It's her party, and she'll protest if she wants to

WASHINGTON - From a distance, it looked like any other protest winding its way through Lafayette Square - the homemade signs and pink pussy-hats, the chants and claps and fists raised high.

But look closer.

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These protesters were smaller than usual - not in number, but in stature. The signs they carried bore messages such as "Homework kills trees," and "Batman 2020," and "I love cats." Every now and then, a whine would rise above the din.

"My feet are hurting," said a boy.

"I'm hungry," said a girl.

"I thought there were supposed to be cupcakes," said another.

 

In a city where politics seep into playground chatter and protests are more common than rain, Kiyoko Merolli celebrated her seventh birthday Saturday by gathering about 100 kids and adults for a march around the White House. She carried a sign that said, "Time's up for the bad stuff," and cartwheeled through the grass on the Ellipse.

Recent college graduate and practiced protester Maria Rose Belding, 24, led the group in chants - "Be kind! Stand tall! America should welcome all!" - and a street performer closed out the day with songs about community, togetherness and standing up for what you believe.

It was exactly what Kiyoko wanted.

"A bunch of signs in the air and a bunch of people marching around, being loud," the first-grader said the night before, describing her dream protest. "We could say things like, 'Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!' "

Except they didn't. Not on Saturday.

Kiyoko's parents insisted that instead of the antagonistic tenor of most District of Columbia demonstrations, her protest party be filled with positive messages.

It wasn't an easy sell.

Kiyoko originally asked for an impeachment-themed party, complete with a cake shaped like the Trump baby balloon. Her mother, a federal worker, begged her to change her mind. She worried that it could jeopardize her job. (She spoke on the condition of anonymity for that reason.)

Kiyoko's dad, Aric Merolli, 41, said the protest party was a compromise - one that would allow Kiyoko and her friends to express their individual views and support the First Amendment, without overtly politicizing the celebration.

No one imagined it would get so big.

"When she started bringing it up, I thought she was kidding," said Asaka, 9, Kiyoko's older brother. "Because, I mean, this is crazy. Like, who has a protest for a birthday party?"

Kiyoko's grandmother, Saundra Plett, 63, obtained the necessary permits from District police and the National Park Service, which dubbed the rally "Children's First Amendment Demonstration to promote kindness and care."

Dozens RSVP'd.

Kate Stewart, the mayor of Takoma Park, Maryland, where Kiyoko's family lives, opened the party with a speech.

"Today we are calling upon the words of Angela Davis, and saying we are going to change the things we cannot accept," she told the crowd. "Let's think about the world we are creating."

Stewart, who was enthralled when she received an invitation from Kiyoko, said she wanted to show the birthday girl what it means to be a strong female leader.

"The message I really want her to take away from today is to keep doing what you're doing," the mayor said in an interview. "This is really what we try to nurture in our city. We are a welcoming, diverse community - and that does not happen by accident. It takes things like this birthday party to remind us about why our community values are so important."

Several parents in the crowd saw the event as a teaching moment.

"This is a great way to teach kids about the First Amendment, and how to protest safely," said Malawi Welles, 51, who attended the rally with her sons, 11 and 7, and carried a sign that said "Kid Power." "Our kids aren't just the future. They have a voice today. I think coming to something like this teaches them that."

The District hosts hundreds of protests a year, and about 750 of them receive a permit from the National Park Service, according to that agency's records.

Many District-area kids are experienced protesters by the time they reach double digits.

Several in the crowd on Saturday had already attended a rally or two - the Women's March, or the March for Our Lives, or demonstrations against immigrant detention centers and federal policies that separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But for others, Saturday's march was their first brush with activism.

One such first-timer, Maddie, 8, hovered at the front of the line Saturday morning, holding up a sign that bore just one word: "Peace."

"I think it's really kind and generous of Kiyoko to devote her birthday time to this," she said, gesturing all around. "You know, trying to make the world a better place."

Kiyoko attended her first protest last year, when she went to the anti-gun violence March for Our Lives with a group of friends from school. She said she remembers it being loud and crowded. She wished there was more actual marching.

But Saturday's rally - her rally - was almost perfect, she said.

There was only one part she didn't love: A group of family friends arrived carrying large signs with her face blown up big and the words "Kiyoko 2047. America awaits her."

"Embarrassing," the first-grader said in a whisper. "I do not want to be president."

What about an activist?

"I don't know," she said with a shrug. "We'll see."

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