'Remarkable' 16-Year-Old Praised for Leading Peaceful Protests in Detroit: 'I Made a Mark'

A Detroit teenager is being commended for his actions after he helped lead peaceful protests, spurred by George Floyd's death, through the city and get people home safely at the end of the night.

Stefan Perez never expected to become a leader when he set out to protest racial injustices and police brutality over the weekend, but he quickly found himself in that role — with a megaphone in hand — as he urged protesters to go home and abide by the city's 8 p.m. curfew on Monday, The Detroit Free Press reported.

"I tried to keep everybody together, I tried to keep everybody as a collective group, and we marched," the 16-year-old told the outlet in an interview. "I'm surprised people listened to me. I'm glad they did because they're not hurt right now, 'cause they could be."

"The fact that I was able to put my hand up and stop everybody from causing trouble here tonight, I look back and smile at that moment," Perez added. "The people followed me into battle and I'm glad that I was able to get them home safely."

Being a leader wasn't always something that Perez considered himself, but the teen — who is preparing to enter his senior year at the Communication and Media Arts High School — said his grandmother had a major role in helping him get there.

"If it wasn't for my grandmother, I wouldn't be here today," he explained to the outlet, noting how he's been living with her for a year but also has a good relationship with his mother and step-father.

"As a teenager, I have put her through a lot of stuff," he said of his grandmother. "But she stuck by my side when I needed it the most and she'd be proud of what we accomplished tonight."

Just one night earlier, things became dangerous in Detroit as police fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets at protesters who refused to go home on the first night of the curfew. Those who did not comply were arrested, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Perez — who said he is not affiliated with any political group — refused to let more violence happen and knew he had to step up to ensure that it didn't.

On his knees in the middle of Michigan Avenue on Monday, the teen — who is Black, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Nicaraguan — yelled into a megaphone and urged protesters to return home, the outlet reported.

His efforts, combined with the leadership of a few other individuals, ensured that the protest was peaceful and did not include any violence or major incidents, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"We did this. I'm not going to necessarily say I did this, because I didn't," Perez explained. "I had plenty of help today. But I'm here. I'm alive. I woke up today enough to do this. I'm just glad that I'm here. I'm glad I was able to take a knee, put my hand up and say 'Black Lives Matter.'"

His leadership also caught the attention of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who watched the protest from a live stream. The two connected on a phone call shortly afterward, and Duggan applauded the teen for keeping the peace, according to the local newspaper.

"I was watching the video and I saw your leadership and I had tears in my eyes," Duggan told him on the phone while he was being interviewed. "You are everything that is special about the city of Detroit… we're gonna fight this injustice because of people like you."

Toson Knight, who previously worked with the mayor and was volunteering at the protest with the violence prevention organization Cease Fire, connected the pair on the call, and later reiterated Duggan's remarks to the outlet while reflecting on the moment.

"Mayor Duggan called me and said he thought the kid was remarkable and said he brought tears to his eyes," he recalled. "I gave him the phone and at first he didn't believe me. To have the mayor call you and you're only 16, is major. I hope that motivates him to continue being the leader that he is."

Perez was certainly inspired, telling the Detroit Free Press after the phone call, "That was amazing. … I didn't think I was gonna make it to 16."

"The fact that people follow me… and the fact that the mayor just spoke to me, the fact that the Detroit police didn't shoot. And they could've. It's just amazing," continued the teen, who plans on attending Wayne County Community College after graduation. "I'm glad I'm not a statistic because I could be."

"At the end of the day I felt like I made a mark," Perez added. "I felt like people that [were] with me felt that. They felt the pain. All we wanted was just to reconcile for ourselves to the people we lost: George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin. There are so many names … I'm glad that I'm not a name."

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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