On Monday April 27, the scene at Frederick Douglass High School, across from Mondawmin Mall, was one of chaos and war as hundreds of students, many stranded after public transportation there had been shut down, squared off with Baltimore Police officers in full riot gear. The students threw rocks and bricks; the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
An 11th-grader, Javontay Biggs, did not go to school that day. "I have very close connections. I got all the messages [about the 'purge' where students planned a day of lawlessness], all the emails," he says. "Who started them, I don't know. But I always got them . . . I already knew what was happening, so I stayed home."
A little more than a week later, Biggs was one of several students standing off to the side of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, and local political leaders. Duncan and Perez were at Douglass to listen to student concerns in conjunction with President Obama's My Brother’s Keeper program.
It was a press conference, so no one said anything of particular interest. One student in a coat and a tie referred to the school's role in the events of the previous week, saying "It started at Douglass, it ends at Douglass," and added "We are not thugs." But for the most part, even the students were keenly aware of being on television.
When Biggs approached me after the conference, he seemed genuinely moved by the federal presence at his school.
"Today, for the first time, I finally felt that the federal government, that anybody in the government, actually cared about our cause, our stance," he said. "To see that we weren't the ones who started that riot . . . I got a chance to tell people how I really felt. I got to express myself in all ways possible."
Biggs stressed independence and safety. "We need independence, we need motivation," he said. "They say we drop out, that we're thugs. No, no, no we just need to feel like us. We just need to come and feel safe in school, to know that it doesn't feel like a prison coming here."
Though he wasn't at the riot, Biggs feels like there is misinformation being spread about how it started.
"I feel like a lot of things are not being told, I heard the police are the ones who locked us in Mondawmin. For us to have acted the way we acted, of course it was unlawful, of course it was wrong. But despite the morals, there's a message. The message is, we won't be treated like this any longer."