Student activists respond to CEO Thornton's letter on protesting

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton released a letter to parents and community that, among other things, warned, "we need to make it clear that student walkouts, vandalism, civil disorder, and any form of violence are not acceptable under any circumstances and that students who participate in such behaviors will face consequences." (Read the full letter here.)

Among the responses: a defense of students' First Amendment rights from the Maryland chapter of the ACLU and a motion from Officer William Porter's defense attorneys for Judge Barry Williams to rule for a mistrial and change of venue (those motions were denied).

Last night, student activists from the group City Bloc—the same group that helped organize a sit-in at City Hall during the confirmation hearing for Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis—released their own letter, telling classmates they "feel that Thornton's stance will inevitably stifle student's political agency and freedom of speech. By equating student walkouts with 'vandalism, civil disorder, and [other] forms of violence,' the BCPSS has characterized students' voices as inherently violent and destructive to the city that we all are tasked with protecting."

It goes on to say: "Therefore, this letter released by BCPSS today not only proves why the issues that have been previously brought to light by student organizing efforts in regards to Dr. Thornton and the mayor were significant, but is also belittles students’ capacity to effectively make change in our community. This letter offensively and dangerously conflates the productive and affirming acts of students with criminal acts that not at all contributed to the advancement of our city. These are the same thoughts that allowed our mayor to call us, Baltimore’s youth, thugs, for fighting for the city she should have protected long ago. We will no longer tolerate this constant criminalization of our voices."

Read the full letter below:

 

Dear Students of Baltimore City,

Today, we received a letter from Dr. Thornton, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, regarding the upcoming verdict for Officer William Porter’s trial, the first officer to be prosecuted in the Freddie Gray murder case. While we appreciate the school system's’ effort to keep students safe, we, the students of City Bloc, feel that Thornton's stance will inevitably stifle student’s political agency and freedom of speech. By equating student walkouts with “vandalism, civil disorder, and [other] forms of violence,” the BCPSS has characterized students’ voices as inherently violent and destructive to the city that we all are tasked with protecting. To that point, all organized student protests to this date have remained peaceful because we, as student organizers, understand the importance of keeping students safe while empowering them to make change in their communities. Therefore, this letter released by BCPSS today not only proves why the issues that have been previously brought to light by student organizing efforts in regards to Dr. Thornton and the mayor were significant, but is also belittles students’ capacity to effectively make change in our community. This letter offensively and dangerously conflates the productive and affirming acts of students with criminal acts that not at all contributed to the advancement of our city. These are the same thoughts that allowed our mayor to call us, Baltimore’s youth, thugs, for fighting for the city she should have protected long ago. We will no longer tolerate this constant criminalization of our voices.

As students, and as citizens of these United States, it is our right to safely and without threat of consequence voice our opinions in spaces created to do just that. The safety of students and the protection of students’ rights have been and will continue to be at the forefront of all previous actions carried out by City Bloc and it is never our intention to bring harm to our city in any capacity. We never want to be characterized as a violent organization, as it is at the core of our organization to primarily protect students before everything else. As proven through past action, our only goal is to ensure that students can safely and productively voice their political opinions. For these reasons, legal observers will oversee any kind of interaction between students and city officials to guarantee that our rights are protected and that both students and officials are acting within the limits of our constitutional rights. Furthermore, City Bloc, is a student organization that is a part of a coalition that includes Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Baltimore Bloc, The Baltimore Algebra Project, Casa de Maryland, and many others that have fully committed to fight for the protection for all of the rights that were previously outlined. We cannot stress enough that we, as students, along with the vast amount of grassroots support behind us, will do everything to make sure that when you decide to become politically active you will be protected. Do not let the threats of Dr. Thornton, the mayor, or any other official discourage you from taking action against systems that oppress you. As long as you are on the side of justice, we will defend you.

That being said, do not let yourselves be intimidated into silence. Our voices are extremely valuable, and as a population that largely does not yet have the right to vote, our ability to protest is equally as significant. Historically, students played a monumental role in the Civil Rights Movement with SNCC, SDS, the Chican@ Rights Movement, and many others through participation in civil disobedience and peaceful protest. Likewise, we are currently living during an extremely impactful time in our city’s history, and it is up to us to be at the forefront of that narrative. Our experiences and struggles are valid; we have the right to protest as citizens of this country. Silence is acceptance, and we should not and will not accept systemic oppression of any kind. We will not allow our voices to be stifled under the guise of safety. If we choose not to take action now, our children will be burdened with the very work that we should be engaging in today. Therefore, if the criminal justice system fails us, once again, we will issue a call to action and we need your support. We are stronger together. United we stand, divided we fall.

Follow these links to learn more about your rights:

http://www.aclu-md.org/
https://www.aclu.org/…/free-spee…/student-speech-and-privacy
https://aclum.org/…/uplo…/2011/06/resources-kyr-students.pdf
https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights
Read the ACLU’s direct response to Dr. Thornton's letter here:
http://www.aclu-md.org/press_room/252

Sincerely,
City Bloc

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