• erinfeher

When Kids Are Leading The Chants: Introducing The Justice Kids

The Justice Kids, started by 8 and 10-year-old siblings Walt and Naima, are taking up the cause of racial justice early.

All Photos by Rachelle Derouin for REP CO

At the Black Lives Matter protest that filled the The Great Highway on last week, the impassioned calls for justice were familiar. The person doing the calling was not. “We want the police officers and medics responsible for Elijah McClain’s death to be fired, arrested, and prosecuted! We may be far away from Colorado, but we stand in solidarity with his family and we want our voices to be heard,” Walt Sutton shouted into a megaphone. He is 10 years old.

Elijah McClain died last August after police officers in Aurora, Colorado, approached the 23-year-old as he was walking home from a convenience store where he purchased an iced tea for his brother. McClain was not armed and had not committed any kind of crime—he was anemic and wearing a face mask to protect his ears from the cold. In the 15 minutes that followed, the officers tackled McClain to the ground, put him in a carotid hold, and called first responders who injected him with ketamine. He had a heart attack on the way to the hospital, was declared brain dead, and died 6 days later.

Friday’s march and rally drew hundreds of participants, including an ensemble of violins—an instrument McClain played—which led protesters in songs that included “Up Above My Head,” “Lead With Love,” and “Amazing Grace.” Walt and his sister Naima, 8, handed out custom face masks emblazoned with ‘The Justice Kids,’ the name of the organization they launched in tandem with this event. Their mother, Celina Gomes, supported and encouraged them along the way, calling on her friends with organizing experience to show them the ropes.

Gomes, who lives in Daly City and is an early childhood and social justice educator, says she and her children have talked openly about current events, including the countless recent instances of police brutality. When she told her children the story of Elijah McClain, she said they were deeply affected. “His story touched my children and touched me because this is a person who seemed like his life was about healing, about empathy, about all the things we want our children to learn and to be,” Celina said at Friday’s march. “I am an early childhood educator, and from the time my toddlers come to me, we talk about what is fair and what is not fair...Elijah was killed almost a year ago and no one has gotten in trouble for it. And the kids are here because they know that’s not fair.”

But Gomes emphasized that while fairness is an appropriate way to start the conversation with toddlers, for kids her own age, the talk has to go deeper. “Do not sugarcoat the world for your children, because the world isn’t sugar coated,” she shouted into a megaphone, her voice hoarse from a long morning spent leading chants. For her, that meant talking frankly with her blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter about why she has very different privileges than her Black and Filipino grandfather or even than herself. “I told my kids that it was a roll of the gene pool dice that I don’t wake up every morning scared for your lives...I told my daughter: You have a privilege I don’t.”

Naima was especially upset at the detail that McClain, who weighed just 140 pounds, was given a dose of ketamine appropriate for a 220 pound man–a poisonous and lethal dose. She has spent the last fews weeks calling officials in Aurora, and urging other kids at the march to go home and do the same. The siblings handed out fliers with phone numbers, addresses, and even a kid-friendly script. Naima said, “If you don’t know what to say when you call, just say ‘I’m still waiting! Oh, what am I waiting for? Consequences for Elijah’s murderers.'“

For Walt, it was his connection to McClain that powered him through the demanding planning process, which included numerous Zoom meetings, crash courses in crowd control, scrappy fundraising efforts, DIY flier design, and plenty of practice for his big speech. “Elijah has really impacted me, and I felt like he was the type of person that if he had the chance to go longer could have made our world a much better place.”

Meet the Family

Erin Feher has been a writer, editor and trusted voice in the Bay Area for more than a decade, specializing in design, architecture, art, design, fashion, parenting and lifestyle. She has served as Editor in Chief at California Home+Design, founding Editor in Chief of Habitat, San Francisco editor of Red Tricycle, Style & Design editor for San Francisco magazine, and Executive Editor of MOTHER. She is the founder of REP CO, a storytelling collaborative that covers issues of racial and social justice.

Rachelle Derouin is a photographer and artist based in the foggy western fringe of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district. She works collaboratively with conscientious small businesses and brands to tell their story, creating a collection of images that form a cohesive, unique visual narrative. Her art explores inner landscapes, seeking to understand how our interior emotional terrain relates to the outer world and our collective humanity.

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