IT’S BEEN A HEAVY COUPLE of weeks for the high-school kids of Los Angeles.
After their parents, relatives and neighbors staged what some believe to be the largest march in L.A. since the days of Martin Luther King Jr., many arrived at school last Monday unsure of their role in what felt like a defining moment in the history of their city and country. As might be expected, they went on MySpace, lit up their text-messaging in-boxes, and collectively walked out of class, sparking a second wave of massive public protest against proposed legislation in Washington that would effectively criminalize their families and neighborhoods.
The backlash and media distortion were swift.
From CNN to Fox News, the student demonstrators were portrayed as ill-organized, ill-informed and fueled by little more than a vociferous streak of Mexican nationalism.
While it was clear many of the L.A. kids who walked out were just taking advantage of the chaos — and it was certainly chaotic — one got the sense they also weren’t getting any credit. Speaking on the right-wing soapbox The O’Reilly Factor, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams bluntly concluded about the L.A. student walkouts: “These kids don’t know anything.” In an interview Tuesday, Williams admitted he hasn’t spoken to students to get a handle on what they do and don’t know. He also expressed a suspicion that the students walking out of class in L.A. were being “used” by “everybody from the unions, to the immigration-rights groups, to Latino-rights groups, like La Raza.”
Hmm. Let’s see for ourselves.
“He’s calling us ignorant — I think it’s the same with him. He hasn’t spoken to me. If he would, he wouldn’t have those conclusions,” said Maria Valenzuela, a 16-year-old junior at Huntington Park High School who has emerged as a leader in that school’s walkouts.
“I’ve also heard the [HBO] movie Walkout had a big part in this, and in our case, it didn’t. I didn’t know there was a movie until they mentioned it.”
Anyone who’s actually been listening to students talk about the walkouts will find that the marchers mostly organized themselves, and did so with a clear sense of purpose and an awareness of broader issues — notwithstanding talking-head adults who, after the fact, criticize or try to attach high-level political meaning to their walkouts.
Valenzuela said she and her peers decided to walk out of class because the proposed immigration-reform law was offensive and outrageous to them. In the face of the extreme HR4437, an extreme reaction seemed to make sense, she said.
Valenzuela was born in Mexico City, takes advanced-placement classes, works on the weekends at her immigrant parents’ photography business, and is active in her school’s Key Club, yearbook and Gay-Straight Alliance. A week after she helped lead her school’s walkout, Valenzuela and two other Huntington Park High students attended a town-hall meeting on the protests, held at the Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo and aired live on 90.7 KPFK-FM. She had some cutting questions about the government’s funding priorities as they relate to congressional efforts to build a new barrier along much of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“You want the U.S. to spend money building a wall along the border. Is that what we really need? Katrina. You see the people affected by Katrina — have they been helped? Are we spending the money where we’re supposed to be spending it? .?.?. Ask yourself, who are the real terrorists here?”
One by one, dozens of students spoke as forcefully as Valenzuela during the three-hour meeting, one of many that have sprung up across the city in the wake of the heaviest walkouts last week. “I would just like to point out, this is not a Latino issue, this is an American issue,” said 16-year-old Ryan Perez.
In their talks, the students have worked through informed ideas on politics, nations, history, mass media, organizing and culture. They’ve drawn connections between the immigration debate and the war in Iraq, globalization, and the inherently immigrant-generated history of the U.S.
“Asian, African-American, everyone that fights for the free should be here!” said one hearty young voice during an audio feed from the first days of the walkouts. “My parents are immigrants, and so am I. This is for the people that want freedom! This land was founded by freedom, by the immigrants of the United States!”
These were not the voices, though, projected to wider audiences across the country. And in the days since tens of thousands of high-school students took to the streets across California and the Southwest, the largest student demonstrations since the days of the civil-rights movement, the walkouts were boiled down to an opportunistic-sounding and crude 10-second loop of whoops and foreign-flag-waving.
There seemed to be no effort to contextualize the students’ motivations. Media observers also failed to make the critical distinction between the mostly older immigrant protesters — who tended to carry the U.S. flag — and the mostly younger and U.S.-born protesters carrying the Mexican one.