Teen activist leads charge in DPS protests calling for change, justice

- Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. There's a long history of Civil Rights leaders using protest to force change. Now there's a new generation of leaders rising right here in Detroit. 

One of them is a teenager you may not know, but you will.

We tell our children if you work hard and get an education you can be whatever you want to be in life. Maybe that's true. But it is also true that sometimes your trajectory in life is pre-determined by your zip code -- unless you're willing to do something about it.

"We don't have to say white lives matter because everybody knows," says Tarius Porter. "And when we say black lives matter we're not informing the world like we matter more, we are just reminding them."

Tarius is young, brilliant and unapologetic. At just 16 years old, he embodies the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. Yes, it is a fight the country has been waging for years but young Tarius is a part of something new -- the awakening of a generation of young black activists finding a voice and challenging the systemic social injustices that plague urban America.

"They look at me they got these ideas, 'He ain't nothing. He's about to steal. He's about to rob,'" Tarius says. "But when I speak and they start seeing I'm saying powerful stuff, then next time they see someone with the same clothes on they won't think the same thing."

Tarius is a junior at Detroit Communication and Media Arts High School, where seniors were planning to walk out of class in support of teachers who had been calling in sick for weeks protesting the deplorable conditions inside Detroit Public Schools.

That day, Tarius was the only student in his classroom to walk out.

That was also the day he took control of a power he'd possessed the whole time. The power in his protest. And he wasn't the only one.

This year, Detroit joined a long list of urban cities across the country seeing a surge in student activism. One unified voice is saying we deserve to be heard. We deserve up-to-date school books we can actually take home and technology that will help us compete in the real world. A voice saying, we deserve a future.

"It was a chain reaction and people quickly realized that is not just about DPS, that it's more importantly about oppression. And that oppression is people of color who aren't receiving commodities they deserve, such as basic education. We live in the United States of America, more specifically, in Detroit, Michigan. And how can we be denied an education that's adequate?" he asks.

The issues that plague Detroit Public Schools are no secret. Since the state takeover in 2009, student enrollment has dropped nearly 50 percent from 95,000 to 46,000. The district is more than half a billion dollars in debt, and almost 100 DPS schools have closed. And the ones that remain open are literally falling apart.

Recent building inspections revealed collapsed ceilings, rodent infestations, dilapidated bathrooms and mold -- actual mushrooms growing on the walls. The district has failed our children.

"It is our responsibility to challenge the government when they are doing something unfair," Tarius says. "We are obligated to check the governing body because we are giving up freedoms for them. It is an exchange and if they are not holding up their end of the deal, we have to check them - and I think that's what we're doing."

Across the country the resurgence of the movement has been fueled by young people. Rumbles from Sanford, Fla. where Trayvon Martin was killed; rattled youth in Ferguson, Mo., where the federal government found the justice system was broken at every level after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests continued in New York, Cleveland, Cleveland, Baltimore and Chicago.

University of Missouri football players threatened to forfeit their own games amid racial tension on campus; they forced the resignation of the school's president.

Decades later the streets are once again filled with black and white faces demanding social reform.

"We come from a background where we don't have anything, so we've got that fight," Tarius says. "So in a way it made us strong."

That strength is a wakeup call to youth across the country tired of their communities being starved of resources. Kids just like Tarius Porter are convinced they're just as smart as any kid with the world at his feet.

"If someone could show me one student right now in Grosse Pointe that could beat me in a debate, that could actually fluster me with his diction and his words, I would congratulate him. But, we'll see that when pigs fly," Tarius says.

Until that day, Tarius and his friends will be right here in your face reminding you that they matter. Not because they are black or have struggled in their backgrounds, but because they're people - and they deserve a shot.

"We need concrete proof that DPS will be better and we need concrete flow of income," Porter says. "We need to stop wasting money and we need to allocate our resources to something that's really going to help."

Check the hashtag #IstandwithDPS and see the muscle in this movement - these kids have support from around the world. This provocative bucking of the system has been intensified by the power of social media.

"I really don't want it to be a situation where it's young, high school students putting their lives on the line. We are too young to die or get shot or get into an altercation like that," Tarius saus. "But we are not too young to stand up and do peaceful things like walking out."

The DPS protesters have remained peaceful and the students say they plan to keep it that way. But they will not stop, they are not satisfied with the resignation of the district's emergency manager.

They have learned the power of protest, they are fighting for their futures and that is a fight you don't quit.


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