Months before professional football player Colin Kaepernick registered his protest against police violence by refusing to stand for the national anthem, an African American Lincoln Park Middle School student who shares Kaepernick’s frustrations carried out his own quiet protest by refusing to stand for the daily classroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
After watching seemingly endless media coverage last spring of black victims killed and brutalized by police, 12-year-old Marcus Patton concluded that the promises and ideals recited in the Pledge are not true, and he could not in good conscience participate in the ritual.
Marcus’ demonstration was not without consequences. He said teachers admonished him and expressed their disapproval by referencing family members in the armed forces risking their lives for the country. They threatened to write him up for disciplinary action. He said one teacher even characterized him as disrespectful and suggested that he get out of her country.
The emotional reaction is hardly surprising given the barrage of criticism directed at Kaepernick. In Marcus’ case, however, there was no army of fans and celebrities rallying to the child’s support. He and his family were all alone—until the ACLU of Michigan stepped in.
The ACLU mailed a letter to the principal and the superintendent that explained that Marcus had a statutory and constitutional right to remain seated during the pledge. The attorney for the school district promptly acknowledged that the ACLU of Michigan analysis was correct and the student was allowed to exercise his right to remain seated during the pledge. However, Tealia Anderson (Marcus’ mother) reported that lingering emotions smoldered nevertheless. With great courage, Marcus endured passive aggression until the end of the school year.
We can only speculate about the emotional impact of police violence on children of color - even those who do not have direct hostile encounters with law enforcement officers. Living with the constant fear that one might become the next Tamir Rice can poison the childhood experience.
Not so with Marcus. At a time when the concerns of many boys his age are limited to sports, comic books, video games and skateboarding, Marcus had to be dissuaded by his mom from running off to Ferguson, Mo., to join demonstrations against police brutality.
The public discussion of police misconduct has grown in volume and intensity, and many creative ideas for reform have emerged from those discussions. In many ways, the onus for change now rests with law enforcement as police face the challenge of adopting and implementing proposed policies and practices.
But the police could also shirk this challenge and do nothing if community voices remain silent. Because of this possibility, the ACLU understands that the rights of the Marcus Pattons of the world to speak up and speak out must be protected at all costs.
Of greater importance, however, is the fact that police violence has become so epidemic that a middle-school student feels compelled to protest at all. Try as we might to protect Marcus’ right to speak out, we cannot ever forget that, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the law enforcement community to reform itself—so that intelligent, conscientious 12-year-olds will be relieved of a burden that no child should be expected to carry in the first place.