High School Students In The Lead


Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power. What kind of power? Youth power!" The train was packed with dozens of high school students who had walked out of classes and jumped onto the BART subway without paying. They came from San Francisco, Oakland, Daly City, San Leandro, Hayward, Richmond, Pittsburg, San Leandro. Many had never participated in a protest action before, and the level of excitement ran high. They were on their way to Concord, another Bay Area city, to demonstrate against miserable conditions in their schools as well as the statewide attacks on immigrant rights, affirmative action, and now bilingual education.

"Some of the kids were screaming up and down, jumping up and down, getting a little out of hand," said one observer. "Then a high school student named Viviana said, ‘Look, this is what they say about high school students, that we’re young, we can’t organize, we’re just here to have fun. What you should be doing is chanting, not making trouble for other people, because we have to get them on our side!’ Everybody clapped for her, and started chanting their slogans. ‘Education, not incarceration!’ ‘No justice, no peace!’ ‘Aquí estamos y no nos vamos!’ (We’re here and we’re not leaving)."

No doubt about it, an organizer had spoken. There were many to be found in the walkout, the majority of them young women like Viviana. One of two coordinators from Fruitvale High School in Oakland, Viviana’s partner was a young man, Sergio Rodriguez. The rules said leadership had to be 50-50.

That day, April 22, over 2,000 middle and high school students from at least 15 campuses, and of every color, skipped school. They had chosen as their destination a well-to-do suburb, Concord, located in Ku Klux Klan country and with a reputation for tolerance toward racism. Concord had recently acquired a huge, sparkling new $20-million police station. "At my school, Skyline High in Oakland, the bathrooms have no stalls, no toilet paper, no paper towels, and they stink," Sergio Rodriguez, a senior, told me. "Tiles are falling on people in class because of water leaking from the roof. But there’s money to build jails and a police station with carpets, TV, all the hi-tech stuff." The contrast in public funding priorities was glaring. Almost no one disagreed about the miserable school conditions, including principals, superintendents, and other high-level officials. Even Concord’s police chief agreed that the schools need more money.

"The important thing about the demonstration is that the high school students themselves organized the walkout and led it," said José Palafox from UC Berkeley, a supporter. But how did they do it? Above all, how did they achieve so much unity across color lines?

Exactly four years earlier to the day, in 1994, about 2,000 Latino/a students from 38 junior and senior high schools had organized walkouts (called "blowouts") from their schools and marched to San Francisco’s City Hall for a rally. They protested the denial of education, especially the lack of Ethnic Studies, and racism in the school system. First called the "Fund Our Youth (or Face the Consequences) Project," the organizers of those blowouts later became known as the Student Empowerment Project (StEP); today the group is called Voices of Struggle (VOS).

High school student Monica Manriquez, one of the April 1994 protesters, wisely called those blowouts "baby steps," and they were. But they didn’t stop. In November 1994, StEP organized walkouts involving 14 cities and 8,000 students, who shut down 3 freeways. Serious organizing for the long haul began, with StEP holding regular local and regional meetings to develop structure, outreach, an internal educational program, guidelines, rules, and future plans. Some college youth began a major effort to get Raza Studies into local high schools; they created a syllabus and reader, organized parental support, and then pressed their case at many school board meetings. They have been teaching Raza Studies classes at three high schools.

Latino student activism ebbed and flowed over the next two years. At various moments a new leap would be taken. One occurred in Sonoma, California on June 14, 1996 with StEP’s protest against the 150th anniversary celebration of the Bear Flag Republic, when 34 Yankees took down the Mexican flag and began the U.S. seizure of California. (In 1996, Sonoma also became the town where a school trustee proposed to end bilingual education.) The well-organized protest climaxed months of preparation to get several hundred, mostly Latino, youth to Sonoma on time without problems, hold a spirited but non-violent march through a potentially hostile town, devise imaginative tactics to disrupt the official program that included Governor Pete Wilson, and block police repression with clever negotiations. They even produced their own beautiful flag with indigenous symbols of the Four Sacred Elements.

