By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com) - Jan. 25, 2004
Is it irresponsible to take children to political protests? Some argue it is a good experience for children to participate, first-hand, in political organizing, marches, protests, and the making of history. I am glad my mother took me, as a child, to civil rights protests, and actions against the Vietnam War, during the 1960's and 1970's. I do not believe textbooks can convey the feeling one gets when surrounded by riot police, while trying to peacefully demonstrate. I am glad I took my son to protests of the Gulf War in the 1990's, and the Iraq War in 2003. I feel it was part of his education to see nonviolent free speech and riot police clash on his own city streets, while with his mom for safety. But could I really guarantee my son's safety anywhere that riot police were present? Some argue that children should not be taken onto the front lines of American political change. But as an activist single mother, I could not just sit home, and not protest wars, simply because I had a child. And children are supposedly our hope for the future. Thus it seems essential to include them in our political struggles, if we want the issues to live longer than us. Are certain protests acceptable for children to attend, but not others? How does one determine which protest activities are appropriate for our children? How does a politically active parent balance their own needs to protest a war, for instance, with the responsibilities of parenting?
I surveyed a group of activists on this topic, from different parts of America; from Chicago, New York City, and Seattle, as well as from Wisconsin, Maryland, California, and Colorado, and also from England and Canada. More in the group self-identified as anarcho-feminists, than the other categories cited, which included radical leftists, anarchist parent of color, anarchist, Green Party member, progressive humanist atheist, and others. Seven of the 12 people interviewed are street medics, and 10 of those surveyed are parents. And only two of those surveyed say they had parents who took them to political protests. So, basically, this article is written from the viewpoint of first-generation (except for two), politically-active, parents, and street medics. Yet even within this somewhat politically-homogenous group, the opinions on this topic of kids at protests differ.
When asked if it is irresponsible to take children to protests, the overwhelming response from those surveyed was it depended on the nature of the protest. Several respondents felt protests that directly affected children's services, such as funding cuts at hospitals that treat children, or midwifery rights protests, warranted the strategic use of children at the protests. But many feel it is positive to involve children in a broad spectrum of political issues. For example, at the FTAA protests in Miami in November 2003, there was a Baby Bloc of mothers with children who marched together. One parent surveyed said, "I think it is not only safe, but necessary, to take children to (most) protests. As activists, and as parents, bringing up the next generation, we need to show our children that when things are going wrong, it is our responsibility to voice our dissent." Another respondent said taking kids to protests was a good idea because "children need to know that their parents hold certain views, and that these views are not unique to their parents..." Some said it would be nice if the community could work together so that some parents can be medics and legal observers, while others could center solely on children at protests. Another mother surveyed said she had quit being politically active, then her adult daughter (who she used to take to protests as a child), asked her to go to a protest, and now she is protesting again. That went full circle!
A distinction was made by some regarding direct actions and marches/demonstrations. Many felt large, permitted, labor union marches, for example, were safer than direct actions against corporations, like some of the FTAA or WTO protest actions. The former was seen as non-confrontational and the latter as confrontational. One street medic said, "I had to treat an 8-month old boy for tear gas/pepper spray in Quebec during the FTAA protests there and I don't want to EVER, EVER, EVER, have to do that again!" Yes, we all agree we do not want that to EVER happen, and that is why we need to talk about this topic seriously. Protests are not your typical family event, and we all know that. One respondent said protests are as safe for kids as they are for anyone else, "in other words, usually safe, often not, and usually hard to know in advance." Some felt that large gatherings of people in any context, presented a danger to children, in general, and that protests were no different. One person said, "You could argue because there is sometimes trouble at soccer matches (in the UK), it would be irresponsible to take children to soccer matches, but 100,000's go and get looked after by their parents."
"I do not think it is "irresponsible" to take children to protests. I think it is irresponsible for police departments, fellow protesters, and others, to not recognize that children have a legitimate right to be at protests. At the Feb. 15th anti-war march in New York City, several police officers made snide comments that we were being irresponsible mothers by taking our children to the march. However, there is something very, very wrong with our society if children do not belong and cannot be kept safe at marches for peace," says one activist I surveyed. Two other people surveyed said, "I think that the police presence needs to be responsive to the fact that there are regularly kids in the crowd," and "If the reality is that kids are regularly SEEN at protests, then the response from police might change." And these are good points. If we can get police to behave as if there are children in their midst at all protests, perhaps they can rein in some of their random violence, and free speech would be safer for all in America.
Most of the activists I surveyed felt if you were politically aware enough to protest for political causes, you should be astute enough to do proper research on a protest before bringing a child. There seemed a consensus that parents needed to know who called the demonstration, what the political issues involved are, who would attend, what the agenda of the protest is, if the protest is permitted, what tactics are expected both by protesters and police in response, etc. All agreed "Safe Places" cannot be guaranteed, and one medic surveyed wondered aloud if the community should begin having kid-friendly non-violent action trainings. The parents surveyed felt you should have a clearly defined contingency plan with children, "from bathroom breaks to police attacks," including what to do if separated. Suggested basic supplies to take to protests with kids included sunscreen, extra diapers, food, water, and proper layers of clothing. Some commented paying attention to weather reports was also beneficial, as a kid wet in pouring rain at a protest, or frying hot in sun, will not be fun, and thus proper weather protection is an issue as well. A basic knowledge of street first aid would be nice too, if you live somewhere you can get access to that, such as Boston or Portland. Other advice included "always be aware of where you are, the mood of the crowd, the mood of the kids (and other adults if in a group), and the mood of the police." Many felt the best way to go for parents, kids and protests, were small affinity groups, where parents and children could collectively take care of one another. And although these are all good tips for parents and children, these are basics for adults too.