On April 27, the day the anger over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody reached fever pitch, the mainstream media zeroed in on the burned buildings, looting, and violent standoffs between police and the people of West Baltimore. Outlets like CNN and Fox News dubbed the protesters — many of whom were young students just released from school — thugs, as tension escalated.
Eighteen-year-old high school student Amir Price was eager to capture the chaos and offer a counter-narrative. When a friend invited the D.C. native to tag along on an expedition to watch the protests unfold, Price was able to photograph the civil unrest and highlight the importance of youth activism, in one fell swoop.
When the pair reached the city, the two drove in the direction of a cloud of smoke, ending up at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. There, Price saw a line of police facing a crowd of young people. Some high school students were running in and out of the CVS that became a symbol of the day’s riots.
“It was pretty scary,” he told ThinkProgress. “As soon as we got out of the car we saw a couple people walking down the street and someone literally said to us ‘be careful with your equipment, watch your back.’ It was scary but it was for a good cause: to see what was going on first hand and that that’s what’s actually being shown.”
At one point, he said, officers completely surrounded a man and moved the crowd so that nobody could see what was happening. Price was able to climb a nearby banister to watch what was going on, and witnessed officers arresting and dragging the bloodied man on the ground.
“I tried to capture everything that happened. It’s interesting to look at the footage I have. Some of it was what the news was portraying, but a lot of it is what they aren’t portraying,” he said. Few outlets mentioned the clergy who prayed over police officers and assisted them with crowd control. Youth who looted buildings were portrayed as criminals, whereas the children (including one 9-year-old boy) prevented from going home by law enforcement were overlooked.
Price is one of many students involved with Critical Exposure, a DC-based community organization that emphasizes “photography and advocacy to make real change.” Every year, participating high school students develop campaigns to improve their schools through visual story-telling. Their photographs are hung in public venues to expose what’s happening in the education system, and the larger communities they belong to.
During the launch of the organization’s ‘No Filter’ exhibit to showcase student photography from the past year, Price’s work was on full display, as was the work of his peers. Photos captured the disciplinary system in schools, Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, the push for school uniforms, and deteriorating school conditions. All of the students highlighted issues that were important to them, but policing in the education system was one of the year’s main themes.
“None of these students’ stories or voices have been enhanced or distorted, and that is a very rare thing. If you have listened to what the media, public officials, or others who try to speak for youth have to say, you know that it’s a very different narrative,” said co-founder and Executive Director Adam Levner at the exhibit. “When we speak for youth, we filter their voices no matter what their intentions are. As the students have made quite clear, they are more than capable of speaking for themselves.”
D.C. is one of many cities with a big law enforcement presence in schools. Students walk through metal detectors every day, and are routinely (and sometimes forcefully) confronted by security guards. The same students are criminalized outside of school grounds, thanks to city-wide jumpouts. Police officers in unmarked cars routinely “jump out” of their vehicles and aggressively search young people of color — often with guns drawn. D.C. Lawyers for Youth (DCLY) estimates juvenile justice spending for one young person is four times more than money spent on a public middle school student in the city.
“Current events have made very clear the need for this work,” Levner said. “We can recognize that if we’d been listening to young people all along, we would’ve avoided these tragedies in the first place. Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.”
Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.
As Baltimore protests erupted, many activists pointed to the dismal situation facing young people of color as a reason Freddie Gray’s death resonated with so many residents. For instance, the unemployment rate among young adults in Baltimore stands at 37 percent, while the city’s general unemployment rate sits at 8.9 percent. That, along with underfunded schools and few community resources has left young people with little to do. For people living in rundown neighborhoods, all of these factors contributed youth outrage, which reached a boiling point on April 27. Indeed, the combination of poverty and frustrations with the status quo has inspired many students to join grassroots activist networks across the country.
Although one of Critical Exposure’s goals is to provide a platform for youth to educate the public and push for systemic change, teachers have learned a good deal from their students as well. Akil Kennedy, a world history teacher at Luke Moore Academy told event attendees, “In going out and taking pictures of their lives and taking pictures of the schools, [they] helped me learn a lot more about the lives of my students and what they go through everyday. That’s something that’s extremely valuable as a teacher…learning the things that stir them up [and] motivate them, and using those things to move them forward.”
In fact, those who participate in the program are redefining school curricula. According to Kennedy, schools follow strict schedules, leaving little time to learn about students outside of the classroom. One of the key components of national curricula is the ability to read and write, which can lead to a rigid style of teaching and learning. By integrating photography and providing the opportunity to develop campaigns and see them through, students are actively changing the main pillars of education.
“The really big push right now [is] literacy, but we only think of one literacy, and that’s text-based literacy,” Kennedy said. “There’s also media literacy, which is all around us every day, whether it’s on your phone, computer, television. You look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — my students are on it all the time, taking pictures of themselves, documenting their lives. Students want that creativity; that’s what Critical Exposure gives them a chance to do.”
For Amir and his peers, that creativity fuels a greater purpose. “I want to achieve social justice. I want to make sure that all sides are being shown, and that the people have a voice,” he said. That same spirit is behind youth engagement in cities across the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore and D.C.