Leave it to adults to try to make teenagers feel small, insignificant and incapable of doing something genuine and meaningful.
The immediate response from adults—the police, elected officials, school administrators, pundits—to the somewhat spontaneous countywide school walkouts last week was to question the motives of the student protesters, make vague references to gang activity and tell them to shut up and go back to school. The adult reaction was dismissive and disrespectful.
In public, the official line was that kids would be better off in the long run by attending school, and that while free speech is a laudable and important concept, students should write their representatives in Congress. The lip service paid to free expression was incredibly patronizing, and these officials apparently have a lot to learn about the relative effectiveness of noisy civil disobedience versus a quiet letter-writing campaign.
Even Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., whose pieces are always sharp and insightful, got into the act. He made a strong argument in Sunday's paper that “Latinos can boycott grapes and lettuce all they want. But, under no circumstances should they boycott things such as schools, libraries, bookstores and newspapers.” He went on: “Why? Because knowledge is power, baby. We have enough ignorance in this country. Just listen to the nonsense coming from anti-immigrant opportunists in Congress.”
Of course, Navarrette's right, but he also dismissed the students with lines like “Oh brother” and “You'll have to forgive today's kids. They mean well, but I don't think they fully grasp the consequences of their actions.”
He said the better choice for the young protesters would be to go to school, study hard, get good grades, go to college, raise a family and vote.
Problem is, the press tend not to turn out in large numbers when a high-school sophomore turns in her algebra homework. They do, however, trip over each other to get footage of thousands of kids in sleepy San Diego skipping school and marching against injustice through the downtown streets. Ditching school for several days last week forced press conferences—where the adults played right into the students' hands—and led up to Friday's historic, magnificent march.
These kids can't wait 10 or 15 years to lead by example; they needed their voices heard now. The time of immigration-policy reform is upon us, thanks to anti-immigrant lawmakers like Tom Tancredo of Colorado and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin who want to wall off the United States to people who are desperate for work and desperately needed in our economy, and criminalize people who aide them in their pursuit of a decent life.
Many of these kids-progeny of a community in which respect for elders runs very high-see their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles under vicious attack. In them, they see older versions of themselves being treated like unsavory scofflaws simply because an arbitrary border separates a life of abject poverty and a shot at modest upward mobility.
Forgive them for missing a few days of school so they could display a little bit of familial and cultural pride in a way that was certain to be noticed by upper- and middle-class Americans. Did you happen to notice how well-organized and civil their massive march was? They knew what they were doing. They knew that if a minority among them became unruly, their message would be lost. The execution was masterful.
We adults missed an opportunity last week to empower these kids and to show them some respect by supporting their sudden civic involvement. Likeminded elected officials, teachers and administrators could have shown some solidarity by marching along with them or holding immigration-policy teach-ins at public places such as Chicano Park. All this could have been followed by weeks' worth of in-class education and debate around the issue. What a perfect, real-life, tangible example of how the federal government makes laws. What a great opportunity to instill the value of active citizenship.
Instead, we threatened them with punishment, surrounded them with armed police (although the police handled themselves well on Friday) and, worst of all, were condescending to them.
All is not lost, however. There's plenty of time to salvage some in-school lessons, and those who agree with these kids can show them by attending the students' rally at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 8, at Chicano Park. You can also go to what's expected to be a huge march for “humane and comprehensive immigration reform” on Sunday, April 9. The crowd will gather at 1 p.m. at Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street (west side of Balboa Park) and then march down to the County Administration Building.