Jesse Ross is a senior at San Diego High School and an intern at CityBeat. We asked him to write a firsthand account of last week's protests of an immigration-reform bill passed by the House of Representatives that prompted hundreds of San Diego County students to walk off campus.
The campus of San Diego High School-or the San Diego High Educational Complex, as it's now called-has been divided into six "small schools" since the beginning of the 2004-05 school year. It would be an understatement to say the small schools program has created a sense of segregation among a culturally and ethnically diverse student body.
So, when heavy protesting began on campus on Tuesday, March 28-a day later than some other San Diego schools and a week after students in Los Angeles began protesting-it wasn't much of a surprise how some students reacted.
Civil action from students who're generally not politically or socially conscious no doubt prompted school-district administrators to respond quickly and forcefully. Now, this is a school that, since its division, has increased administrative control considerably (there is now a principal for each small school, not to mention a mini-bureaucracy of administrators). Also, with the addition of two buildings to house the larger student population, both of which resemble prison structures, and an increase in campus security (including campus staff, "city events" security and actual San Diego police officers), it could be said that those in charge of San Diego High are big on control. The giant prison-like fencing, erected several years ago, is locked at most openings during much of the school day.
These are the conditions on a normal school day. When students began leaving class Tuesday to protest, those conditions didn't change. As students congregated at one back gate, all entrance points to the school were closed and locked. Various principals and faculty members were dispatched to intercept the mob and impose discipline as necessary, and most classrooms were locked down-no coming in or leaving. This would become the norm for the remainder of the week.March 28
Because the student population is so large, some classes are held in bungalows outside the gates. That's where it started, with students on either side of the fence shouting, staff relaying messages on walkie-talkies and students and security running up to the growing horde of kids. The gate separating the bungalows from the rest of the campus was locked to stop any further "walking out," and, in rebuttal, students started a pseudo-march through the campus.
I saw faces that I would and wouldn't have expected to see participating in a protest as the group moved along, and I certainly never expected there to be so many. They were heading toward exits they knew were usually open. Simultaneously, janitorial staff, security and others were securing all exits. The students were running into dead-ends, so roughly 200 kids marched through the building that houses the School of Media and Performing Arts, behind which is a giant white wall that separates the campus from Russ Boulevard (the street between City College and SDHS). Some students then began jumping the wall before encountering security, and those who didn't make it over the wall scattered elsewhere.
The mass reconfigured at the gate behind the gym where some students had already made it to the other side. One guy climbed the fence from the school side, straddled the top for a bit, cheering and evoking more cheers, then hopped to the other side where he and other students began shaking the gate. Others still locked in the school started pushing and pulling in unison until the gate broke open.
The crowd then fused together, sort of pulsated for a moment as if they didn't quite know what to do, and divided again. Many ended up marching to Chicano Park as they would do Wednesday and Friday, though some stayed at school and some just took off. A while later, I saw a single maintenance person walk up to the gate to repair whatever it was the protesters busted. A girl walked up to him, and they exchanged a few words. He opened the gate and let her pass, and then continued reinforcing the fence.
After things settled down, you began to see how the protests were going to affect being at school. The gates remained locked in spite of students who needed to get to classes beyond them. Some students were up to 40 minutes late to classes, waiting for someone with clearance to open the gates, at which point the gates would be opened just long enough to allow the students passage and then locked again until the next designated time to open them.
Over the course of the next couple of days, I became more interested in how the kids who weren't walking out were acting and what they were saying. I knew my peers were generally apathetic politically and that much of the time, anyone I talked to about issues such as immigration reform would be more or less ignorant. As the students who didn't leave discussed the day's events, the most racist and ignorant remarks starting spewing from the mouths of too many.
It would only be logical for the school of Cultural Investigations in a Multicultural Atmosphere (CIMA), which consists of mostly Latino and ESL students, to have the most students walking out. CIMA is sometimes the butt of jokes on campus, whether it's about literacy level or race or the number of immigrants attending, or just being referred to as "the Mexican school." In contrast, the school of International Studies-roughly one-third white (compared to less than 10 percent at any other small school at San Diego High), is sometimes considered "the white school." This is a product of the segregated campus.
