BY THE THIRD DAY OF WALKOUTS at Los Angeles County high schools, the region — and the city’s political and public-safety leaders — were clearly worn out. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William Bratton and other top officials wanted the students back in the classroom, and the grown-ups who were egging them on to shut up already. An indignant Sheriff Leroy Baca even warned that the adults who encouraged the walkouts would be responsible for any mishaps that occurred along the way — marching onto busy freeways, lobbing objects at deputies, and so on.
All of which led to an awkward moment about State Senator Gloria Romero’s role in the walkout. On Monday, she cheerfully announced in a press release that she was leading a delegation of students from East Los Angeles to City Hall. So, Mr. Mayor, would she too find herself in hot water, or was that different? “I don’t want to respond to a hypothetical,” said Villaraigosa, artfully sidestepping the topic.
But it wasn’t a hypothetical. Romero showed up with the student protesters on Monday. With the mayor playing the diplomat and trying to change the subject, Baca was the one left to lower the boom. “Senator Romero is very passionate about civil rights, and we ought to commend her for that,” he said. “But to use children in a way that will put them at harm is a very, very precarious place for a leader to be, and I will tell her such.”
With students marching onto multiple freeways, including the entrance to the Vincent Thomas Bridge, Villaraigosa had sought to draw a distinction between Saturday’s demonstration in downtown Los Angeles, which drew a half-million people and dazzled many Angelenos with its size and peaceful nature, and the walkouts on Tuesday, which culminated in isolated instances of students throwing objects off an overpass. While Saturday’s event was “as American as apple pie,” the mayor said, Tuesday’s activities were becoming increasingly dangerous. Bratton said children who ditch school could easily find themselves assigned to 20 days of community service — perhaps by cleaning graffiti off the freeways where they had marched only days before.
Romero, on the other hand, saw little difference between this week’s walkouts and Saturday’s groundswell. The senator, who represents part of the San Gabriel Valley, said she never planed to lead a thousand students to City Hall. But as the kids and police noisily made their way down Mednik Avenue, Romero said her “mother instinct” kicked in. “I told the cops to back off, to let them be. They’re peaceful,” she said.
“I was not there to condemn them. I was not there to tell them to go to the classroom. These students were on a mission,” Romero added.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer pointed out that each walkout will cost schools $28 per student — adding up to more than $1 million within 48 hours. And Villaraigosa and the region’s public-safety officials argued that the need for protests had passed, since a Senate committee had removed the provision from an immigration reform that would classify undocumented immigrants as felony offenders.
Villaraigosa, who led walkouts in 1969 as a student at Cathedral High School, said every student must understand that violating the city’s truancy laws — now or a generation ago — can lead to serious consequences, from an appearance in court to a $200 fine. “One of the reasons I didn’t graduate — well, I got kicked out — was that I participated in those walkouts,” he said.
Pouring rain caused most of the high school protests to peter out, with soggy students abandoning the City Hall south lawn. And with high schools on lockdown Wednesday, students avoided the region’s freeway network. Romero said she has a message for Baca if he decides to call. “I’m going to tell him that I was proud to walk alongside a new generation of student activists,” she said.