Her whole family was arrested in Rochester, but 12-year-old Maya Adams kept protesting
On Oct. 1, SarahAdams, 14, her mother, Mary Adams, and her father, Ricardo Adams, were all arrested outside the Locust Club, the Rochester police union.
They had gathered to attend and protest at a press conference organized by the lawyers of police officers suspended after Daniel Prude’s death became public.
Maya Adams, 12, attended the press conference as well and was the only member of the family who wasn’t arrested.
“She had 12-year-old immunity, apparently,” Mary said. “They decided they were not going to arrest her because she was 12. I guess there’s a cutoff. I don’t know if 14 is the start or 13, I’m not sure."
After her family had been arrested, Maya continued asking questions about the arrests and continued to demand justice for Daniel Prude.
Maya’s tenacity, her unwillingness to give up even when the rest of her family had been placed into squad cars, brought a feeling of pride to Ricardo, himself a seasoned activist.
“Maya was handling her business, confronting them,” he said. “She was confronting — I heard her really going at it.”
Maya said she wasn’t afraid when her family was arrested. She was angry.
Maya, who was attending the press conference with her mother and sister before her father arrived, said she recalled thinking, "'Wow, you really just arrested the two people I came here with? Who’s going to take me home? Who’s going to be home when I get back home?’
“And then my dad came and they arrested my dad and I’m like, ‘Wow, so if you don’t let them go by tomorrow, I’m going to have to spend the night at home all alone. … You just took my sister, my mother, my father away, so what’s going to happen?' ”
It was an understandable reaction, but then again, the Adamses have cultivated an extensive network in the organizing community. So no one was worried that Maya would be stranded or in danger, even though she was separated from her family.
“I know almost every Free the People Roc organizer, and that was really the only people that were there,” she said. Though Maya knew someone would get her home even if her entire family was arrested, she was nervous about potentially having to be home alone.
Maya said that both Stanley Martin and Reenah Golden, two organizers with Free the People Roc, said that they would take her home. The only confusion became which one would end up taking care of Maya.
Eventually, Sarah, Mary and Ricardo were all released. Sarah was detained and released without being charged, while appearance tickets were issued for her parents.
This was not the first political action Maya and her family have been involved in, and it would not be the last. The family members are fixtures at demonstrations and meetings in Rochester and across the region — and have been for decades. An older daughter, Erin Shoemaker, 28, works and studies locally.
Political activism for the family runs beyond protests, as both Mary and Ricardo have or are currently serving on the Rochester City School District's Board of Education. Ricardo is currently serving as commissioner, with his term expiring in 2023. Sarah and Maya are already taking up the mantle.
In a protest scene that sometimes falls along generational divides, this family is bridging the gap and forging a path of activism as a family way of life.
Protesting and protecting
Maya, Ricardo and Mary gathered at a table in the backyard of the family’s 19th Ward home on a chilly October morning, about a week after the arrests. Birds could be heard as they flew overhead, and the family was jovial, making jokes and laughing lovingly at, and with, each other as they prepared to be interviewed. Sarah came down shortly before the interview begins. Mary was surprised to see her.
“He told me to come,” Sarah said, gesturing toward her father, who agrees. “I can go back in.”
“I just was honoring your request for a break from another full interview. I’m trying to take care of you,” Mary said. Sarah decided to stay.
A freshman at East High, Sarah Adams has quickly become one of the youngest faces of Rochester’s protest movement. In the last year, she has been interviewed or photographed by local publications and TV stations, and she and Maya were interviewed by the magazine Jacobin, a New York-based left wing political quarterly, last year. And she has been a fixture at Free the People Roc’s protests that arose after the murder of Daniel Prude.
It might be easy to forget she's 14. But her mother stays aware of the demands of the movement and the need to protect her daughters.
“I feel really proud of you guys,” Mary said, gesturing to her daughters. “It’s not like anything that would stop me from encouraging you, but I do worry that your — you guys are so strong, and you’re using your brains and you’re using all the strategies. Nobody who’s actually fair or knowledgeable or smart could possibly look at the body of work that you all are already establishing and criticize you for being anything other than having full integrity and intelligence.”
Despite this, Mary has concerns about the future: What will happen to her daughters’ chutzpah and determination if, years and decades later, Black men and women continue to face police brutality? How will they be able to maintain their spirits in the face of continued injustice? Will they burn out?
“What are you going to do to make sure that your spirit stays strong and that your mental health stays strong? I do worry about that because you’re so strong, so early,” Mary said.
Still, both Mary and Ricardo are glad that their daughters have not only decided to join the movement, but also are becoming leaders in it.
“For me, it’s how you spell relief,” Ricardo said. “I feel an obligation to fight for what’s right, (but) I’m at the age now I need to fall back. So I feel they’ve taken the torch. Somebody from my family is representing — representing good, too, and I don’t even have to be there with them. They’re little leaders now.”
The American Dream?
Ricardo and Mary met in 2004 when they were working with Poor People United, which grew out of St. Joseph's House of Hospitality. The organization was led by homeless people and supported by allies, according to Mary,
The group converted a school bus into a temporary shelter by adding bunks and a propane heater. The goal was to help people find housing, but for those who were sanctioned by the Department of Social Services and not allowed in the emergency shelter system, the bus meant a warm place to stay.
Because Ricardo had a bus license, he drove the bus. Mary was a volunteer who helped wash the blankets, helped people find housing and sat on the bus at night. They met through this work.
Prior to their meeting, both worked as activists and organizers.
It’s personal for Ricardo, a native of Sanford, Florida, who said he has spent his entire life fighting for better conditions. Ricardo, 65, was abandoned when he was born. Three months later, his father’s sister, whom Ricardo considers a mother, rescued him. The family moved to Rochester, where they lived at Mother Ward's Boarding House, which was at the southern end of Hudson Avenue. Ricardo’s early years of homelessness and abandonment shaped him, motivating him to fight for people.
