The Missouri Teenager Who Sparked a Powerful Protest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this 17-year-old who can’t even vote yet is already making a world of a difference in the heartland.
- Seventeen-year-old recent high school graduate Jalen Thompson drew thousands of people to join a protest in O’Fallon, Missouri, following the killing of George Floyd.
- Thompson is a member of a generation who may not be old enough to vote but are old enough to organize for change.
Jalen Thompson is far from an experienced political organizer. The 17-year-old, who recently graduated from high school, loves playing percussion instruments, including the marimba and vibraphone, and is headed to Colorado State in the fall to study music education. So the fact that he was able to organize a peaceful protest in his hometown of O’Fallon, Missouri, is impressive — let alone that it drew approximately 2,000 people. “It was the first protest I’ve ever gone to, let alone organized,” says Thompson, who has since been featured on MSNBC, the Today show and CBS Evening News.
Thompson is just one example of young adults who may not be old enough to vote but are proving themselves old enough to organize, including two San Francisco Bay Area teens who led the Black Lives Matter march across the Golden Gate Bridge and six Nashville high schoolers who organized protests that attracted 20,000 attendees.
Thompson and three classmates organized a “Freedom March,” where locals could “get our frustrations out by protesting and marching peacefully,” he says. They began by posting on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, but interest grew exponentially after one of their posts was picked up by a page that alerts people to local traffic problems. “Most of the people in the comments were being negative, spreading hate,” Thompson says. He believes, though, that it was the hatred which drove many people to show up and defend the cause — making it clear that they stood against prejudice in policing.
Even with the message about the need for police reform, Thompson was able to get enthusiastic cooperation from the local police department. Together, the activists and the authorities planned the march route and how they would block traffic, some concerns logistical, some more esoteric. On the day of the march, O’Fallon Police Chief Tim Clothier joined the protest, walking arm in arm with Thompson in an effort that, Thompson says, wasn’t merely performative. “He was invested in our process … they were on our side the whole time,” Thompson says, and that made a difference.
Once the communities that feel safe are talking about it, we can all have this conversation together.
Thompson praised the police on the day of the march, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that many would “lay down their lives for us,” and the respect was returned when Public Information Officer Tony Michalka called Thompson “an extremely mature young man” for his part in organizing the protests along with city officials and community leaders.
The coziness of those comments may strike some as uncomfortable, given that these protests are born out of criticism of police conduct. But while he respects law enforcement authorities, Thompson also supports defunding them — redirecting money toward education and other essential programs — while creating more mechanisms for accountability. The purpose of protesting in places like O’Fallon, a city of about 90,000 where police-community relations are better than in, say, Ferguson, Missouri, a half-hour down the highway, is to create larger national change. “Once the communities that feel safe are talking about it, we can all have this conversation together,” he says.
Thompson has already made an impact on many, including his dad, Jamal, who works with special needs students. “We all have to take a long, hard look in the mirror,” Jamal said in the recent OZY town hall TV show on A&E Networks, The Time Is Now: Race and Resolution, adding that his son inspired him to directly work on addressing police brutality when previously he had stayed on the sidelines. “He’s my teacher,” Jamal said.
And Jalen plans to keep teaching — not only as he prepares for a career as a music educator but also through his nascent activism work. “I’ve learned that this is going to be a long game,” Thompson says, emphasizing the need for continued strategizing and action. “It’s important right now for everyone who wants change to be patient.”