Less than a mile from where a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Clayton High School students walked out of class Monday.
They wanted to make a statement, have a voice, join in on a movement across the country referred to as “Hands up walkout,” the latest protests after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man.
In Clayton, they were doing so at one of the wealthiest school districts in the region, one where the majority of students are white.
Leaving English, French, gym and other classes, organizers Luke Davis, Katherine Warnusz-Steckel and Zachary Bayly knew they had about 40 students who said they would join them. The plans circulated on social media during the weekend. But even as they worked to fight against problems of segregation and racism, they realized the students they were planning with – their friends on Facebook, for example – mostly looked like them. They worried that they wouldn't get a large turnout of students of color, Warnusz-Steckel said.
But within minutes, as students made their way from classrooms outside to the school's quad, the group had nearly doubled in size. It was a diverse crowd, with white students, black students, Asian students and others participating, marching in a circle outside shouting “What do we want? Justice!” They carried signs, with messages like “Wake up white America.”
“Just because we are, you know, wealthy and predominately white doesn't mean that we're not aware,” Warnusz-Steckel said. “We are a part of this issue and we can't ignore it anymore. Our school is just as segregated as any other. We're segregated at lunch. We're segregated in class. We're not as forward thinking as we would like to imagine.”
Monday's demonstrations followed Black Friday and weekend protests at various stores meant to show solidarity with Ferguson and other communities where police have fatally shot black youth.
Living not far from the St. Louis County courthouse where grand jury decision was announced, some of the students have felt like they're not talking about the related issues. Some have joined protests in Ferguson and elsewhere.
The walkout was a chance to gather as students and talk about injustice and discrimination in our community, said Davis, a junior.
“We have the courage to talk about these things,” he said.
After several minutes outside, he directed the group into the commons, where they lay on the floor in a "die-in" for 4½ minutes of silence. The time represents the 4½ hours that Brown's body remained on the street after his death on Aug. 9 after he was shot by Wilson, who is white.
Meanwhile, other students bought food for lunch. Some continued to eat at tables nearby.
Junior A.J. Parker, who is black, was at a concession stand when he heard the group chanting “black lives matter.” He watched as his fellow students got up from the floor and shouted “we must love and support each other.”
“It's a powerful thing,” Parker said.
Many of the students told their teachers ahead of time that they planned to walk out of class. Some said they would issue detentions for an unexcused absence, the students said.
“If that's the cost we're going to pay for fighting for change, that's fine,” Bayly said.
Administrators also were aware of plans to walk out.
Principal Dan Gutchewsky said the disruption to classes was minimal. He was proud of the students, and said that the buildup of emotions awaiting the grand jury's decision has been difficult. After school activities were canceled on Nov. 24, the day the decision was announced, and Clayton schools were entirely closed on Nov. 25 before Thanksgiving break began. There were safety concerns and worries about road closures if large groups of protesters took the streets near the courthouse.
“Now, people are just trying to figure out how to move forward,” Gutchewsky said.
It is not the first time students at Clayton High School have acted on issues concerning social justice.
In 2004, more than 700 of them walked out of the high school to show their support for continuing the desegregation program. At the time, nearly 10,000 African-American students from St. Louis were attending school in 16 districts throughout St. Louis County, including Clayton, and the district's school board was considering dropping the program.
But students demanded that it continue. The Clayton School District is among the 11 that continue to accept transfer students from the city. At the high school, several students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens attend this year under the state's school transfer law.
Seven years later, in 2011, the high school's Equality Club invited as a speaker Nate Phelps, the son of the late Fred Phelps who founded Westboro Baptist Church. Nate Phelps is a gay rights activist who had broken away from the church as a teenager. Five members of the Topeka-based church protested outside Clayton high, but hundreds, including students, gathered outside to counter their demonstration.
About 20 percent of the students at Clayton High are black.
“So many kids came out because they feel this,” Warnusz-Steckel said. “If you don't believe Darren Wilson was in the wrong, fine. But you can't argue that there isn't segregation in this city and in our community.
“I think a lot of white people don't know how they can participate or how they can participate,” she said. “You have a responsibility to stand up for people who are oppressed.”
The demonstration was among many held throughout the country. In the St. Louis area, most of these demonstrations took place at universities.
About 200 students and faculty at Washington University held three die-ins, where they lay on the floor for 4 ½ minutes at Goldfarb Hall, the quadrangle, and the Danforth University Center. At St. Louis University, more than a dozen students staged a similar event at the clock tower. About 25 individuals held a peaceful protest at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which included a die-in outside the university library. At Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, about 10 students and staff held a vigil in the quad, holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”
On Monday, the Clayton students gathered again on the quad to finish their demonstration, which lasted about 40 minutes. Some used their phones to take photos of each other with signs.
“You stood up for what you believe in,” Davis told the crowd. “This is not over. It will not be business as usual.
“Now go back to class.”
Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.