American politics and the importance of participation

Heat waves rose from the concrete streets of central Philly as I left my office at 1pm to join a protest in the streets. I melted as I walked the two miles down Broad Street from City Hall towards Temple University. The in-between space transitioned to ghetto territory—an uncharted war zone where people fought each day to survive.

The American political atmosphere that week was especially bleak, the full-frenzied craze of it all taking place during the Democratic National Convention. Americans across the nation applauded the perfectly manicured show broadcasted on nationwide TV, proclamations of justice and equality and fixing broken things. And that show continued while everyday people took to the streets in the heat of it all, stepping to drum beats and chanting musical slogans voicing their resistance against police brutality and senseless gun violence, with the hopes that they might be heard over the broken-record slogans of tone-deaf politicians.

The Philly Coalition of Real Justice emerged as the leader of the Philly Black Lives Matter movement that month, organizing protests and educating young people on the politics and laws involved with protesting. The Up Against the Law Legal Collective—a non-profit organization supported by the coalition—provided civil rights lawyers when unjustified charges were placed against individuals. The group hosted a small informational at a city church on the corner of Arch and Broad streets, just a few hundred feet from City Hall where the Black Lives Matter DNC protest would finally convene during the week of the convention.

I could no longer just be an observer

I attended the meeting because I realized that I could no longer just be an observer, too afraid to stand up for something as basic as equal rights. I was informed of my legal rights during the meeting, in case I should be arrested in the DNC protest. I was given a hotline number to dial if a friend or fellow protester was arrested, so that he or she could be tracked through the system. I was told to pass the number on to friends and family members in case I didn’t return home after the protests that evening. I was taught to never engage with the police officers monitoring the march down Broad Street towards City Hall. I was taught to maintain a safe distance from these officers. I was taught to remain silent during questioning, in the event of my arrest. I was taught to film any unjust interactions between the police and the protesters, so that this might be used in court when necessary. This was how we, as activists supporting Black Lives Matter, could raise awareness on the issues—by filming the reality at hand.

In the age of Trumpisms, aggressive language is what it takes to catch an audience’s attention, or the media’s spotlight, or the watchful glare of a Philly PD helicopter doing circles above protesters’ heads. The language at the DNC march was passionate and loud and sent a strong message: “Resistance is justified,” “no good cops in a racist system,” “the people, united, will never be defeated,” ‘black lives matter.” All the chants and shouts and drum beats really equated to one thing: this was a march worth marching, this was a fight worth fighting, this revolution against inequality.


In an age of dying political rhetoric, perhaps live gameplay is the unexpected savior in disguise, providing a relaxed environment to effectively communicate and argue on the politics of gun violence. Standing testament to this is Carnegie Mellon University’s Ignite team, who debuted Give Me Your Gun at the 2016 Games for Change Festival in New York City this past June. Give Me Your Gun is an interactive piece of live theater that lies at the intersection of audience interrogations, drama, and raw gameplay. The gaming audience watches as gun violence issues are acted onstage and have the opportunity to ask and vote on questions to the characters in real time, thereby driving the outcome of the performance before their very eyes.

Sarah Tan, emerging game designer and a member of the Ignite team, was excited to see the results of the game that she worked so hard on to perfect. “Give Me Your Gun was really successful at the festival,” said Tan. “We got lots of great feedback, from things like ‘I would really love to see this on Broadway’ to ‘I’m not a gun supporter, but after playing your game, I think some people should be allowed to keep their guns’.”

In the scenario, the audience watches as Linda discovers that her friend carries a gun in her handbag. They must ultimately ask and upvote the right questions virtually as the scenario is acted out in order to learn about each character’s past, gradually helping Linda convince her friend to give up the gun. The result is something organic and raw, a real-time reaction to the emotions of the situation, an opportunity for the audience to empathize with characters onstage rather than maintaining their detachment as spectators.  

I wonder how the game would play out in a conversation between a black, unarmed boy and a white, loaded cop—a justice game of sorts: The boy backs away and says he hasn’t done anything, the cop says the boy is suspected of selling weed, the boy raises his hands and pleads, but then turns to run. The cop shoots more than once. The boy falls to the ground as a lifeless form. How is the audience going to get that conversation going? How are they going to convince that cop to give up his gun? Certainly not by remaining bystanders. After all, this isn’t just another onstage drama. This is reality.

a real-time reaction to the emotions of the situation

These blatant injustices have seeped into every aspect of society, ultimately resulting in the deaths of Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner in the United States, and the recent death of Adama Traore in France, while in police custody, provoking protests similar to the Black Lives Matter rallies in the United States. These types of unnecessary and unjustified deaths have also resulted in the 2016 London Black Lives Matter protest for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It is now BLM that currently unites the collective force of people of color living as minorities in predominantly white nations; a coined phrase turned movement to expose the shitty truth that black lives and brown lives don’t actually matter to white society, nor does the gun violence that takes place within these communities.

