Hundreds of Boston public school students walked out of class and took to the streets Tuesday to protest police violence, marching for hours through downtown and forcing many road closures.
The students rallied against the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City at the hands of police. They chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “I can’t breathe,” the now-familiar refrains from similar protests across the country.
The peaceful demonstration, which spanned several hours and traveled across a wide swath of the city, featured sit-ins at several intersections and a stop in front of the State House that drew a crowd of onlookers.
The students came from high schools across the city — from Brighton High School to Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park — and were united by calls for police reform and racial justice.
“We’re trying to show that black lives matter,” said Kiera Bryant, 16, a student from Boston Prep. “That all lives matter.”
The student demonstration, which was organized through social media, echoed several other protests in the area since a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Earlier this month, a white police officer was not charged in the choking death of an unarmed black man in New York City.
Students at a number of other Massachusetts high schools also have held rallies.
In Brookline, high school students walked outside and raised their hands in protest of Brown’s shooting, and students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School joined Harvard students in a large rally and “die-in” at Harvard Square.
Student activism has raised tension at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, where a Dec. 5 protest inside the school became heated. In response, school officials announced a temporary ban on demonstrations and on clothing “evoking imagery of either perpetrator or victim akin to what occurred in Ferguson or Staten Island.’’
That drew a response from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which last week asked the school to rescind the policies.
“Kids ought to be commended for being thoughtful and concerned and wanting to do something about important issues,’’ said Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director for ACLU of Massachusetts. “Instead of being commended, they are being slapped down.’’
Wunsch said the ACLU is also investigating a complaint from a student who attempted to protest the new policies by placing duct tape over his mouth while at school. Antonio Fontes, a senior, was told to remove the duct tape or else be sent home, said his mother, Katina Fontes.
“What happened to this student who was silently expressing himself and the censorship of speech is truly awful,” Wunsch said.
The school department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
In Boston, students said the two deaths and the grand jury decisions showed that blacks face widespread discrimination from police, and said something had to be done.
“We want people of color to be equal,” said Shylah Bone, 16, a Boston Preparatory Charter Public School student.
Police kept their distance during the protest, allowing students the full run of the streets, even when they marched against oncoming traffic. A few officers rode on bicycles alongside marchers, while others handled traffic at intersections.
When students formed a circle around intersections, kneeling hand-in-hand, officers simply held back traffic, even as the chorus of horns grew louder.
The march drew many bemused looks from pedestrians and clearly annoyed many delayed drivers. But others showed support for the students and said they exhibited a lot of initiative and restraint.
“It’s youth, and whenever youth get into a position like this, things could get out of control,” said Antonio Cordero, 52, as he watched the demonstration move past the Boston Common. “But it’s been good.”
The demonstration was respectful, and students were careful not to cross the line. On Tremont Street near City Hall, a few students directed a profane chant at police but were quickly shouted down.
Students said they left school at 9:30 a.m. and met downtown about an hour later. Lee McGuire, a spokesman for the Boston public schools, said teachers and school leaders had been working with students to make recent events a “constructive learning experience.”
“Freedom of expression and freedom to learn can take many forms,” McGuire said in a prepared statement. “We expect that today’s activities will remain peaceful and constructive as they have been from the beginning.”
McGuire said students who left school would be marked absent but would not face further punishment.
In Roxbury, students from the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School gathered near a Roxbury police station. Students drew applause and shouts of approval as they called for change in the way police interact with people of color in Boston and elsewhere around the country.
“We are just trying to bring awareness to the issue,” said Evan O’Neal, a student at Madison Park. “We don’t want our brothers and sisters dying out here. We want people to know that the young are out here fighting for them.”
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