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.
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.
“It’s not just for Latinos, blacks, Europeans, Asians,” Baez said. “The United States is the last hope for any country that’s run by dictators, communism, that’s in poverty, in destruction. The United States is a symbol of hope. If you take that away, if you remove that, what hope is the world gonna have?”
Someone in the small crowd ?yelled, “Right!” and everyone cheered and ?woo-hooed.