As a child, he saw the effects of racism and class inequality around him, and he knew it was neither fair nor right.
“It's been a constant struggle on who I am. It's affected me even to today,” Ricardo said.
Like many Black men and women, Ricardo is aware that because of his race, his life might end over a misunderstanding. He said that when he’s traveling at night and pulls up to a service station, he makes sure that he is holding his wallet in his hand before he exits his vehicle so that shop owners or security guards inside will know that he is there to shop.
“I’m saying, 'Calm down — I don’t want to die tonight,'” he said. “It’s ridiculous that I have to go through all of that as a person. I can never relax. I see where too many of us have died for taking stuff for granted, so it’s really affected my life so, so much, and it does so today. I don’t want to die too fast on these girls.”
Ricardo’s experiences have informed his politics. He currently serves on RCSD’s school board, a capacity in which Mary served for several years. Ricardo is also an advocate for single-parent health care.
His mother died 14 days after first finding out that she had cancer. She wasn’t avoiding doctor’s appointments because she didn’t want to see the doctor, Ricardo said, but because she couldn’t afford the bill.
“That’s why I’ve really been a strong health care advocate, man. There should be no reason for people to have to die or don’t get taken care of,” he said.
Ricardo is against gentrification, which he views as a form of ethnic cleansing, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Mary is originally from Allegany, Cattaraugus County, but she has lived in Rochester for nearly three decades. Like Ricardo, she has been shaped by an understanding of inequality.
“I see the contradictions between the rhetoric, the so-called American Dream, and the reality of what people go through, and I’ve been pissed off about the lies,” Mary said. “Seeing the inconsistencies in how some people live so well and some people struggle — the people who work the hardest often are suffering the most. It’s a sense of fairness and recognition of the contradictions and not being able to rest. I’ve got a good life, and it’s not fair that people struggle in this rich society.”
Forged in activism
Outsiders may think that Sarah and Maya were pushed into activism by their parents, but it's more like they came along for the ride and liked what they saw.
The girls have been attending protests from a young age: They walked to Watertown, Jefferson County, with Iraq War veterans; they attended the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit; they've been to protests in Washington, D.C.
Early on, Mary, Ricardo and the girls would travel together to events across the country. In doing so, they’ve cultivated a wide community and network.
“We really couldn’t afford to leave our kids with somebody all the time, so they ended up having to go with us way more than they wanted to go, I’m sure. Instead of it being traumatizing to them, they kind of took hold to it,” Ricardo said.
There’s a photo of Maya in a stroller and Sarah holding her dad’s hand as they walked in front of a line of riot police at a G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. It was at this protest that the family was tear-gassed for the first time. Despite the police’s use of weapons, the protesters made for a vibrant, welcoming community. Ricardo said that protesters stayed in a campsite.
A journalist interviewed Sarah and Maya and asked if they needed anything. Sarah said that she was thirsty. After the interview aired, community members sent over 100 cases of bottled water, Ricardo said.
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Ricardo and Sarah went to a protest at the School of the Arts. Sarah was playing with the bike rack and broke her arm. Moses Robinson, who has worked for the Rochester Police Department since December 1985, was there on security and offered to drive Sarah to the hospital.
Sarah was in fifth grade when President Trump was elected. His election angered her, and she wanted to do something about it. She told her mother how she felt and the two of them went to Washington, D.C., to protest the inauguration.
When Maya was in fourth grade, she went to the Black Women’s March in Washington with the Flower City Noire Collective. The trip, which lasted three days, was her first fully voluntary political action.
'Change, not reform'
The family's politics are simple. Mary said that they are unlikely to specifically identify with any political group, but they have a commitment to people over profit.
“In order to get to a better place, there has to be really revolutionary change, for sure, not reforms,” she said. “Justice over order is sometimes a chant or a slogan that people can say, but justice is more important than any kind of oppressive order — anti-Black racism is such a huge part of that oppressive order that it has to be completely dismantled.”
Ricardo referenced the interaction with Officer Robinson, the one who offered to help Sarah when she hurt her arm. He said that he has a mutual respect for Robinson.
“He’s part of an organization that is going to require more than him to change it, just like I’m part of this central office school board stuff. It’s going to take way more than me to change the racism and everything that’s up in there,” he said.
Mary agreed. “It’ll take a majority of revolutionary school board members to change that institution and they would have to be superpowered."
And it doesn't stop there.
“Same thing with police,” Ricardo said. “If you get some revolutionary officers to really expose a lot of stuff. It’s going to have to be some bold, well-off people because you’re subject to lose your pension and everything trying to go against the grain.”
Finding their voice
Despite their activism, the Adamses consider themselves to be a typical family. They work; they go to school; they have fun with each other. Mary likes to cook, both for her family and for others. Maya is an artist. Sarah is captain of the step team at East High. Ricardo likes bicycle riding. The entire family goes to football games and works out together.
“We do normal stuff," Ricardo said. "We don’t just travel around the country, we travel around the city.”
They also credit East High School and Dr. Walter Cooper Academy (School No. 10) for helping Maya and Sarah find their voices.
“There was a point you would not even sit there and talk to her, you were so shy,” Ricardo said to Sarah of her willingness to be interviewed. “Maya, you became who you are over at School No. 10.”
The the family knows how to enjoy life. Prior to COVID-19, they hosted cookouts full of home-cooked food, drinks and community, attracting hundreds of people.
“We’re really ordinary,” Mary said.
Adria R. Walker covers public education for the Democrat and Chronicle in partnership with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter at @adriawalkr or send her an email at email@example.com. This reporting is made possible by readers like you — please support local journalism by subscribing.