After that, high school students began replacing college students in the leadership. Gabriel Hernandez, a full-time union organizer in his 30s and organizer of the Chicana Moratorium Coalition in northern California, had been a key mentor (and still is today); now he could be absent from meetings without serious effect. Issues of sexism continued to be taken seriously and dealt with; women combated their internalized sexism at women’s meetings.

Then came 1998, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War giving the United States colonial control over Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam, and the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo giving the U.S. almost half of Mexico. It is also the year when we have begun to see the full effects of killing affirmative action in California with Proposition 209. At UC Berkeley, for example, fall 1998 admission figures show a 64 percent drop in African American students, a 59 percent drop in Native Americans, and 56 percent in Chicanos. Also, 800 students of color with A-plus averages and 1,200 SAT scores were rejected, yet the new Chancellor refused to challenge the UC Regents and Prop 209. In addition, victory was expected on June 2, 1998 for the ballot proposition 227 to end bilingual education in California.

The time had come for a massive new action. The time had come to move beyond Latino organizing and cooperate across color lines against the right-wing assault. In 1992 the idea had been born of using BART—the Bay Area’s unifier—as a way to bring people together in a common cause. But students didn’t seem ready for it yet; many of the "leads" from VOS didn’t think they would get on the BART together. So the plan had to wait. It was carried out in 1998 through a lengthy process of discussion that included choosing an appropriate destination, which became Concord, and then specifically the city’s police station. The "leads" took these ideas to their base, different school groups like Jackie Arroyo’s Latino Heritage Club, for their reaction. This process brought in many new people of a new generation.

Three months of preparation followed. Sergio Rodriguez, who had worked with VOS for three years, began holding meetings on the walkout "undercover—just a couple of students at first, at my school. Then we met area-wide on weekends, with students from other schools. It was only ten people but we met every week." The plan for the demonstration called for students from each school to walk out and go to the nearest BART station, where they would link up with youth from other schools in the area; then they would jump onto the BART to Concord without paying; on arrival, wait at the Concord station for everyone else to get there; then, about 10:00 AM, march together to the Concord police station for a rally. No one would be told the exact date of the walkout until the day before. It was a complex plan and many said it couldn’t be done.

The preparatory meetings for the new walkout mostly concerned logistics: who would do security, who would have the cell-phones and beepers, what to do if people got arrested, how to call in updates. A senior would come and do a presentation on some of those topics. The main concerns were security and gangs. "We knew the best people to do security are gang members, but what would happen between them?" When the day finally came, most of the logistics were under control with a few exceptions like not bringing enough water for the march on what turned out to be a very hot day.

Jackie Arroyo, age 15, a first-year student at Jefferson High School in Daly City, told me about her experience. Her involvement had begun almost naturally; her older brother, Sergio Arroyo, had been active with VOS since the time she was in middle school and many meetings took place at their house. This kind of family tradition provided continuity to the struggle, and helps explain how it could be sustained for five years.

Now Jackie’s time had come to be a lead. "It was my first walkout that I organized and went to," she said proudly. "I was assigned to talk to the press and I had a button that said PRESS. I wore a green shirt, like the people who did security. When we were walking out, the principal threatened me and others in green shirts, ‘you’ll get in trouble.’ They called my mom at work and asked, Did she know we were doing the walkout? My mom goes, ‘Yes’," Jackie related, in a firm tone that told me her mother supported her all the way. "So we went anyway. My school looks like a jail, all fenced in with just a few doors. But we got out and nothing happened. The principal was really mad—he lost $5,000 or $6,000 that day because of students not attending school. About 250 or 300 kids from my school walked out, the ones who didn’t were afraid of getting suspended. It was easy to get them to go out, but at first they just wanted to cut. Later they said, ‘We’ll go all the way with you guys’."

