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7 lessons from youth on militarism, grassroots resistance

Participants capped off their gathering with a public action at the National Mall.  Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

Last month, youth filmmakers who are active in their communities gathered in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to explore issues of militarization and grassroots resistance and to screen their films at the Humanize Not Militarize Youth Festival premiere event. Participants—who came from Los Angeles; Chicago; Indianapolis; Greensboro, North Carolina; and St. Louis—shared the lessons learned over the three-day gathering.

Here are their reflections, with additional information from AFSC staffer Debbie Southorn.

1. It’s good to spend time with community when you’re visiting a city.

Participants learn from local organizers, including Farajii Muhammad of AFSC's Peace by Peace program. Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana 

Our first day, we traveled to Baltimore for an exchange with youth and community organizers. We spent the morning with young people of AFSC's Peace by Piece program, engrossed in a discussion on how we resist policing and state violence in our communities. What tactics count as violence vs. nonviolence? What is effective for your goals and what is not? Young people noticed that their answers varied from city to city, person to person.

2. Segregation is still very much alive.

A visit to Johns Hopkins shows participants how "gentrification" has affected people of color in Baltimore. Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana

Kim Arnold, an intern with Peace by Piece, took us to the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She pointed out where public housing had been torn down almost two decades ago to make way for the expansion of the campus and condos for faculty.

It was clear how alive and well forces of gentrification are in the city. Under the guise of ”urban renewal” long-term Black residents were pushed out, lost their housing, and continue to await promises of new affordable housing.

A student at Johns Hopkins, Kim said she is part of a student group attempting to give back to the community. But that site visit brought up big questions for the group around how institutions can be accountable to the long-term residents of the neighborhoods that they’re located in..

3. Baltimore community members were organizing before Freddie Gray. Resistance continues.

An exhibit highlighted Baltimore's long history of resistance against oppression. Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana

Farajii Muhammad, of AFSC’s Peace by Piece, took our group to the Reginald F. Lewis museum of African American history and culture to see a community exhibit called “BMORE Than The Story.” The exhibit featured a timeline of resistance to police violence since the Civil Rights era. The names of those killed by police over the last few decades were listed, with the option to add the names of loved ones or community members whose names were not present.

Youth participants from Chicago made sure that both Rekia Boyd and Dominique ‘Damo’ Franklin’s names were included. Another participant made sure that Mya Hall - a Black trans woman killed in Baltimore by federal agents the same weekend as Freddie Gray - was lifted up in an effort to #SayHerName.

It was a powerful exhibit, designed with input from local Black high school students who wanted to push back against the mainstream media’s representation of the Baltimore uprising in April 2015.

4. Social change is a lifelong process - you can’t retire from your community.

A block party hosted by the Algebra Project, which is fighting for education justice for students of color in Baltimore. Photo: AFSC/ Bryan Vana

We had the honor of meeting and hearing from Eddie Conway, former Black Panther and political prisoner, and current AFSC staff member with the Friend of a Friend program. “He was a political prisoner and that’s very unfortunate for him to be locked up for standing up, but I felt like it was cool that he came back to his community and started giving back again. He picked up where he left off,” said Estela Najera, a 17-year-old youth participant from AFSC Roots for Peace program in Los Angeles.

We also visited the Harriet Tubman house - a vacant property that local organizers attempted to negotiate with the city for ownership. When that was refused, they occupied it anyway and have continued to run community programs, including a beautiful garden, from the space.

5. Solidarity is powerful. Black and Brown unity is powerful.

While we were visiting the neighborhood of Freddie Gray, we met another visiting group of activists. Community organizers from across North America were traveling from the Republican National Convention to the Democractic National Convention as the “People’s Caravan,” and they stopped in Baltimore to express solidarity with Black communities resisting state and police violence. We connected with the People’s Caravan for an emotional moment to pay witness to the site where Freddie Gray was arrested and his life was taken.

