Is There A Legal Age for Political Dissent? Teens at Protests! by Kirsten Anderberg

Is There A Legal Age for Political Dissent? Teens at Protests!

By Kirsten Anderberg ( - Feb. 14, 2004

Teens and Protests. It is a touchy subject. Responsible sex education for teens is often painted by Republicans as "irresponsible promotion of premarital sex." And I could see basic nonviolent protest training for teens having a "terrorist training" spin put on them, by America's crazed Homeland Security Department. Just as it is cutting-edge work to get safer sex information out to teens, it is also controversial to train teens in nonviolent protest tactics, in direct action protocol, in street medicine, etc. What responsibility do adults in the activist community have to our activist teens, whose views may differ from their parents'?

After the Seattle Federal Building protests of the Iraq War in March 2003, a teen kid, about 13, was waiting for a bus with me one evening. He asked me what time it was and was afraid he was going to get in trouble for getting home late. His sweatshirt was covered with anti-war patches. He said his mom was apolitical, so he was sneaking down to the protests, saying he was instead at the Mall. I saw another teen, about 13, alone at these March 2003 protests, with a bike that he was riding into crowds, and was quite bothersome with, and no parent was to be found. A teen mom at the LEIU protests in Seattle in 2003, had an empty stroller, and a toddler running about, as police began to fire concussion grenades into the crowd. Teens live in this in-between land, where they are expected to act like adults, yet are not given the rights and resources of adults.

I encountered a group of very patient anarchist teens being hassled by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) on March 22, 2003. According to the teens and the two adults on site before me, the police came up to the teens when they were waving two flags in Westlake Park, in downtown Seattle. A group of pro-war protesters had driven the Rachel Corrie memorial out of the park, with huge U.S. flags and pro-America chants, and these teens had stayed, waving flags. Police told them their flagpoles were weapons and took them from the teens, although they did not touch the huge 2x4's the pro-war folks were waving with flags on them a few feet away. When I walked up, one of the teens was on the other teen's shoulders, waving a black flag, and was being wrestled to the ground by the SPD, as pro-war protesters shouted aggressively not far away. About 5 SPD officers then searched, detained, and questioned these teens. One of the teens present that day told me the reason the police said they could not be on the shoulders of one another, waving the black flag in the middle of Westlake Park, was the black flag is a "directional flag." Yes, the teens were as shocked as you are reading this, but I do not put this past the police, do you? (I heard testimony from another Seattleite that the police told her she had to turn her upside-down U.S. flag, right-side up, at Westlake Park that day also). What a beautiful education this was for our teens. The SPD had no right to do *anything* to the teens in Westlake Park that day from what I could tell. I think Westlake Park could stand a black "directional flag" being hand held atop another teen's shoulders, without cars weaving up the paved curbs up into the park, due to confusion! I think the police did not need to search those teens nor did they need to wrestle them to take their flag. If that had been *my teen son,* and I had watched that, I would have felt compelled to intervene on his behalf.

Is it disrespectful to the teens themselves to step in, as elders, on their behalf when police seem to be violating them? Wouldn't I step up and complain if the police were hassling adults just as well? Would it even help them to speak up on their behalf , or would I then just be violated and jailed too? If teens are old enough to participate in political actions, are they old enough to take care of themselves with police? But even adults take training classes in nonviolence tactics, street medicine and jail solidarity. Are we holding teens to adult standards at protests, without allowing them to participate in our trainings? Are we forcing them to learn, on site, about police tactics, because we want to turn a blind eye to the fact that they attend protests unaccompanied by adults? Without the blessings of their own legal guardians? Are we crippled by the fear of liability if we give our teens the same nonviolent protest training we are sharing amongst ourselves as adults? Which is more dangerous to our teens: naivety in the midst of a police riot on unarmed protesters, or training our teens to understand affinity groups, nonviolent action tactics, protest solidarity, and police tactics and weaponry?

Teens who protest may do so against the wishes of their parents, just as many of the Vietnam War protesters did. Just as sex education is something that parents may not want their kids to have access to, as a side product of their denial of their kids having premarital sex, parents may not want their teens to get educated about political protest and direct action, including protest tactics and street medicine. Yet teens are close to adulthood, and have their own political views. What if teens have differing political views than their parents? At what age is it acceptable for a teen to engage in political activity on his/her own, without parental consent? And when a minor does seek out affiliations with adults in political alliance, is there liability upon the adults, for engaging in political activity with a minor? It is all really thorny. But as one comment to my last article on kids and protests said, "I ain't too keen on this idea of age-rated protests."

Some teens are acutely aware of what is going on politically. I, myself, was very curious as a teen politically, and had very strong views of my own. Many of these views I still hold today, even though people said I would "grow out of it." One teen wrote me recently and said her mom had begun protesting at age 13 as a Freedom Rider in the 1960's. Her mom's parents were rattled when they saw their daughter on the TV news, as her mom had said she was going out with a friend. The teen writing me just turned 18, went to Miami for the FTAA protests, and had begun protesting at age 15. She said her mom's main concern was always that she could get arrested, and that "police tend to pick out minorities in these situations." Her mom would tell her that she doesn't have money for bail, that she worried about her daughter being harassed in jail, and did not want her to have to deal with a criminal record. She said her mom did not particularly want her going to Miami, but it was a "rite of passage" and that her mom "understood that it was something (she) had to do." She said the only time she got into trouble at school over politics was when she walked out of class the day the Iraq War began.

