Everyone knew it was coming, but it was still a sight to behold.

Two weeks ago, in the middle of third period, hundreds of Riverside High School students put down their pencils, closed their textbooks, and extinguished their Bunsen burners to march, pass-less, through the halls, gather in front of the school, and voice their support for reproductive rights in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that aims to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Riverside looks remarkably like a correctional facility—the school stands at the end of a long driveway in northern Durham, and the front of its main building is a largely windowless slab of concrete—so the walkout bore resemblance to a jailbreak, except everyone stayed on the grounds, and the people in charge were prepared for it.

The four sophomores who organized the demonstration had approached the principal, Gloria Woods-Weeks, with their plan several days prior. They weren’t asking for permission but wanted to give her a heads-up as an act of courtesy.

“She tried to encourage us to not do it during instructional time,” says organizer Natalia Caballero. “And we were just like, ‘Well, that’s kind of the point.’”

Woods-Weeks “gave up pretty quickly,” according to Caballero, and told the organizers that she’d been expecting a protest, as a number of other Triangle high schools had held them during the past week.

That trend was part of the reason Caballero and her friends decided to arrange the walkout—they didn’t want to be the only school not to do it.

“We had to acknowledge that we were aware of this, too,” organizer Rachael Ades says.

But they weren’t just bandwagoning. On the Instagram account they created to promote the demonstration, the organizers laid out their intentions in a concise post.

“As high schoolers, most of us cannot vote, and just posting graphics on Instagram stories can only do so much,” the post reads. “This is the next step. This is how we show support and use our voices.”

In a Zoom call, Caballero elaborates on this point.

“Obviously, younger people can get pregnant, and a lot of times younger people are not ready to have kids,” Caballero says. “But also, Roe v. Wade being overturned would lead to a lot of other rights potentially being taken away. And then we’re the ones who are gonna have to rebuild all of that progress, if it gets destroyed.”

And more broadly, she says, a reversal of rights would just be really messed up.

“Most of our parents were born right after Roe v. Wade. So it’s kind of like, how are we going to have less rights than our parents? I don’t know how you could look at that and not be disturbed.”

In the days leading up to the walkout, the organizers rallied support through Instagram and word of mouth, and the morning of, their efforts were unintentionally bolstered by Woods-Weeks, who sent a last-minute email to faculty stating that “teachers should not encourage students to participate in the walkout.” The email backfired when at least one teacher projected it onto the whiteboard for students to see. (Woods-Weeks did not reply for comment, but a teacher told me the email was likely driven by safety concerns.)

On May 20 at 1:30 p.m., roughly 200 students exited their classrooms and assembled under the flagpole in front of the school. They passed around a hat to collect money for Planned Parenthood, then spent the next 40 minutes chanting, “They say no choice, we say pro-choice,” and parading signs they’d made during their lunch period. Most signs showed variations of the phrase “Abortion is health care,” though some were coarser; one, taped to the end of a yardstick, bore angry black and red letters that read, “If I wanted government in my womb I would f*ck a senator.”

In hindsight, though, the most jarring sign was one with the friendliest packaging.

Written in pastel pinks and purples, and bordered with doodles of flowers and hearts, it read, “WISH I HAD AS MUCH RIGHTS AS A GUN.”

                                                               * * * 

Last Monday, instead of holding a walkout, students at Durham School of the Arts wore purple to show their support for reproductive rights.

But the next day, when a gunman murdered 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, they felt compelled to stage a more dramatic demonstration.

On Thursday morning, concurrent with students from several other Durham public schools, hundreds of middle and high schoolers walked out of DSA and convened in front of the school’s main entrance.

The students were joined by a number of teachers, as well as their principal, Jackie Tobias, who stood on a ledge and gave a speech encouraging students to call their senators and demand stricter gun laws. As she spoke, teachers handed out slips of paper with senators’ names and contact information.

Some students carried signs, but most, like junior Alexa Sabo, hadn’t had time to prepare, and came bearing only raw emotion.

“My friends and I, we just held each other, just crying,” Sabo says. “There was a lot of outrage and sadness.”

Sabo found out about the shooting while she was babysitting an eight-year-old girl, which she says felt acutely devastating.

