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Charlie Jones (left) and Tre Carolina emcee “Stand Together, Break the Silence” on November 18, 2016 at Manual High School. Courtesy of Brother Jeff

Denver Students Begin the Push to Protect Their Rights

Students at Manual High School gathered in the days following the election to share their hopes and fears for the future—and plan for what might come next.

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On the evening of November 18, about 60 people met in the Writing Center at Manual High School to ponder the fate of a nation. “Stand Together, Break the Silence” was a gathering of students, educators, and friends who’d spent the previous 10 days digesting the surprising results of the presidential election. Most of those in the room—primarily people of color—were both defiant and scared.

The Writing Center convened the event to show support for the community and to ask for it from those who may not have been watching and listening so closely in the past. The election of Donald Trump—in spite of his litany of offensive campaign trail language and threats—has awakened many to this new and unexpected chapter in American political and cultural history. These dedicated teens and young adults came together, on the Friday that marked the beginning of their Thanksgiving break, to defend their rights and talk about what comes next.

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One by one, the students climbed onto a small wooden stage surrounded by couches and chairs, and they read: Poems, essays, and raps about their experiences and observations, and open letters to the president-elect. As the words flowed, the audience listened intently, their silence interrupted by two things: Spontaneous bursts of approving finger snaps or shouts of encouragement, and the metronomic clanking of a pipe buried somewhere in the ceiling that, given the circumstances, started to sound like the ticking of a clock.

The event organizers, as well as many of its participants, had taken part in some of the spontaneous protests that sprang up after Election Day. But much of the media and the public at large misread those demonstrations as questioning (or “whining” about) the election results when they were more about serving notice to Trump and his followers that his inflammatory rhetoric and proposals will not be abided.

This evening only reinforced that contention. “The media [has been] only showing the marches and protests but not the thoughtful work young people are gearing up for in our community,” said Candi CdeBaca, executive director of the youth empowerment group Project VOYCE.

About 15 students and recent graduates took the stage during the 2.5-hour program—which has been posted in its entirety on You Tube—including one who read an essay on behalf of a friend. The friend’s family is undocumented and feared that revealing his identity might make his family a target. “The election confirmed what I already knew deep down,” the essay read, “that there are people out there who want to do me harm.”

Other presentations evoked past activists such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and various civil rights leaders whose legacies are more imperiled than they’ve been in decades. Student Adrianna Delgado rhetorically asked, to a chorus of snaps, why unarmed black men are considered more of a threat to society than armed white men, and student Denn’e Watkins spoke about having to warn her hypothetical son that, “your hoodie could be the reason you don’t come home.”

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During an intermission, the speakers and guests discussed next steps and how to perceive this new reality. CdeBaca pointed out that change begins at home, even in the face of outside forces like racism and gentrification. “If we keep trying to leave [our communities], we give the people in power what they want,” she said. “It’s not about how to leave the East Side [of Denver]; it’s about how we can take it over.”

One of the more revealing threads running through the readings was the notion that even though a President Trump might represent a worst-case scenario for these individuals and their communities, a President Clinton may not have been that much better for kids who have seen their sometimes brutal realities systematically ignored by establishment politicians and media. “We’re picking between two evils because we’re not strong enough to make a real change,” said student Jabari Lottie.

Indeed, the overriding theme of the evening wasn’t revolutionary anger, but rather distress over the unknown and a call for support from people beyond these communities of color. Ariana Atziri, Manual’s 2016 valedictorian who’s currently trying to raise enough money to attend college, said, “I work hard to keep my American values, but I’m no longer sure what they are.” Victor Galvan of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition called for more outside involvement in all these issues. “You can no longer be a bystander to people’s pain and suffering,” he said. “This movement needs to come from a place of love, not hate, but these hard, uncomfortable conversations need to happen.”

Echoing the feelings of many in the room, student Leah Young spoke of a burgeoning confidence and defiance. “I have found my voice and want it to be heard the same as anyone else’s,” she said. “Hate is another person’s problem. Let them hate you because you are the best you you can be.” Student Mardale Jay stirringly reinforced this notion of self-determination when he urged, in a rap that rattled the room,

Now Trump is president and we’re all shook

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But I’m asking why? Should we really be scared of a rook?

I’m asking once again, what are we to do?

Let’s put our minds together and make a solution, me and you…

Talk to each other amidst all our love and trust,

Light pushes out darkness; love kills hate

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I hope my words help you all come up with a thought to change

What are we to do to change the life we live today?

Because another day of passing it could be a day too late.


Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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