This Pennsylvania Kindergarten Teacher Was Arrested for Handing Cops Flowers

Supermajority Education Fund

September 30, 2020

In June, a photo of 26-year-old Zoe Sturges handing out flowers to national guardsmen at a protest against police brutality in Philadelphia circulated through social media. The peaceful action, which she told Supermajority News was inspired by similar actions that occurred at the protests at Kent State in the 1970s, resulted in her arrest

Sturges, who teaches kindergarten in North Philadelphia, told Supermajority News that she wasn’t involved in activism before 2020, but was spurred to action after one of her students was threatened with arrest; at the protest, Sturges held a sign that read “cops cuffed my kindergartener.” She wanted to protest in a way “that was easy to explain to children and child-appropriate,” she said.

After seeing her bold actions at Philadelphia protests, Sturges’ friends began to turn to her wondering what to do next. Shortly after the protest, Sturges worked with the student organization Police Free Penn at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to organize a protest calling on the university to divest from the Philadelphia Police Department and to disband the campus police, which Sturges claims “routinely overstep their authority and harass residents of the city that don’t attend any of the universities.” 

Supermajority News caught up with Sturges to talk about her journey into activism, why it’s important to shift people’s understanding of protesters, and how to talk to 5-year-olds about racism.

What message were you trying to send by handing out flowers to the police during a protest? 

I think I was trying to show that police brutality is such an issue that you can do something as simple as try to hand out a flower and they will see it as a threat. The protesters aren’t scary, and especially in Philadelphia, where they were using tear gas against peaceful protesters. They were arresting people for peaceably assembling. I wanted to show that no matter how peaceful you were, they were still going to respond negatively. And I think the world kind of saw not only what they were doing, but sort of the excesses of police power in general. 

What kind of work have you been doing with Police Free Penn?  

We’re all trying to work to get Penn to not only disband the campus police, [which is] not a normal campus police force — they’re one of the largest private police forces in the country. They routinely overstep their authority and harass residents of the city that don’t attend any of the universities. And we’re also trying to get Penn to divest from funding the Philadelphia Police Department, especially when they funded the purchase of SWAT weapons — and then what did they use those weapons for? They use them against protesters.

At one UPenn protest you organized, you carried an orange prison jumpsuit on wooden sticks with a Penn crest and the word “super predator” written on the front. What drew you to that imagery and how do you feel like it reflected Penn’s proximity to systemic racism? 

Penn uniquely has this very strange history of producing a lot of scientific racism theories — [like] Samuel Morton, [a Penn grad] who measured people’s skulls and claimed Caucasians had bigger skulls, therefore they had bigger brains and were smarter. And producing scientific racism is a huge part of systemic racism. That’s what gives racist policies and bigots  “legitimacy” in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of academic circles. 

One of the worst theories I think Penn has put out is the “super predator” theory was written by, John DiIulio [a current University of Pennsylvania professor]. He basically predicted this huge increase in crime from young Black people because they were — to quote him — “fatherless, godless, and jobless.” He suggested they were psychologically incapable of remorse. The Clinton administration used his language and his theories to really lend support for mass incarceration and the mass incarceration of juveniles and trying juveniles as adults and locking up children as part of this “tough on crime” thing. And the university has never disavowed this theory. This professor still teaches there. I wanted to represent that by putting Penn’s logo on a prison jumpsuit and super predator, the name of the theory.

Between the jumpsuit and the flowers, it seems like a lot of bold visuals are sort of playing a significant role in your activism. Is that something you’ve done consciously?

I think it’s just a side effect of my job. For teaching kindergarten, you have to make really bright visual things. You have to decorate bulletin boards. I have to do a lot of arts and crafts. 

Why do you think these images, like handing out the flowers, stick in the public imagination?

With the flowers, people really want to see people who are protesting police brutality as dangerous and threatening and deserving of police violence. I think there was a lot of anger, there’s a lot of grief, so I wanted to show [people] a different side of protesting and paint a different picture for people that haven’t grown up with police brutality — [for whom] it’s only something they hear about on TV. If somebody who is not as politically informed sees somebody who just has flowers, and [sees] that the police aren’t particularly nice to them, it’s easier for them to cut through what biases they might have. It paints the easier picture for them about what the problem is.

As you mentioned previously, you’re a kindergarten teacher. Do you talk to your students about police violence or police brutality and what are those conversations like?

I was actually given a unit to teach about “community helpers,” and they wanted me to say that police are community helpers. I’m very limited in what I’m allowed to say and not say as a teacher. The curriculum is pretty strict. But I just didn’t talk about police as community helpers. I couldn’t leave it out completely — I did as much as I could. But even though they’re very young, little kids have no filter, [and my students] told me things like, “I know what the police do. They break into your house in the middle of the night.” And then one of my other students told me that he doesn’t like the police. 

There are some [students who] want to be officers when they grow up and view them positively. But there were more than a few that already had no trust in police officers. These are five year old kids, but, you know, they live in North Philly. That’s where the police harass people the most. And so even though they were pretty young, they kind of already formed their own opinions about the police. I just don’t want to bring up something that’s traumatizing to them, especially because a lot of my students have incarcerated family members. But when they talk about it, I’m always willing to listen. And if they tell me something like they’re scared of the police and they don’t like them, I never tell them that they’re wrong. I let them feel what they feel.

How do you think we should educate kids about racism? 

I think, number one, we should never tell them something that’s a lie. That doesn’t mean we have to say something that is gruesome and not child-appropriate, but we should never say something that’s not true. So we shouldn’t say, “oh, the police officers are always there to help your community and they always do the right thing.” I think there’s no point in saying that because we’re setting them up to be disillusioned later. 

I also really believe kids are very articulate and they can lead a lot of conversations. And my students, even though they’re young, some of them have unfortunately already been through a lot, so I kind of take my cues from them. If we have to have a heavy conversation, if they bring up race or they want to bring up something that happened to them, I try to help them that way. I do think we need to start with little kids with making them feel positive about who they are. 

I think there’s not enough Black history in schools. Most of my students didn’t know Obama was president. They didn’t know what Africa was or where it was. So for Black history, even though I was given the option to talk about segregation and stuff like that, we just talked about: where is Africa? What are some countries there? What are some traditions there? And just trying to build a positive identity around that. And for students that aren’t Black, I think the more cultures they know about, the more they learn about the history and culture of different places, the less people who are different are scary to them.