Teaching West Philly 4th graders the art of protest with march against gun violence

    Activist Jeannine Cook writes this poetic essay about the power of youth activism and a children’s march she helped to facilitate with 4th graders at Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia. 

    Activist Jeannine Cook writes this poetic essay about the power of youth activism and a children’s march she helped to facilitate with 4th graders at Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia. She attended the march with her mother, who is visually handicapped and was visiting from Trinidad

    Freedom: A Pain in My Side

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    My mother flew in because I was in the hospital. She shouldn’t pick up and fly in from Trinidad, but she will and tickets were cheap. She’s the 4-foot-something rasta woman who Tony Sopranos our family. She flew to New York and made it to Philly on her own, even though legally she can’t see. How’s that for the queen of mothers? Isis, anyone?

    Freedom, freedom, where are you? Cause I need freedom too.”*

    So they let me go home. Told me to rest. Lay on a bed (that I don’t have) and take the medicine that I won’t take (which landed me in the hospital). I’m a rebel. I’m an activist. I had volunteered in Dr. Joe’s fourth grade classroom the week before, and I knew what was about to go down. I was invited by Dr. Jen from the Philly Children’s March to make signs and lead chants. This week I was supposed to be in a bed. I would rather march.

    “I’ma walk, I’ma march on the regular — painting white flags blue.”

    Medicine comes in all forms, right? On the morning of the march, my first morning out of the hospital, I packed my camera bag and grabbed my mother (who could not find her cane), and we got to it. What is it about marching that actually makes change? What does it even do? My mother says it’s the vibration — minds on the same wavelength create. And when children sync up … the vibration is high. Think: playground energy during recess.

    “I’ma riot, I’ma riot through your borders — call me bulletproof.”

    The fourth graders led. There was a much younger group behind them that took the caboose, a host of parents, a few police officers, council people, cameramen, and community members who joined along the way. Then there was my mom, the short woman with locks to her butt and no cane — rocking the Philly Children’s March balloon. Marching. Being cared for by the group. Fearless. She came to march — I came to take a picture. It felt good. Better than hospital beds. Better than a metallic tongue. But when we got back to Powel — I saw that Prince had died. Freedom?

    “I’ma wade I’ma wade through the waters — tell the tide don’t move.”

    So that day was hard. Pain and love and hope and anger all within a few hours. Children marching against violence in the hood. Yes — go us — but that hurts. Our babies telling stories of killing and death and incarceration and while “trauma-infomed” — that hurts, too. My by-any-means-necessary mother sat on the side of the play yard teary eyed. And freedom is a pain in my side. I look through my camera — I got the shot that I wanted. The one I will show when marching is a memory — and we will not forget.

    “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

    kids-march 1200x675-2My mother holds a Philly Children’s March balloon to signal herself as a safe adult during the march. (Jeannine Cook)

    *Lyrics from “Freedom” (feat. Kendrick Lamar), by Beyoncé, from “Lemonade

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