Suburban communities designed for cars don’t always have obvious places for people to gather and assemble. So when students at several Montgomery County high schools and Montgomery College walked out of class in protest this week, they headed onto highways and into shopping malls— and their community supported them.
Suburban protesters make space to assemble where they can
Over five days last week, students in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District protested the election of Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric towards minorities and immigrants. In DC, student protesters marched downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue, a street lined with major buildings of both local and national significance. But as a large, mostly-suburban county, Montgomery County doesn’t have an obvious “main street” or downtown for public assembly.
When people have a message or a cause, whether it’s a religious meeting, a sports club, a writing workshop, or a huge protest, they need a place to gather. In Montgomery County, student protesters gravitated to whatever large, visible spaces they could find. That mostly meant big suburban highways not designed for lots of pedestrians; being there often put protesters on foot at odds with angry drivers.
In Germantown, students at Seneca Valley and Northwest high schools kept to the sidewalks of Great Seneca Highway, a 50-mile-an-hour road. In East County, students at Blake High School (where I went) marched down one lane of Norwood Road, a rural road with no sidewalks at all.
Some protests took place at malls and in town centers, which were built and conceived as places for shopping and entertainment, and maybe some public events like concerts and festivals. Though many of them are privately owned and the right to free speech there is murky, their prominence makes them good places to have political actions.
Student protesters at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville marched on Maryland Avenue through Rockville Town Square, a lifestyle center built in 2007. The town square is officially a public space, but it uses private security who haven’t always respected First Amendment rights.
In downtown Silver Spring, protesters at Blair, Einstein, and Northwood High schools marched through Ellsworth Drive, a public street that the county leases to a private company who manages it. Ten years ago, photographer Chip Py was nearly arrested for taking a picture, and the protests that followed resulted in the county defending the right to free speech there.
Community leaders made the space for protests to happen
What made these student protests successful is that the “mental space” existed for them; community leaders trusted and supported students. School officials allowed the students to leave campus largely unsupervised (though MCPS superintendent Jack Smith says they won’t be given excused absences) and county police provided escorts and blocked off roads. Other adults lent a hand to guide the protesters without dictating to them.
During the first protest on Monday, protesters at Montgomery Blair, Northwood, and Einstein high schools walked out of class and headed down University Boulevard, a state highway. Community organizer and MCPS parent Jeffrey Thames joined the group, estimated at a thousand protesters.
Montgomery County police blocked the road, allegedly worried for the students’ safety after a driver flashed a gun at protesters and drove through the crowd. He asked the students where they wanted to go, and one of the leaders said, “Take us to Wheaton Plaza.”
With a police escort, he led them to the mall, where students peacefully gathered on a parking garage, waving signs and yelling chants. Owner Westfield allowed the demonstration to proceed, and the police blocked Georgia Avenue to allow the protesters to march to Silver Spring. Some students wanted to go onto the Capital Beltway and block traffic, as protesters have done in several other cities, but Thames coaxed them away.
Instead, he led the marchers to Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring, a fully public space. It and the adjacent Silver Spring Civic Building is where county residents go to vote, for public meetings, and to meet with government officials. “That’s my comfortable place. That’s where we have the freedom to demonstrate,” says Thames. “You show up in force, you make the officials making the decisions aware that you are there and you are participating.”
What do these protests mean?
The teens who walked out of class this week were making a statement against bigotry and hate and for love and compassion, and with one unfortunate exception the five days of protest were peaceful. The students also made a statement about the importance of public space and free speech in their community, and the adults around them affirmed it.
Over the past few years, Americans across the political spectrum have confronted the social and economic inequality that persists in our country, which have often resulted in civil unrest. Now, more than ever, we need our streets, downtowns, and squares for people to speak out and be heard. In Montgomery County, teens and adults alike are working to make sure those spaces are there.