Suffer the Children

The holiday spirit had barely dissipated last month when close to one-hundred-fifty people took to the streets to protest budget cuts for early childhood education. One protester was apparently so distressed by the lack of resources that she wailed and threw herself on her knees. Others tried to help her up, but she let her body go limp like an obstinate child. She was, in fact, four years old.

All told, about two-thirds of the marchers had yet to see the inside of a kindergarten classroom. Clad in orange and sporting “Early Start” and “Strong Finish” signs on their chests and backs, respectively, the preschoolers, along with numerous chaperones, paraded down Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, the youngest riding in carts pulled by teachers, parents, and volunteers from the YWCA Children’s Center at 12th and Nicollet.

Despite the goal that adults professed for the protest, the children seemed more concerned with peace. Many of them wore white satin headbands with that word spelled out in glitter and (except for the aforementioned activist) chanted, “We want peace. We want peace” as they skipped and jumped.

“It’s really more about promoting civic engagement,” admitted Ellen Cleary, a YWCA development specialist, by way of explaining the confusion. When a reporter tried to get a straight answer from various marchers, they responded with the usual indignation, suspicion, and evasiveness, as if they had spied an infiltrator in their midst. One girl impudently thrust out her sign and contorted her sweet little face into a derisive “What—are you stupid?” expression. Another coyly smiled and looked down at her frosty feet, as if to suggest that she was marching for the right to winter boots. A three-year-old boy let out a shriek, buried his face in a nearby shoulder, and refused to answer. After the march, when questioned, four-year-old Nora ran and hid under a table.

Protected by her gray laminate canopy, she was a little more forthcoming about what she was marching for. “Peace,” she said. And what is peace? Nora giggled and ran for cover again, this time into the arms of a YWCA volunteer. “Do you want to tell?” asked the volunteer. “No!” Nora insisted, and wriggled free of one more interrogator.

The action on Nicollet Mall, organized by the YWCA of Minneapolis in honor of Early Childhood Education Awareness Month, was one of four protests (each near one of the nonprofit’s locations) to publicize five years’ worth of budget cuts for state childcare subsidies. According to the YWCA, with fewer low-income families qualifying for subsidies and facing higher co-payments, many low-income children are now deprived of early childhood education and some childcare centers have had to close.

Becky Roloff, CEO of the YWCA of Minneapolis, attempted to kick off the downtown event with a brief statement. With several news cameras trained on her, she fought to be heard over the roar of restless children. “We are marching to tell everybody how important it is that all of you go to school and get an education like I got an education,” Roloff explained to her young audience. “We are doing this so that we can give you a good start, so that you can do well in school, and for the rest of your lives.”

Without a microphone, however, Roloff’s message was no match for the din of a hundred youngsters ready to take it to the streets. The cameramen asked her to do another take—but not before Sarah Warren, an eager protest organizer with a drum, took a wrong cue. She began rallying the children to shout, “Early start, strong finish!”

Though Roloff attempted to give the media what they wanted, revved-up children have a way of getting their way. There was nothing to do but lead the kiddie caravan out of the YWCA and into the cold.

“What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” Thus began the mixed-message march as the group set off on its three-block trek down the Mall.

Two blocks along, one mother, clearly accustomed to more aggressive demonstrations, spotted an approaching police car; she froze on the spot, as if bracing herself for the tear gas. The nearby nippers continued, oblivious to the threat.

“We want peace. Hands are not for hitting,” they sang. Girls twirled. Boys jumped. Energy soared. And one lonely tear welled up in a reporter’s eye, while other passersby, in classic Minnesota fashion, seemed entirely oblivious to the spectacle.