“It hurt a lot to know that [the victims] won’t be able to celebrate, you know, their sweet 16 or stuff like that,” Sabo says.

The news also hit close to home for junior Scarlett Todd, who has younger siblings.

“I remember when Sandy Hook happened and how absolutely terrified I was to go to school, because I didn’t want that to be me,” Todd says. “Now I’m scared of it happening to [my siblings].”

The walkout provided a space for the school to mourn together, Sabo and Todd say, but it also served a greater purpose—it showed them that organizing is possible, allowed them to advocate for gun control, and made a statement.

“Even if it didn’t bring mass attention, it still showed the community that our school is extremely disturbed by these types of situations,” Todd says. “This isn’t something we’re just going to let slide.”

The demonstration at DSA wasn’t her first; in 2018, after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Todd and her classmates walked out of their middle school and sat on the ground in a silent protest.

She was reminded of that protest as she stood in front of DSA on Thursday; after a speaker read out the names of the Uvalde victims, the crowd of typically rowdy teenagers was swallowed by silence.

“Each time a name would be shouted, they would say how old the victim was,” Todd says. “I just broke down sobbing. Because every time they said, ‘This kid was 10,’ I would just be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s, that’s how old my brother is.’”

                                                               * * * 

When I ask sophomore Donna Diaz why she participated in the walkout at Riverside, she first tells me, “I’ll be honest—I wanted to skip class.”

But as we continue to talk, it becomes clear that Diaz cares about reproductive rights—she held a sign at the walkout that said, “My pussy, my power.”

So if she’s invested in the cause, I ask, why was skipping class her motivation to attend?

Her answer is simple: she didn’t think the demonstration was going to accomplish anything. By that logic, she didn’t walk out to make some kind of large-scale change; she walked out because it was better than being in class.

“If it’s not getting attention from higher-ups, if it’s not getting attention from Congress, what we did was for nothing,” Diaz says.

Demonstrations do help to raise awareness, she says, but raising awareness doesn’t seem to be inspiring any real progress.

“Let’s take the protests for Black Lives Matter,” Diaz says. “People are still dying. They still hire racist police officers. Nothing’s really changed. It’s just that it’s more amplified.”

Like Diaz, a number of other students were critical of the walkout, despite supporting its cause. More than a few told me it was performative and pointless. One junior, Eden Richman, says it would’ve been more productive if the organizers had narrowed their focus.

“I wish that they made it more about, like, ‘if they’re gonna take away our access to abortion, DPS needs to step it up and give us better sex education and access to contraceptives’ to try to bridge the gap,” Richman says.

Richman’s idea is a good one, but I was taken aback by how many students—particularly upperclassmen, who were almost entirely absent from the Riverside walkout—were seemingly incensed at the naivete of those who believed they could change the system.

I participated in a walkout at Riverside during my senior year of high school. It was two days after Donald Trump had been elected president, and a lot of us felt scared, angry, and bereft of agency—Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric targeted about 75 percent of the student body, and hardly any of us had been able to vote. The outcome of the election meant that we couldn’t rely on adults to protect or make decisions for us. So for a moment, we stopped listening to them and walked out of class.

When we showed up to school the next day, Trump was still president, but it felt like we had done something—like maybe we had practiced for the real world.

Just five years later, it seems that many students at that same school have become so cynical and disillusioned that they see public protests as showy and futile. I can’t blame them. But still, it’s worrying.

Ray Starn, who organized the walkout during my senior year and recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill after serving as the lead organizer of the school’s Young Democrats chapter, says that the students who attended their school’s walkouts are on the right track.

“People grandstanding that it’s ‘not doing anything’ is funny, because … grassroots organizing, whether it’s walkouts, labor strikes, or marches, creates new leaders and just a more politically active, aligned class,” Starn says.

Perhaps because it was triggered by an immediate tragedy, DSA’s walkout wasn’t polarizing in the way Riverside’s was. But Sabo shares a viewpoint that could be used to justify any school-based walkout: if school systems are a microcosm of government, walking out of class is the most immediate way for students to stand up against the larger system imposed on them.

“This is our way of pushing back,” Sabo says. “Even though we’re stuck in this really enforced system.” 

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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.