The 2009-2010 Philadelphia Child Death Review Report reveals that 156 youths were ‘killed by gunfire’, with typical child homicide victims being black males between the ages of 17 and 21 and typical child homicide perpetrators labeled as ‘males’ between the ages of 15 and 24 years of age. Additionally, if child homicides in Philadelphia were averaged between the years 2000 and 2010, this would equate to eight deaths per month. These countless murders have broken communities, where children are being targeted by gang violence and police brutality simultaneously.

The theatrical flair of the DNC march and other Black Lives Matter protests are finally casting a public eye on an issue that has been long ignored, simply because violence in these communities is expected and stereotyped by white society. The “Say Their Name’ chants that typically echo throughout BLM protests present bystanders with the individuality of the each victim, each youth brutally murdered by the police—but should be extended to include the names of youth homicide victims as well, brought down by unfair circumstances. Black Lives Matter recently described a range of plans to uplift wounded communities with new education initiatives to change the segregated schooling system currently in place, attempting to make higher education an actual option for the youths of these communities.

Ferguson protest in memphis

#‎Ferguson protest in Memphis by Chris Wieland


I was 16 when I first began volunteering at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, deep in the ghettos of  North Philly, three miles up from where I would march for Black Lives Matter eight years later. There was one Saturday that stands out in particular and one boy with brown eyes I will always remember.

There was nobody to watch him that day and the nurses briefed me before I met with him, explaining his story to me in hushed tones outside his hospital room. His father had been a part of a gang and there had been a shooting at his home, his mother had passed away in the midst of the violence and the father was in prison, awaiting trial. The little boy had been shot as well and was recovering from his wound. He didn’t know that his mother had passed away in the shooting. The nurses told me that I had to keep this information from him at all costs until he had recovered, denying him the time to grieve for his loss. Their sole focus was to keep up his will to live by denying him the death of his mother—I understand that only now.

I walked into the small hospital room, confronting him for the first time. He must have been no older than six or seven years old—too young to face such a loaded loss. He was sitting calmly in a wheelchair, hooked up to an I.V. There were large bandages covering his entire midriff, hiding the place where a bullet must have once entered his small, frail body. He watched me suspiciously after the nurses left. I talked to him, stringing words together and suggesting games that he might enjoy.

He shook his head. I want to see my mom. Where is she? I want to see her.

I pushed his wheelchair out into the hallway, towards a large window where we watched the train tracks that passed the hospital building. I distracted him by rattling off all the strange facts and imaginings I could think up about the railways, but he was too smart for me. He listened to me with a quiet patience and then begged me again—I want to see my mom. When is she going to see me?

I don’t know, I said. It was the best I could do. I could not lie to those eyes.

I want to wait in the hallway if she comes, he said. And so we did. We talked and waited for nearly an hour or maybe two for somebody who would never come, somebody he would never see again. There was no point in any of it, no sense, no pattern—just a random violence to everyday life.


a heated protest turned peaceful pilgrimage

I had walked a total of four miles between City Hall from Temple University that day, right back to where I started, a twisted place where left is right and right is left, returning to the very symbol of the system, but also the symbol of justice. I had started the march with so much rage, rage against the lack of resources within poorer communities, rage against a more subtle form of racism that paves the way for full-grown white men with authority to use guns like toys. But then I spent it all by walking for hours in the sun, a heated protest turned peaceful pilgrimage, perhaps because of the boy from Saint Christopher’sa boy who must grow into a man surrounded by the guns of gang members and antagonizing police forces alike.

If there was a game for justiceif justice was something tangible to be earned by everyone equally, then we would all have been marching on the streets that day in solidarity. Unfortunately there were too many bystanders down Broad Street wearing pained, distrustful, amused, and often confused expressions as I walked through my rage and discarded it along the way—and they continue to watch me in silence.


Header Image ferguson dc protest 112514 6 by Neil Cooler