Opening Arguments: High school students take their debate skills to the streets—and occupy City Hall

Last Thursday just after 3 a.m., Zelda Gilliam sat on her bed in a Washington, D.C. hotel room where she was at a conference and watched on Periscope as Baltimore police arrested her 17-year-old. Her daughter, Makayla Gilliam-Price, was one of 16 people arrested for occupying City Hall after demands for a conversation with Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake went unheeded. Three of those arrested were high school students at Baltimore City College. "I was a hot mess," she says, "in tears of pride, in tears of anger, in tears of fear."

The arrests took place just a few short hours after Davis stood in the room and told councilmembers and a large audience that dialogue with Baltimore's citizens, including peaceful demonstrators, would be a key part of his administration. The statements and the beginning of the short-lived occupation came at the first of two City Council hearings to decide whether to make Davis' appointment permanent. Although disrupted by chants from protesters and punctuated by the occupation, the hearing was a success for Davis, who cleared his first hurdle by a 3-1 vote of the council's appointments committee. (He would be confirmed by the full council five days later on Oct. 19.)

As city officials and audience members filed out at the end of the Oct. 14 session, a group of activists intent on getting their questions answered remained behind and refused to leave. Anticipating an uptick in protests as the Freddie Gray trials begin Nov. 30, the protesters wanted assurance from Davis that police would observe certain peace-promoting protocols in the days ahead. Dissatisfied with the lack of response, approximately 20 people refused to leave the room. Sixteen stayed until the early hours of the morning when more than 100 police arrived on the scene to arrest them.

As Zelda Gilliam watched her daughter escorted out of City Hall by police, she was worried; she was not surprised.

Makayla, a senior at City, is an activist who helped organize a student walkout over public-education budget cuts this past January and a protest over Ferguson last year. She is a core organizer of City Bloc, which meets weekly at the high school to address issues of injustice in Baltimore, and had been an avid debater on the school's legendary team for three years running.

Activism is in her DNA. "Makayla was born into struggle," says her mother. "She picked up that fighting in utero." Gilliam says that she and her now ex-husband were on the front lines of the fight against the death penalty in Maryland throughout her pregnancy with Makayla and during the girl's infancy. Gilliam's brother, Tyrone Gilliam, was on death row for a decade after a 1988 murder conviction for shooting a 21-year-old woman in a robbery. Not long after Makayla's birth, her uncle was executed in November 1998. "The story runs deep in this family," she says. "But Makayla has found her own voice."

Gilliam says Makayla's debate training has a lot to do with it. Makayla, in the teen debater's finest contrarian style, disagrees—or anyway, qualifies the statement. "It's not necessarily debate, but the people I met in that space that helped me," she says.

Indisputable is the connection between the city's debate students and alum and the protest movement here.

Over the past 15 years, Baltimore schools have developed a powerful debate-team culture with hundreds of students regularly crowding into high school cafeterias to compete on any given Saturday. There are two local leagues, the Baltimore Catholic Forensic League and the Baltimore Urban Debate League, and the city's public school students participate in both and regularly bring home prizes from regional, national, and international competitions. Many go on to win college scholarships. Those who stick closer to home often attend Towson University and fill the ranks of a hard-charging debate team there. Towson's debate team won the intercollegiate policy national championship for the past two years running, trouncing powerhouse schools in the Ivy League. Towson also bears the distinction of being the first all-African-American team to ever win first place nationally in 2008 and the first African-American women to win in 2014 when Korey Johnson, who debated for Poly but currently coaches the City team, and Ameena Ruffin, a City debater, took the prize. (Oddly, on the heels of these victories, Towson University put the team on a yearlong "hiatus" from all competitive national debate travel and tournaments this fall—but that's another story .)

Rigorously trained in research, critical thinking, on-the-fly arguments, and artful, persuasive speech, the city's young debaters and debate alum are everywhere in Baltimore's growing protest movement, often in leadership positions. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the grass-roots activist group spearheading some of the organizing, is led by Adam Jackson, who debated at Digital Harbor High School and then at Towson. Other LBS leaders came up through the debate teams at Forest Park High School and City College High School and went on to fine-tune their debate skills in college. Kwame Rose, an activist who shot into the national spotlight when he confronted Fox's Geraldo Rivera about biased coverage during the uprising, has emerged as a leader at protests around the city where he is a perennial thorn in the side of cops who arrested him for disorderly conduct last month; he was on the debate team at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (Mervo). Baltimore Bloc—and the sub-group City Bloc, which Makayla Gilliam-Price helps organize—is rife with debate alum.

Most Baltimore debate teams compete in policy debate, which means they are given a topic—"The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance" is this year's high school topic—and they spend all year arguing both sides and digging deeper into their subject. But the city's debaters are known for putting their own stamp on things, practicing a style of debate called "kritik," or performance debate, in which they often go off-topic to criticize the very rules of the debate on the grounds of fairness, then draw on poetry, performance, and personal tales to make their points.

The City Hall protesters and their methodology are rife with the hallmarks of Baltimore's debate strategy. Containing youth from Baltimore Bloc, City Bloc, the Baltimore Algebra Project, the West Coalition, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and Youth As Resources, the students are extremely organized. First, the students planned their action for Wednesday—just in case they were arrested—because there was no school on Thursday or Friday due to teacher in-service training. Then, on the Sunday before the sit-in, the high school students asked some of their adult allies to do nonviolent civil-disobedience training with them, spending four hours role-playing and learning what they could expect from police and "baby booking," the juvenile facility. Then, a few days before the Wednesday City Council meeting, the high schoolers joined the other young activists in sending out a clearly delineated, 19-point call for the rules of engagement to the police as they anticipated the slew of upcoming protests. They called for such things as police clearly displaying badges and name tags, police not blocking the sidewalks and forcing protesters into the streets where they would be arrested for obstructing traffic, and not donning militaristic riot gear unless necessary for actual riots.