An emotional moment in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. Photo: AFSC/ Bryan Vana

A youth organizer from Chicago traveling with us asked other Black people to join him in a circle just feet away from a mural to Freddie Gray. They led the group in chanting Assata Shakur’s words that are a love letter to Black people - “It is our duty to fight for our freedom…” The multi-racial group held hands surrounding the inner circle, and many shed tears at the end of the recitation.

“I felt better having other people around us, and knowing that other people are aware too,” Estela said. “ It’s cool to know that other people all over the world are doing something about it, too. There are other people who care. We aren’t alone.”

6. Self care and community care.

Throughout the weekend, we practiced taking care of ourselves and each other. Having heated discussions about Black lives that have been lost to state violence, and learning about how to push back against militarization takes an emotional toll on our bodies. We shared tips for how to practice simple aromatherapy, by passing around a pouch of dried lavender, sage hand salves, and sandalwood essential oils. When the heat was blistering, we passed out water and encouraged each other to take breaks.

So often when doing social change work we focus on our head, and occasionally engage our hearts. By making an extra effort to remember that we have bodies with needs and limits, we can support the learning, growth, and participation of more members of our community – especially those for whom these subjects may come with more pain and trauma, including Black folks, queer and trans folks, women of color, and those targeted for state-sanctioned violence.

7. There is power in people - people find their own power.

Photo: AFSC/Bryan Vana

Borrowing an activity from the War Resister’s League’s “Buy 10 Guns, Get 2 Tanks Free” curriculum about police militarization, we acted out an Urban Shield Town Hall. Urban Shield is an annual law enforcement expo that takes place in the Bay Area and includes weapons sales, tactical raids, and “counter-terror” training, funded by the Urban Area Security Initiative. "The Stop Urban Shield Coalition successfully kicked it out of Oakland, by identifying the common interests of communities resisting police violence, political repression, and racialized state violence.

Youth participants learned about this campaign through an exercise that built our collective understanding of the material connections between the war industry, the prison industrial complex, and white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

The exercise led us into three hours of planning an action for the following day—a public demonstration on the National Mall. Several young people had also helped to brainstorm the action on a series of phone calls before the gathering. “Where we come from, a lot of people don't get the choice to make a change in the world, and finally we got that choice,” said Priscilla Kendall, a 16-year-old participant from Indianapolis.

Early Monday morning, we rolled out to the lawn of the National Mall, with props and cameras in tow. We planted our feet firmly on the ground, staged on the grass field between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington monument—two sites that epitomize the history and present realities of white supremacy and militarization in this country.

Youth participants called out the violent realities that continue to oppress Black and Brown communities, creating a pop-up wall symbolizing the interlocking systems of oppression behind them.

As they chanted “I believe that we will win,” they knocked down the wall, and rebuilt a new foundation for the kind of society that they want to see in the world. They called out their demands for transformative justice, community centers, quality education, healthcare, reparations and more.


At a public demonstration on the National Mall, participants illustrated the violent realities experienced by Black and Brown communities as well as what real justice could look like. Photos: AFSC/Mary Zerkel

One participant described afterwards that she had never been so loud in all her life, and that it felt important to take up that space together with our demands for a better world.

“It is absolutely vital for youth to not only be informed about the oppressive political climate in which we live, but to also be actively involved in a movement that can change that,” said Darius Goldsby, an intern from Chicago who participated in the weekend gathering. “Not only that, but it is our role to ensure that the youth of today understand the power we have to make a difference. We need to know that if we speak, people will listen.”


More on the Humanize Not Militarize youth film festival

During the gathering, youth participants attended the Humanize Not Militarize film festival premiere at the famed BusBoys and Poets, where we screened the short films they had created for a packed house. Young people from the Youth Undoing Institutional Racism program with AFSC in St. Louis received the People’s Choice Award for their music video about the School to Prison Pipeline, “It’s the Same.”

To see more entries from young filmmakers, check out our recent blog "Through film, young people illustrate how militarism impacts their communities." 

About the Author

Debbie Southorn is the Program Program with Chicago’s Peacebuilding program, where she has organized with youth and communities in Chicago around anti-militarism, divesting from policing, and ending surveillance since 2015.