In Berkeley, the public high school is entirely fenced in, so students there didn’t go to school that day; it would have been too hard to get out. Elsewhere the situation varied, from school officials being sympathetic—even proud—to one campus where the principal physically grabbed a student to stop her from walking out. Two or three students were suspended; two were detained but none arrested. BART had been informed of the students’ plans and did not try to stop or arrest any students jumping the turnstiles.

At the Concord police station, 25 white officers in riot gear confronted the protesters. But the youth remained on a nearby field, holding a rally on a flatbed truck with hip-hop, speakers, and a long line of students waiting to say a few words about bilingual education, affirmative action, school conditions, and police brutality. The Concord police could only comment that the demonstration was "well-behaved" and that they could not remember a rally of that size in Concord before. The students even cleaned up after themselves, leaving no litter. (The press, which took note of this, presented one of the day’s few problems. They generally ignored the four female and four male students to whom they were referred as press spokespeople.)

As for the gang problem, it did not materialize. Members handled much of the security without incident. During the march, said Sergio Rodriguez, "they shook hands—today we’re neutral." For the Latinos, that meant no colors except brown. "The unity was the best thing about the protest," he added.

How did the youth build this multinational, multicultural action? VOS, which has been predominantly Latino for five years, took special steps to include other groups in the April walkout. African and Asian/Pacific American students of color, sometimes from UC Berkeley, would make presentations to Black or Asian/Pacific high school clubs about coming together with the Latinos against common problems. It wasn’t always easy. "At first only the African Americans would join, and they did security," Jackie Arroyo said. "It took more time to get the Samoans involved but they did."

Multinationalizing is an ongoing project for VOS. For example, on the weekend after the Concord protest several members attended a rally to have an Oakland park re-named for Bobby Hutton, the young Black Panther killed there by police in 1968. The Young Comrades, a major African American sponsor of that rally, had joined in the Concord walkout. Small acts of mutual solidarity like that can also be "baby steps"—toward unity.

Follow-up from the April 22 walkout includes settling the cases of the few students who were penalized and the one assaulted by a vice-principal. For the long run, youth will be negotiating their demands with school officials. This should include some victories, given widespread agreement about the need for improved schools and education.

From an organizer’s viewpoint, hopes run high. "This walkout was the youngest demonstration we’ve ever done," Gabriel Hernandez observed. "Also, a lot of young people who had been involved before, then sort of dropped out, came back. It was a surprise to see so many of them. But there are two forces at work. One, people do listen when a call for action is made, even if they aren’t always on hand. And two, there is a core of organizers who never let go."

When I asked about continuity, given the problem of turnover in organizing students, he said, "We never intended the organizing to be school-based, although outreach is done in that framework. The youth are not primarily ‘students,’ the issues are what brings them out. We could have had walkouts against the police with the same kind of turnout."

The example set that day by middle and high school students has had repercussions elsewhere. The next day, for example, college students at UC Berkeley held an angry protest against the new Chancellor’s inauguration and meetings have been taking place every night on that campus. These "elders," the college students, have been inspired. José Palafox from UC Berkeley made their debt clear when he said, "The high school students organized the walkout and led it. College students were just there helping them as legal observers and things like that, we were just supporting them."

"Empowering" can be a tired word but April 22, 1998 made it real for over 2,000 youth. We should all remember the news report about Oakland Technical High School senior Evelyn Avalos, age 18, who had immigrated from Guatemala. She came to the walkout pushing a stroller with her four-month-old daughter and saying that she was there for her child’s future. "Anybody should get a chance to go to school and learn about their past, our history."

Such maturity tells us: never underestimate the capacity for growth. On the Sunday prior to the walkout, a six-hour meeting took place at which VOS organizers discussed explosive internal and organizational issues like egoism, sexism, too much partying. Some were afraid people would walk out of the meeting and not come back. But they didn’t, and there will be more meetings like that. A solid core of young organizers has emerged in northern California who can inspire and teach us all.