City students turn to writing to process Baltimore unrest

Students turn to the pen to process city's unrest

It was just five months ago that Afiya Ervin sat down at a gathering of young writers feeling out of place. Writing out her feelings was as foreign to her as the unrest that she saw in Ferguson, Mo., after a young black man was shot by a white police officer. So she called her poem "I've finally started writing."

But on Sunday, as she sat down at a write-in to work through her feelings about the events that have rocked her hometown over the last week, the 16-year-old Baltimore City College High School student filled two pages in no time.

When I turned on the TV, I almost forgot how bright Baltimore was

Because now the flames from cop cars and CVS blocked the way sun danced on the looters faces

The lights and cameras flashed too bright and stunned me from seeing the way the father was only taking toilet paper and milk or any other necessity his family needed

The helicopter was too loud and left a ringing in my ears

So that I can not hear the screams from every Baltimorean asking, crying, and begging for justice

Ervin's poem, "I almost forgot," was one of several written by students at the #Blackwordsmatter write-in in Charles Village.

The nonprofit Writers in Baltimore Schools, which has been working with city students since 2008, hosted the event — the second of its kind — at the 2640 Space, formerly the St. John's United Methodist Church, on St. Paul Street.

The organization held its first write-in shortly after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"With Ferguson, if I didn't want to deal with it, I could shut my laptop and not deal with it," Ervin said. "I can't just shut it out of my world this time, because this is my world."

On Sunday, the students didn't limit themselves to confronting the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the six police officers that have been charged in the case, or the rioting and looting that have devastated blocks and communities.

They also addressed what it means to black, ignored — and very much at odds with police.

Or, as 21-year-old University of Baltimore student Nekia Hampton put it:

The police scare me

I felt safer knowing they were on Penn North together

Or downtown protecting the money

And far away from me

Bryn Mawr School junior Jaida Griffin, 16, wrote several poems. She said she hadn't had the space to vent and process the events of the week in her predominantly white school.

"I feel more oppressed that I'm not about to talk about this than that it's happening," Griffin said.

She tackled race in her poem, "I feel colored."

Everynight though, I feel colored

As the beautiful blackness of the sky gets no attention

Only the moon and stars

Griffin's mother, Kelly McNeely, said the write-in was a window into her daughter's thoughts.

"When something's wrong, I want to know what she's feeling," McNeely said. "I want to know if she's going to be the child that goes to Mondawmin," where some students clashed with police Monday.

Throughout the city, educators have been encouraging students to express their feelings in poems, songs and other art.

Andre Turner is a fellow with the Open Society Institute, which runs Boys Coming of Age, an after-school program at Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins School in East Baltimore.

The students participated in a "Write of Passage" last week.

"Poems can also be looked at as prayers," Turner told the boys. "So consider this a prayer for Baltimore."

Demetrius Branch, a fifth-grader at Henderson-Hopkins, wrote about the fear he felt watching the rioting on television.

Freddie Gray, no way

Disgusted, sad and scared

What I see on my fingers, it's red

Kids scared to go outside

This needs to stop

Bottles, rocks, brick

This just makes me sick

"I was scared," the 11-year-old said. "They might come to my house."

Kynel Rogers, a seventh-grader at Henderson-Hopkins, said his poem "#Blacklivesmatter" expressed his frustration with the rioting — and also the fact that people felt they needed to.

"It's stupid to riot," Kynel, 12, said. "It just gives [the police] the right to use excessive force."

What we need is self-determination

To require us to stay strong

Because this foolishness has gone on for way too long

We need to have faith that the law will treat us right

But all it ever did was bite, bite, bite

Turner told the boys not to censor themselves. But he also said there are times they should control themselves.

He showed a video that stressed "Your goal is to get home safe," and projected a list "10 Rules of Survival If Stopped by the Police."

Among the tips: Be polite, keep your hands in plain sight, and do not run even if you're afraid.

Reached for a response, Baltimore police spokesman Sgt. Jarron Jackson said the department "would welcome any input from the community that would … better our partnership."

Students at City Neighbors High School wrote poems and penned their sentiments on posters that lined the school's hallway.

City Neighbors senior Malon Cokley wrote about the trauma of seeing her house on television and hearing the sirens.

It was then that she realized: "I didn't take part in it, but I was a part of it."

In a poem, Cokley asked: "How do you plan a revolution, when your only solution, is catching a ride to central booking?"

On the posters, students described what they wanted the public and the media to know about them.

Answers ranged from "I am not a thug" to "I'm going to medical school."

Teachers wrote they wanted the public to know that students "lived in a war zone before CNN got there," and that they "think and care deeply, and are capable of greatness."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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