Updated: Aug 27, 2020
I woke late to the sound of a knock on my hotel door. Still groggy and disoriented, it took me a moment to cross the room and undo the locks. I flinched as the bright sunlight hit my eyes. My head was pounding and my chest ached. There was no sign of the unexpected visitor, but a box sat at my feet. On top of it was a flyer:
Inside the box I found a skateboarding helmet, a pair of clear safety goggles and a respirator mask like the ones construction workers wear. The note that accompanied them said only "see you tonight" followed by a doodle of a buck-toothed face that I presume was supposed to be a gopher. Hours would pass before it would occur to me to wonder how he found me.
All of these items were packed into my satchel, along with my phone, 2 portable chargers and my press pass from my university newspaper. It was expired, but I hoped it might offer me a bit of protection if it wasn't examined too closely. I dressed more carefully today - choosing running shoes (laces double-knotted), thick jeans and a long-sleeved shirt despite the above average tempuratures. I stopped at the corner store on my way out and added a few water bottles, some advil and a package of turkey jerky to my kit. I felt woefully under-prepared.
The 12 o'clock news had shown people already gathering in Victoria Square, but I opted instead to head to South Acheron High School and cover the student march. Like everything else in Acheron, the name was misleading. SAHS actually sits at the far west end of the city, which meant a long ride on the 504 from my hotel in the east end.
Acheron is so dense and so close to shore on either side that it is easy to forget it's an island. Or - to be more precise - it's a clump of islands squeezed together at the mouth of the St. Anthony River. The small waterways that flow between these islands carve the city into sections. South Acheron is largest and spreads across the bottom half of the city in a wide V. Working class neighborhoods fill the west end, light industrial and shipping the east, with downtown and the old port located at the southern point. North Acheron is only about half the size of its southern partner. It had once been the center of manufacturing, but gentrification claimed this area during resettlement and it is now home to much of Acheron's upper class. Two smaller islands on the east end make up the rest of the main land mass, though neither are really part of the city proper. One houses the Acheron International Airport and a Coast Guard outpost. The other contains a prison and a youth detention facility.
The 504 streetcar follows a straight path from downtown to the western tip of the city. As you move west, you can visibly see the median income dropping. Downtown is new money, often pretending to be old. Then you have the business district with its high rise offices and apartment buildings, followed by the entertainment district. Eventually the glitz and glamour give way. Nightclubs transition to boutique shopping, then to mom and pop grocers and vape stores. There are more houses than high rises in the west end, and like everything else they are tired and worn, and frequently divided up between multiple families.
As I see the city for the first time through this window, I realize that this entire spectrum of life is foreign to me. I'm from a small town in middle America. I grew up in an immigrant free zone. I had never even seen a DSF agent in person until college. (We still had a local sheriff.) I know that, as a journalist, it's bad form to insert myself into the story, but I do so at this point for good reason:
I am entirely unqualified to report on this story.
I have zero life or career experience that will help me tell this story. I'm just a person who saw what was happening on twitter and felt a need to get involved. I chose to cover this story as a journalist because it's what I do, and because there are a lot of other people out there like me - who have lived their entire lives oblivious to what is going on in other parts of our country.
I will not be able to provide you with information from high ranking sources. I have no valuable insight into the undercurrents of the movement, and I cannot even begin to guess what will come next. The ONLY thing I can really do is to help you see what I see. Hopefully, that will be enough.
The flyer said 5 pm. I arrived at SAHS a little before 3 and the crowd had already filled the parking lot and spilled into the street. I approached school grounds and immediately had a plate of food thrust into my hands. It was shaved chicken and vegetables with flatbread and some kind of sauce. Middle eastern, I think, but I couldn't say what. It was good. It was really, REALLY good.
The atmosphere outside the school felt more like a pep rally than a protest. The crowd was more ethnically diverse than what I had encountered on King Street, and much, much younger. The majority were teenagers, though there was a healthy sprinkling of parents and other community members. They were exuberant, but peaceful.
Tables covered in markers and craft supplies had been set up on the sidewalk near the intersection. A group of teenagers were making signs by the dozen and handing them out to whomever passed by. Every so often a car would stop in the bus lane and let the girls tape posters to their windows. The kids would cheer as the cars pulled off, and other cars would honk in approval.
A row of grills were lined up next to the building. A local restaurant owner and a team of volunteers were serving up chicken, burgers and pizza to anyone who wanted it. Everything was free (paid for by donations from the community) and everyone was welcome to eat their fill.
Student organizers wandered through the crowd passing out fliers that explained best practices for safety and spelled out people's rights and what to do if arrested. Their pockets were loaded with sharpies that they loaned out so people could write the number to the National Lawyers Guild on their arm, just in case. Some looked concerned at the implications this made, but most simply seemed resolute. They weren't looking for a confrontation with DSF, but they wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
The loading dock at the other end of the parking lot had a small PA system set up and was being used as a stage. Music was playing when I arrived, but shortly after it was opened up for members of the community to speak. It was all very free-form, with no set list of speakers. People who had something to say got up and spoke, and the community listened. Some spoke about people they know who were taken during the NAHS riot. Others shared their personal experiences with DSF and how it impacted their lives. One man told a horrifying story of his 6 years in a re-education center. None of them spoke for very long, but it was evident that they all had one thing in common. Each of these people had a personal reason to stand up against DSF, even if they had not been directly impacted by the events of the past week.
