her — I know I will hear great things from her.”
In the library, Sam kicked off the speak-out with an original poem. “Hands up, don’t shoot / No justice, no peace / I can’t breathe,” she recited and used her Dec. 7 die-in experiences as fodder for her poetry. “We laid for those who could not stand up / We laid down to be awake and see the reality / We laid down to see the system and stand up for a change… It’s not about Mike Brown, it’s not about Eric Garner, it’s about a whole system,” she went on. “And that’s why we wanted to speak out.”
Bailey approximated a racial balance at the Academy.
“Roughly maybe 38 or 39 percent are African-American. Very close, a growing population of Asian students are probably around 25 percent, and maybe right above that is white with maybe 29 or 30 percent,” she said.
Another 10 percent are Latino. Students are primarily South Philadelphians, but many hail from West and North Philly and even Franklin Mills.
“Living in North Philly and South Philly, this is something that they hear on the news repeatedly. There are conversations that have been had over four years of high school,” Bailey, Sam’s AP Literature and Composition teacher, said. “It’s great because they talk about what they see on the news and what they hear and see on social media, but they also bring a lot of historical info. They don’t just take it at face value. They dig a little deeper. They’re like they’re own little reporters.”
One student, Shirmina Smith, read a poem stating “I’m tired of our melanin being mistaken for malicious… I’m scared that our yearbook will look like a bunch of obituaries.” Donte Hunter, in his poem, offered a dichotomy characterized by Superman versus Batman. “Who would win a fight? / Black or white? / Majority versus minority? / The question isn’t which side but why are we fighting? We might have different pigments in our skin, but we are all heroes / Why don’t we fight against racism? The true enemy.”
Principal Kiara Thompson offered a mix of advice and thought-provoking questions.
“You are going to have to be the change agents that you want to see in this world, so don’t let this stop this afternoon. You need to figure out what’s next,” she said. “Young men, you have to be wise, you have to be smart. Because you’re not treated fairly out there. What do you do when a police officer stops you? What’s more important, your life or your pride? So, you have to learn how to act in every situation that you’re in. You have to learn how to play the game if you want to be successful and not just exist and find a minimum-wage job.”
Student Daniel Banks also gave moving testimony.
“Our lives matter from the day we were put on this Earth, from the day we were given this gift of life. We were meant to live every single hour, month and year of it.”
He used an apt oceanic analogy (“Some of us think we are sharks and some of us think we are nothin’ but sardines.”) and sited spiritual songs sang in fields for decades and chastised rappers for talking about stacking paper (“as if they didn’t sign a contract”). “If I carry a candy and something to drink with a hoodie over my head — does that mean I don’t have to live? Brothers and sisters, no matter what they say, our lives were meant to be lived all the way to the end. We are not animals. We are unity,” Banks said.
“We do need to come together to look at the justice system. We do need to come together and have conversations and not be afraid to have conversations about how we think and how we feel. Even if it’s not in your household, it is indirectly. If it happens to someone here, all of us are impacted and it affects every one of us,” Bailey concluded, noting the camaraderie that’s emerged in the building. She said we need to “not be so quick to think what this person is like based on what someone told you or maybe what you thought or what you heard in some of your conversations with family. Take the opportunity to get to know people yourself — what do you know? What do you know for yourself?”
Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117.