NEW YORK—The human microphone was loud enough to carry to the far edges of the crowd, but more students were arriving all the time, so some of the chants were being repeated more casually between groups.
“They asked us not to smoke on top of each other or curse,” a boy in soggy jeans and a backpack said to a group of five or six people assembling behind him. He shrugged and turned back to the front.
It was maybe the only thing that felt like adult interference in Tuesday afternoon's protest, a mid-school day walkout organized by students at 19 high schools across the five boroughs. The weather was oppressively grey with on and off rain, but the crowd of hundreds kept expanding outward from the center of Foley Square in Lower Manhattan.
There was a joyful kind of urgency as each new group joined up with the main protest. People recognized friends, hugged, and jumped on each other's shoulders while chanting. They joked about catching pneumonia and then talked seriously about the anxiety permeating their neighborhoods and families in the wake of President Trump's Muslim travel ban.
“Both my parents came from Morocco in 2000," Salma, a 15-year-old who had walked out of Brooklyn Friends, a Quaker school just across the bridge in downtown Brooklyn, told me while organizers led another mic check. "I am a practicing Muslim, and this ban affects me."
Salma's parents are immigrants, which is true of more than one-third of New York City's population. Watching the administration work so quickly to make good on its most xenophobic campaign pledge was scary, she said, but the recent swell of protests has given her a sense of power.
"I mean, we did that and it stopped the ban," she said, referring to the patchwork of courts that have stayed the executive order after thousands of protesters flooded into airports across the country. "After that, I felt like I could actually do something, so I am going to keep going to the streets. Just because we’re not 18 doesn’t mean we can just sit at home and watch Netflix."
That was a common sentiment. None of the students I spoke to on Tuesday had been old enough to vote in November, but almost all of them had family members or close friends who now feel incredibly vulnerable under the new administration's policies—whether the travel ban or Trump's threat to defund sanctuary cities like New York. They have all been thrown into a kind of chaos that was beyond their control.
"It's really weird, it's really weird," Ymani, who is 14, told me when I asked about that feeling. "But I'm excited for the next election when I can definitely have a voice."
Emanuel, a 16-year-old from Washington Heights who spoke in long, considered sentences, told me he had come out to show support for students impacted by the travel ban, but also to protest Betsy DeVos, who only moments before had been confirmed by a narrow majority in the Senate to head the Department of Education. He had gotten the news alert on his phone on his way to Foley Square. "I'm trying to get that chant going," he said with a laugh.
Watching the election play out around him without being able to have a vote was frustrating, he said. It's also something he wanted to see change: "Not only do I see the system as undemocratic because of the Electoral College, but we also see ourselves as capable of making these decisions. It's our future."
But until then, protest was the most direct way he could have a public say in something that felt so personal.
"We're hopeful that if we get the energy going now, then we can keep the ideas flowing, and keep the community together, and get the change we want to see," Emanuel said. "A lot of the conversation right now is how to make people feel safe. That's why we want to be out here today."