The ABCs of Knowing Your Rights

Helping kids coexist with the police

Enter groups like lawyer King Downing's Campaign Against Racial Profiling (headquartered at the New York Civil Liberties Union) and the Know Your Rights workshops Downing teaches all over the city with the help of visiting college students from Cornell University's Public Service Center. Retired cop DeLacy Davis and his Newark-based group, Black Cops Against Police Brutality, also conduct workshops. And so do the educational outreach coordinators of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, an organization of black NYPD personnel.

Henderson, the New Day teacher, was a volunteer instructor during her years at Cornell for the Know Your Rights workshop with Downing, a lawyer who focuses on policing issues. Downing's group visited middle schools, teen centers, and alternative high schools, where students have already had issues with the law. One public school in New Jersey requested a workshop for students as young as third grade.

"I'd be at a community meeting and a teacher, administrator, or parent would come up and ask me to come in and teach a workshop," says Downing. "Mostly it's grown by word of mouth."

Teacher Molly Henderson with students (front to back) Delia Caceres, April Diaz, and 
Jonathan Rodriguez
Teacher Molly Henderson with students (front to back) Delia Caceres, April Diaz, and Jonathan Rodriguez

Under Downing, the college students worked together with high school volunteers to adapt materials from the ACLU and design a program that could be taught at different public schools and community centers.

There's the usual PowerPoint presentation, but there's also role-playing and a questionnaire. "Observing the role-plays gives people confidence in standing up to the police," says Downing. "Given the constant situations that keep coming up, it makes it very real. And younger kids will bring up stories of what they've seen happening to older kids."

Downing's Campaign Against Racial Profiling was launched by the ACLU in 1999 after, he says, lawsuits in New Jersey and Maryland "began to show, statistically, that there really was a problem."

Downing explains the pattern he's seen in community after community: "Resentment builds up to a Sean Bell type of situation. And it's really just powerlessness. So they have a right to get angry, but the police interpret it as escalation."

Reaching the kids was Downing's answer. "Public education was one of our priorities from the start," he says. "Sixth-graders, especially the big sixth-graders, are already vulnerable to being watched [by the police]. People don't know their rights, and nobody's teaching them. We do it hands-on, with a focus on sharing experiences with the police. We go right down the Bill of Rights with the students."

The workshop series happens each year for one week in March, during Cornell's spring break.

"It's one thing to come into a school for an annual workshop and get a snapshot," says Henderson, who credits the experience of working in Downing's program with encouraging her to go into teaching. "If Know Your Rights were part of the curriculum, if it's their teacher, and you know the kids, you know what they need, where they are, hopefully a little bit about what their home lives are like. It can't be done with just one workshop."

Recently retired cop DeLacy Davis takes a more dramatic and controversial approach with his group, Black Cops Against Police Brutality. He too offers a how-to workshop of survival skills, with re-enactments and presentations. The children play the role of police officers, "to show them the hostility the police officers are subjected to," says Davis.

He helps the kids analyze the personalities and posturing involved in so many police encounters that escalate into needless gunfire.

"When you have police officers who don't get that sensitivity training, it creates a holier-than-thou mentality. And with young men there is ego, there is machismo," explains Davis. "If you're the citizen and you know you're right, how do you ameliorate that feeling when you don't want to back down to an abusive police officer? I teach them how to define the difference between a battle and a war: In a war, you risk it all. And we're not going to risk it all."

Davis doesn't think the kids are too young to start learning.

"We're simply saying to our community," he says, "you will get hurt. So there are some behaviors we can avoid."

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