Another activist wrote me recently saying she had grown up in a family of pro-life radicals. She said her mom had been very active in the Right-to-Life campaign until, ironically, her child-rearing duties became so great they took precedence over the protesting. She said she was dragged, as a child, from pro-life marches and rallies to endless shifts at a pregnancy counseling center with her mom. "My most vivid memory of the whole experience was constantly seeing the photos of bloody, cut-up babies, many of them blown up to poster size and used as signs...," she said. Her first action on her own was clinic defense against protesters like her mom at an abortion clinic. She credits her mom with teaching her how to stand up for her beliefs, even though she questions things like her parents' staunch Christian beliefs as juxtaposed with a military career making bombs, etc. As a child taken to political action by her mom, albeit rightwing action, this person said she strongly supported parents who take kids to protests, but cautioned activists to help educate the kids on the issues, rather than just indoctrinating them politically, which I think is a very valid observation. She suggested parents be more sensitive to the age-appropriateness of events (she personally did not enjoy the graphic signs near her as a young child), and to use a living example to teach children about politics. Another activist I interviewed said he hated seeing children of any age manipulated for their parents' views, such as attaching a "Please don't take away my right to hunt" sign to "a baby in a pram." He also equated taking young children to protests with taking dogs to protests in utility. But it is hard to determine at what age individualism comes, and thus utility is increased, and we all reflect our familial socialization, so this is not as cut and dry as it sounds.

A street medic parent I interviewed said every time he takes his teen with him to a protest, he discusses their contingency plans ahead of time. He said that involved a thorough understanding of what the action entailed, from the issues being protested, to the people present, the logistics of the action, and details about the protest location and/or march route. They discuss "how to identify imminent danger and escape routes." He gives "the older kids" fanny packs with first aid supplies (basic, as well as chemical weapon responses) that they have been taught how to use, as well as some money, water, a snack, and a few other essentials. He said his primary role is to ensure their safety and enjoyment, and that his kids know their needs always come first at a protest. If they are cold, hungry, scared, or bored, they want to leave, he pointed out. He said his agreement with his teen is that she must have a pretty good reason to make him have to leave the protest, as it puts a strain on other medics if he leaves. He said she only complains when she has to hang out while they take down medic tents or sound systems after the events, when it can be boring, but she is learning that an action also takes work, he noted.

Another street medic said he felt his duty to teenagers at protests without parents was to let them know he was there and available for help if needed. He said he began direct action at age 18, and said that the medical system calls teens after approximately ages 12-14, "adult-sized." He said teens may have some varying concerns from adults medically. And indeed, in Brady's Emergency Care, one of two standard EMT textbooks, it says that teens may need reassurance about healing, as they tend to worry, in particular, about scarring and permanent effects. But on the whole, medics treat teens just like adults as far as first aid goes. Which brings up another area of teen liability: the treating of minors, as a street medic, during a political action. Many street medics will require a parent sign a liability waiver before treatment of a minor, and teens at protests against their parents' will, do not have that luxury. One street medic said, "We need to realize that they (teens) will be there, and they have a right to make their own decisions about political participation and even civil disobedience. However, as medical caregivers, we also need to understand the laws of consent as they apply to minors: generally, if a legal guardian (or delegated authority, such as a school chaperone) is accessible, we need to get that person's express consent." The consensus seems to be that little is different regarding the treatment of teens and adults at protests medically. Or as one person recently responded to my asking how to prepare for teens at protests, "Say hi and treat them as equals."

If you are a parent who does support your teen's political actions, you may want to give some guidance to your protesting teen. Some obvious advice is to wear clothing that covers the head (hat), long sleeves, pants and shoes to minimize skin contact with pepper spray. You could even tell them to take their swimming goggles to protect their eyes. Tell them to bring sunscreen, and water. Tell them to EDUCATE THEMSELVES ABOUT THE ACTION, to research the issues of the march/rally/protest, to find out whether the protest has a legal permit, to know who is sponsoring the action, and to know whether it is a large mainstream demonstration or a small direct essence, teach your teens to know what they are getting into and to prepare accordingly. If they are going with friends, make sure they have contingency plans, including escape plans and what to do if separated from friends. Tell them to always be aware of the mood of the crowd and police. Encourage your teens to attend nonviolent training and street first aid workshops. Talk to your child about what you will do if they are arrested and need bail money to get out. Give them a camera, and/or pen and paper to take notes on when, where, who, what, if necessary. A cell phone would be good, and a call home the minute police start abusing you is a good call. Get mom or dad on the phone with the police officer. And you know, some argue that the best preparation you can give a teen for safer protest participation is to have taken them to protests as younger children.

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts." - Kahlil Gibran

This article was previously published in/on:
Boston Area Liberation Medic (BALM) Squad

This is Part Two of a 3 Part Series on Kids and Protests by Kirsten Anderberg. Below are links to the other two articles in this series:
Parenting Versus Protesting: Are They Mutually Exclusive?
How To Prepare For Children At Protests: Vice Versa Is Not Possible

You can receive Kirsten's articles, as they are written, via an email list called "Eat the Press." Go to to join the list.


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