As they occupied City Hall for hours, the City College students said, they read poems they had written, talked about social justice, strategized about their actions going forward, sang songs, and of course, chronicled and kept up with their social-media lifeline. (Protesters allege that power to most electrical outlets in the room was cut off at one point, though lights remained on, and they took turns charging their phones at a single outlet.) As they were arrested by police and led out to vans, occupiers and their young supporters continued the fast-talking stream of arguments that are the combined trademarks of the Baltimore brand of debate: half cajoling, half vehement; half political, half intimate; half personal pleas to police to find their better selves, half confrontational diatribes against cops.

One Towson student, John Gillespie, told a black police officer, "This is not in you . . . Do you love me? If you do, if you really fucking care, you will stand for something bigger than yourself." Another, Korey Johnson, moved fluidly from generalized rallying chants—"It is our duty to fight for freedom, it is our duty to win"—to specific, in-your-face tactics—"State your name for the camera, sir . . . You are breaking the law," she told a black officer who was not wearing a name tag.

Gilliam-Price, along with fellow City students Logan Young, 17, and Donovan Taylor, 16, were separated from protesters over 18 and put in police cars for the short ride to "baby booking." Gilliam-Price says she remained undaunted, and though she would have "loved to sit down and discuss the 19-points with Davis," the protest was a success because it made it patently clear that Davis and the mayor "truly do not care about the voices of youth."

"We have no right to vote. We can't serve on any committees," says Gilliam-Price. "Protesting is the only voice we have."

"The kids knew why they were there, the kids knew what the issues were, the kids knew what they were asking for," says City College High School debate coach Patrick Daniels. "The point has always been that students take the skills they learn in debate out there in the world." As a longtime coach of the school's winning team (full disclosure: my son, now a college freshman, was on the debate team as a freshman at City), Daniels has watched almost all of Baltimore's various debaters grow up over the years—his own and the students they compete against on weekends.

"It's not for me to decide whether these teens should do this or that when they are fighting for access to the wheels of government," he says. Daniels, who is white, says he lived next door to former Gov. Martin O'Malley for years, and knows his experience and access to "the wheels of government" is considerably different from that of his students. Unfortunately, Daniels says, news coverage this week has focused more on the fact that these students were disrupting a meeting than on the points the kids were trying to make. "What I keep hearing from them is that the government is not looking out for the best interests of all, that they are not being heard," he says.

Similarly, Zelda Gilliam says the sense from young people that they are not being heard was only reinforced this week when they were denied a conversation with the police commissioner to discuss plans for peaceful protests in the days ahead. "Would it hurt [Davis] to meet with them? They're not asking for a big conference in a room with milk and cookies, just 10 minutes of his time," says Gilliam. Pointing out that these students are all college-bound—they are some of the city's most articulate and empowered teens enrolled in the academically challenging International Baccalaureate at one of the city's prestigious high schools—and that they are fighting to be heard, she worries about the others having any voice at all in the political process. "If you are not even willing to listen to these kids," she says, "those in Freddie Gray's neighborhood don't have a chance in hell of being heard."

Indeed, Logan Young, who was also arrested in City Hall last week, insists income disparities and inadequate school funding compel him to speak out. "I have a lot of friends who go to impoverished schools who don't have decent facilities or caring teachers like we have," he says, citing the limited access to computer labs, libraries, after-school tutors, etc. that hamper student success.

At City, facilities are fairly decent—comparatively speaking—and committed teachers spend a minimum of one day a week holding "coach class" after school to help struggling students catch up. They also serve as advisers to a slew of clubs that keep kids committed to school and off the streets between 3 and 5 p.m. According to Gilliam-Price though, the activist group City Bloc made a deliberate decision not to be a "club" and not to seek an adviser.

Although City Bloc meets weekly and students say most of the teachers are quietly supportive of their activities, they describe some administrators as "less welcome." They did not want a sympathetic teacher-adviser to get in trouble for City Bloc's rule-breaking. Gilliam-Price worries about the consequences. For example, she helped organize a walkout and march to protest public school budget cuts and the way school police treats students on Jan. 9, and another to protest police brutality in Ferguson. Several city schools were involved and Gilliam-Price says her name was called over a loudspeaker and she was pulled out of class, taken to small room she'd never been to, and grilled by school police who threatened to arrest her if she proceeded with planning the walkout and demonstration. City College Principal Cindy Harcum said she was not aware of such a meeting. "However, I do know that she and I met with school police and central office officials on a date last spring," Harcum said in an email, "in which the conversation focused on the agenda of the organization and further safety and support topics post Ferguson."

"We didn't want to jeopardize our teacher-adviser's job if we walked out," says Gilliam-Price. "We also wanted to show we were independent of any adult and we don't need the adults to harness youth power. We're showing that independent student organizing can be substantial and powerful."

Gilliam-Price also downplays the role debate has played in her activism. "Debate itself provided me with the vocabulary necessary to combat the systemic issues we face and I am able to articulate issues," she says.

She quit debate after three years of competing with national teams and summers spent at debate camps. "We were sitting in these Ivy League schools and talking about black issues and not seeing any change," she says, recalling the competitions. She decided to move from the theoretical to the hands-on—and later this week, she joined other youth leaders in a meeting with Davis to discuss their demands and then helped lead a second protest from City Hall after the newly approved Commissioner Davis declined to publish the new "rules of engagement" activists say he agreed to.

Taylor, 16, says debate during his freshman year made a "big contribution to his social consciousness" and taught him a very important lesson: "I have a voice and I deserve to be heard."

Additional reporting by Jake Carlo and Brandon Soderberg

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