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A Teachable Moment: In Riverview Gardens, Training Ambassadors For Nonviolence

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio

This story is the third part of A Teachable Moment, a three-part series that profiles how issues raised by events in Ferguson are being discussed in classrooms across the St. Louis region. 

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch has said that a grand jury could decide next month if Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will face charges for fatally shooting Michael Brown. From elected officials to teachers to parents, many have expressed considerable concern about what the reaction to the grand jury's decision will be.

It’s against this backdrop that Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is bringing her father’s message of -- and training in -- nonviolence to students living close to where mass protests broke out this past August. 

'The emotion cannot take over'

In Riverview Gardens High School’s library, students have formed small groups. For many of the kids here, peaceful demonstrations and at times violent clashes between police and protesters weren’t just on TV; they were down the street, around the corner or in their backyards.

The Riverview Gardens School District includes some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by protests and looting along West Florissant Avenue.  Some students walk daily past the memorial for Michael Brown in the Canfield Green apartment complex on their way to their bus stop. Others live in Oakmont Townhomes, a little more than a football field away from the crumpled remains of a QuikTrip that became a landmark during August’s protests. 

On this day they’re working on the final exercise in a three-day training on nonviolence put together by the King Center. Facilitators first ask students to talk about what they think the reaction will be if Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson is not indicted for shooting Brown.

“If they don’t indict him, I’m not going to lie, there’s going to be some damage done to the city,” said Elantra Jackson, a senior at the school.

“If he does get indicted, if he doesn’t get indicted, there’s still going to be problems,” said junior Harry Crawford.  “Because there’s people who support Darren Wilson and people who don’t support him.”

Donovan Davis, a junior, agreed:  “It’s going be a problem either way it goes.

Just to be clear, all three students say they have absolutely no intention of taking part in any violence or property damage.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Elantra Jackson, a senior at Riverview Gardens High School, poses for a photo with Bernice King after receiving a certificate for completing nonviolence training.

But they live close to where things got heated on West Florissant Avenue a couple months ago, and what might happen next has them concerned. In the second part of the assignment students are asked, based on their training, what the response should be.  

Jackson and Davis gave their group’s answer to the 60 students in the training.

“A nonviolent movement, what would we do, together, all of us?” Jackson asks Crawford, who's in charge of giving their answer.

“A peaceable assembly,” Crawford replies.  “That’s what my group agreed on, we’d have a peaceable assembly.”

This is the answer that King was looking for. 

“The emotion cannot take over, the impulsiveness cannot take over, because this is a discipline,” King said.

And the stakes are high. This is the fourth time King has visited the school since Brown's death. Each time she’s brought her father’s message of nonviolence.

King said they normally deliver this training during a summer program at the King Center in Atlanta, but after mass protests in August, she decided it couldn’t wait.

“This is a fast-moving situation,” King said.  “It’s not as easy as when we do it in the laboratory sense.  Most of the training that we usually do is when there’s nothing going on, preparing people for, if something does ever happen, they will be there to preempt some things.”

In the case of protests following Brown’s death, many of the people King is talking about are young.

"My father was angry. We call it righteous indignation. But he channeled that anger into something positive and constructive. More importantly, he never saw people as the enemy. He always felt like the other person could be transformed. Perhaps there could be, some day, a spirit of reconciliation." — Bernice King

Training ambassadors for nonviolence

At Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena this past Sunday, a group of young activists demanded to have their voices heard at an event headlined by established civil rights leaders. After being invited to the stage to speak, here’s what one young protester told the crowd.

“Look at all the people here, now imagine if you were on the streets,” She said.  “But is that too much? Are you all too scared?”

Later that night, young protesters led hundreds of people in a peaceful march across Saint Louis University’s campus.

Back at Riverview Gardens High School near where protests began in August, King said they aren’t just focused on the students in this room.  She said each of the 60 teenagers in the training is a potential ambassador for nonviolence. Nevertheless, she said it's OK if they’re angry about systems that she said are oppressing minorities in this country.

“My father was angry,” King said. “We call it righteous indignation. But he channeled that anger into something positive and constructive. More importantly, he never saw people as the enemy. He always felt like the other person could be transformed. Perhaps there could be, some day, a spirit of reconciliation.”

In a protest movement driven by young people, it's the students in this room who are most likely to feel the effects — and could help determine the tone — of the reaction to the grand jury’s decision.  

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.