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The May death of George Floyd while in police custody unleashed anti-racism demonstrations on a scale reminiscent of anti-war protests during the late 1960s and early ’70s, and violent eruptions in some cities sparked debate about citizens’ right to protest.
Against that backdrop, the eighth annual “A Conversation with the Constitution” seminar brought high school and university students together virtually Thursday for a Socratic-style discussion of one of the First Amendment freedoms, the right “of the people peaceably to assemble.”
Since “A Conversation with the Constitution” had its debut eight years ago on Constitution Day, co-founder Paul Martin said the event has had up to 500 people participate. Each year Christopher Phillips, scholar and author of the 2011 book Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution, introduces a part of the Constitution the discussion will focus on and then asks the audience an open-ended question. The audience then breaks off into groups to share their thoughts on the question.
Although the event occurred virtually this year, the format remained essentially the same. To get more in-depth conversations going, Phillips asked the attendees to break into smaller groups to answer the question: How peaceable does peaceable assembly have to be?
About 55 attendees divided into online breakout rooms, each tackling the question from various perspectives. One of the groups discussed their views on the Floyd protests in relation to the question.
“After the George Floyd incident, … in Austin we had a ton of peaceful protests and I guess they got a lot larger than they intended to,” said Jess Salinas, junior at Texas A&M University-San Antonio who’s from Austin. “So then the police force came in and started dismantling them with non-peaceful actions. It kind of sends a [conflicting] message because they don’t want us to be aggressive and do damage, but yet they are doing so to us.”
“I think this is where our country is in a state of [perplexity] because the argument or thought process of emotions going against that one entity – [the police] –that’s supposed to be deemed more neutral, not emotional,” attendee Meredith Rokas said in response. “I’m glad you entertained that question… [of] who is the new mediator of our country as a whole?”
Attendee Dennis Dienst said his breakout room consisted of people from various age groups, allowing the conversation to include many perspectives.
“We talked about destroying statues, we talked about windows, we talked about breaking buildings, we talked about hurting people, and about those different things,” Dienst said. “How do you get seen when you can’t be seen or you haven’t been seen?”
As the event drew to a close, Phillips thanked the numerous students in attendance for sharing their perspectives and engaging in the conversation.
“Time flies when you’re constitutionalizing,” Phillips said. “I’m so glad that we were able to bring in some voices from other parts of the country as well. Nonetheless, the center in the vortex was the wonderful people, and especially the wonderful students from San Antonio.”
The event was presented by Democracy Café, TAMU-SA, East Central Independent School District, Gemini Ink, and the San Antonio Library Foundation. In attendance Thursday were educators who began holding their own discussions about the Constitution within their schools, showing students not only the importance of the document itself but how meaningful discussions about it can be.
Pamela Salazar, coordinator of East Central ISD’s college readiness program, said the idea of starting Constitution Café in the district’s high schools began eight years ago at a book signing featuring Phillips, whose book left a lasting impression on the students.
“When they got back to campus, they were incredibly pumped, motivated, they were inspired,” she said. “They felt like ‘Oh my gosh, my voice really does matter.”
She then worked with other educators in the district to begin holding Constitution Cafés for the students once a month before starting the school day. The Café has allowed students from grades 6-12 to engage in deep conversations, sometimes about difficult topics, and has even brought back graduate students and alumni to participate, she added.
“We started having these critical conversations about topics that were hot and heavy and important to them, but nobody had yet considered having a conversation with them regarding what they thought and felt,” Salazar said.
Constitution Café’s initiative to facilitate these conversations will continue Monday with a discussion on the “DNA of Citizenship” that Phillips will co-host with Karl Hebenstreit Jr., who will explore the meaning of citizenship.