The open mic session was interrupted when an old man in a 1960s Cadillac convertible drove up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. Those nearby leapt back, fearing a vehicular attack, but the man stopped and put his car in park well before anyone was in danger. He fiddled with his radio for a moment, then looked up and flashed a broad smile at the confused onlookers. The sound of a guitar blasted out of his surprisingly impressive stereo. The man raised one fist in the air as the lyrics began:
Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
Recognizing the man was an ally and not a threat, the young crowd cheered and applauded through the bridge. When the next verse came on, they sang along.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her and
Found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know
In that moment, everything else ceased to exist. People swayed together, arm in arm. They bowed their heads and raised their fists. Tears streaked the faces of so many who were overcome with emotion. They sang with everything they had, and the chant continued after the song faded away.
Four dead in Ohio...
Four dead in Ohio...
Four dead in Ohio...
The man in the Cadillac pulled away without saying a word, leaving behind a somber silence that was unexpectedly broken by the uneven voice of a student coming through the speakers on the loading dock. The already quieted crowd turned and gave the young man their full attention. He forgot to introduce himself, but I later learned that his name is Garrison. He's 15, and he organized this afternoon's event.
" Thank you, everyone, for coming here today to show your solidarity with our brothers and sisters at North Acheron High School. Four days ago, a peaceful act of civil disobedience was tragically escalated by the violent actions of an administrator with a gun. This violent act cost Principal James O'keefe his life, but even that tragedy was overshadowed by the violence that was to come at the hands of DSF..."
Garrison's confidence grew as he reminded his audience - and himself - why we were there.
" Incorrectly believing that there was an active shooter in the building, members of the staff and student body called authorities for help. Instead of being rescued, they were attacked. Students were targeted from the moment DSF entered the building. Students caught in the hallways were presumed guilty. They were assaulted and arrested. And when their classmates screamed out in horror that they were innocent, DSF released tear gas inside their school. INSIDE their SCHOOL!!
Think about that for a moment. What would you do? What would you do if WE were on lockdown and OUR classrooms began to fill with smoke, and your eyes and throat began to burn. What would you do? What would you do?
You'd run, that's what you'd do. That's what I'd do. And that's what our brothers and sisters at North Acheron High School did. They ran for their lives because they were terrified of the soldiers that had come into their school and attacked them. The same soldiers who were supposed to be there to rescue them.
Students, some as young as 13, ran through hallways filled with gas. They coughed and choked and struggled to see. 647 of those students made it out of that gas only to find a wall of DSF waiting for them. Those students were then lined up and loaded onto school busses. They were told they were being taken to a safe location. Their families were told they were being taken to a safe location. But those 647 students never arrived at that safe location. Instead, they were taken to jail.
647 students have been imprisoned at the West Central Juvenile Detention Center for FOUR DAYS, and we don't know why.
But as awful as that is, many students had it worse. We have heard that students who encountered DSF in the smoke-filled halls were assaulted and violently arrested, some intentionally being held in the gas until they stopped resisting. Others...never made it out of the gas at all.
14 year old Lou Lou Coleman and 17 year old Jaron Dworley were both shot and killed by DSF agents in that cloud of gas. I'll say it again so you can fully appreciate the gravity of that statement.
14 year old Lou Lou Coleman and 17 year old Jaron Dworley were SHOT AND KILLED by DSF in a cloud of TEAR GAS inside their own SCHOOL!!
And we don't know why. DSF have not told us why these students were murdered. The mayor has not told us why these students were murdered. It has been 4 days! We know who killed them, but they refuse to give us a reason WHY!
So we're here tonight to DEMAND that they tell us why. We are here to demand to know why Lou Lou Coleman and Jaron Dworley were murdered, and we are here to demand justice be delivered to their killers. We come together tonight to demand justice because Lou Lou and Jaron deserved better. They deserved to grow up, and to graduate and to live their lives in peace.
And we are gathered here tonight because any one of us could have been Jaron, or Lou Lou. It could have just as easily been our school, and if we don't stand up for our brothers and sisters at North Acheron High School now, next time it MIGHT be our school. It might be us.
So tonight, we stand together for Jaron, and for Lou Lou. Members of Jaron and Lou Lou's families are here with us right now. They don't want to be in the spotlight, so I"m not going to do that to them, but I want you to know that they are here. And when I ask you to remember Jaron and Lou Lou, when I ask you to say their names, I want you to say their names with all the love in your heart so that their families can feel your love.
Say her name. Lou Lou Coleman
Say his name. Jaron Dworley
Is that all you've got?
Say her name! LOU LOU COLEMAN!
Say his name! JARON DWORLEY!
That's right. That's right. Lou Lou and Jaron will not be forgotten! Myles Schneider, the journalist who was shot while trying to bring us the truth about their murders, will not be forgotten! Riad Abdi, the university student who was framed for Schneider's death, will not be forgotten! And the 647 students being unjustly imprisoned will not be forgotten!
Because until we have justice, this city will see no peace!
No Justice! No peace!
No Justice! No peace!
No Justice! No peace!
That's right. No justice. No peace. Now let's go deliver that message to the folks downtown!!"