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It was those young ones who couldn’t get a break. Reporting on the walkouts that spilled onto L.A. freeways, CNN’s Daryn Kagan commented on live TV last Tuesday: “Not the smartest move. Perhaps these kids could use some more time in class, to work on the smarts.”
Then the LAPD and Los Angeles Unified School District police moved into the picture, issuing truancy citations and, in some cases, detaining kids. It all started looking even uglier.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, some of the organizers behind the “Gran Marcha” held a news conference at a union building in Koreatown to announce a May 1 work boycott. At one point, they used the student walkouts to chastise Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for telling students to return to class. “We need more Maxine Waterses, but the brown version of Maxine Waters,” said organizer Javier Rodriguez.
AWARE OF THEIR BAD PRESS, and not without a bit of indignation, students at one school decided to do something different. What happened at Firebaugh High School, an all-ninth-grade campus in Lynwood, was a student demonstration done with savvy and heart. And precisely for those reasons — and the fact that the students chose to demonstrate on a day off from school — the press didn’t pay them any attention.
Fourteen-year-old Jasmine Millan said she and her peers wanted to act in a thoughtful way against the immigration-reform bill. So, while on lockdown last Tuesday, they convened a meeting, and considered staging a sit-in, more walkouts or an open-mic event. They decided on a march, to start at Lynwood and go about 13 miles up Alameda Street and to the south lawn of Los Angeles City Hall. To deflect criticism that they were missing classes and compromising their education, the students decided to hold the march on Friday, March 31, their day off to observe the holiday honoring César Chavez.
Then the sticky question came up: What flag or banner would they march behind?
All week long the students participating in the walkouts were being hammered for carrying Mexican flags, a symbol of cultural pride that was easily construed to mean allegiance to another government. The American flag was out of the question too because, one student argued, it represented the 13 colonies, and how relevant are those to Los Angeles today? “That’s not the way to do it,” said Alejandro Ruiz, 14, a quiet guy who led the banner-building project.
So the Firebaugh High students decided there would be all flags or no flags at all during their march. In three days, they built a huge paper banner plastered with small flags representing 30 nations, with an image of the Earth in the center and the words “WE BEAT AS ONE HEART” above it.
“It’s about unity, it’s not about representing one country,” said Gilda Baez, 14. “[The banner] just means honoring all the countries that make it up. But if you specify one country, that’s destroying the whole image.”
Everything was ready. The students would meet at their school on Friday, hold a small rally, march through South Gate and up into Los Angeles, and rally at City Hall before finding rides or taking the Blue Line back home. They would stay on the sidewalks and obey traffic signals. They would wear white T-shirts to denote peace and unity. What was left to do? Call the media.
Not surprisingly, the response was lacking.
“When we were calling the media, they asked, ‘Are you guys walking out of school?’ We said, ‘We don’t have school. It’s organized.’ They said, ‘Well, e-mail us.’ They wanted it three weeks in advance,” said Rosalia Bernal, 14. “If we would have told them we’re walking out, they probably would’ve came.”
With or without the press, 100 students, parents and teachers marched from Lynwood to City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, starting at 9 a.m. and arriving near Little Tokyo almost seven hours later. Along the way, they said they encountered people who flipped them off, told them to go back to school, and some who screamed from their cars: “Fuck Mexicans!”
Along the way, they were trailed by police cruisers and helicopters. Marching alongside some parents and teachers gave the 100 or so Firebaugh High marchers some needed bravery. (“I didn’t appreciate that. I saw a lot of people flipping us off, cussing at us,” Bernal said. “If you don’t support the cause, you can just drive by or walk by, and not say anything. You don’t have to be rude.”)
Undeterred, they made it to Los Angeles. They passed the center where the KPFK town-hall meeting was in session and turned left on First Street, still marching, chanting about the “Firebaugh Falcons.” Visibly tired, their voices hoarse, they arrived at City Hall.
On the south steps, where, less than a week ago, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators had trained their eyes on some of the biggest names in California politics as they roared into a set of microphones, Baez, who is half Nicaraguan and half Cuban, took a playground-issue megaphone and made her case for why the immigration issue is less about borders and nations than it is about some bedrock principles, ideas that most adults talking about this tend to forget to include in their chatter and talking points.