So, in my "white" school, I guess I wasn't really surprised when I started hearing things like, "It must be the CIMA kids" and "La Migra!" I overheard things like, "I don't see why they're having such a hard time getting out-they had to hop a fence to get here, didn't they?" More depressing, still, I didn't once hear anyone defending the protesters-not students, not teachers, nobody. And I definitely didn't hear anyone talking about the Congressional legislation that prompted the protests. With classes in lockdown, it seemed like a great time for teachers to educate some of these kids about what's going on-but, as far as I saw, nada.
The sense I got on Tuesday and Wednesday was that the campus walkouts became something of novelty to those still in class. Standing outside of their classrooms, students would watch masses of their peers marching one way and then another, and I was still hard-pressed to find any intelligent conversation about the situation. When the campus was locked down, the students were herded inside, where they would gather at a window from which they could best see the spectacle.
On Wednesday, I started hearing students say the protesters were wasting time for the rest of the students. One San Diego High junior thought it necessary to write an 800-plus-word blog entry titled "I am AGAINST the protest," on his MySpace page. "This protest act of people venturing out of school and marching down the streets carrying mexican [sic] flags has got to be the STUPIDEST thing that i [sic] have ever seen so far in my high school carrier [sic]," he wrote. He goes on to discuss the ineffectiveness of this form of protest, the justification of the immigration legislation and how those "acting like ignorant, arrogant, anarchist fools" were negatively affecting his school time. Upset that he "had to sit and wait at the bungalos [sic] while a huge line of kids, most not even knowing what they are doing, marched through which made the guards close the gates, which made me miss some of my precious class time."
This was, however, a sentiment shared by few, as most would consider class time as something other than precious. Largely, the kids who remained at school had little opinion on the effects of the protests; they just liked to watch. You know how when a fight breaks out, you see half the students running in the direction of the conflict? Same thing here. If kids could see the goings-on from the window of their classroom, they were watching.
I would be told later in the week by a number of students that the biggest turnout of SDHS students at Chicano Park happened on Wednesday. I would also be told that the numbers dwindled as the end of the school day approached.
Thursday was calm, like the eye of a storm. I saw no walkouts, though I don't doubt there were a few. The gates were still locked, the school's best defense against civil disobedience.
Mid-day, teachers distributed to their students a notice from district Superintendent Carl Cohn that was meant to go to their parents. The gist of the letter was that the district "supports students' rights to free speech," but that any protesting should be saved for after school; that anyone leaving would be considered truant and "face serious consequences, such as detention, Saturday school, suspension or even arrest." Cohn wrapped up by saying, "Our goal is to minimize disruption at our schools, and to focus on using these demonstrations of concern as an educational lesson for our students. We have provided schools with resources so they can educate students about the process for changing this and other legislation."
Now, obviously, with the unprecedented number of students participating in the protests, I'm sure the school district, the superintendent and school faculties had a lot on their plates, but I didn't learn anything about how to influence legislation and I saw no such resources being used; perhaps they hadn't been distributed yet.
I took a trip to Chicano Park in the early afternoon (before school was over) to see if anything was going on, but nothing was.
I had heard rumors since Wednesday that Friday would be the biggest demonstration yet-and it was. I went to first period and most of second before leaving, and hadn't seen anyone attempting to escape from school. I walked to the gate that leads to the City College lot where I park my car every morning. I looked around and saw a janitor in a golf cart approaching. I asked if she was going through and she responded by asking if I was a student. I told her no, I was a teachers' aide, and she let me out.
I later learned that I hadn't seen anyone leaving the campus Friday because most students, from San Diego High at least, skipped school and went directly to Chicano Park, some getting there even before classes started. I arrived at Chicano Park a bit after 11 a.m.
There was a sound system set up and live music, people speaking and handing out flyers. There were roughly 150 to 200 people there, and not all students-most were taking part in a march to downtown.
Among the crowd were Gompers High School students Sylvia Rios and Diante Ali. "I think it's probably a good way make [lawmakers] think that-make them know-that everyone here is just the same as they are," said Rios. "It shows them how far we'll go to make the world change."
Ali added, "Well, I just support my friends, like, they're immigrants also, so I'm just here to support them."
They told me that students had been walking out every day that week, the biggest turnout being Monday. Ali was quick to tell me they had "a maximum of 430" students on the first day of protest.
I met up with the march on Market Street. When I first caught sight of it, I was completely blown away-this from a high school kid who's been participating in protests for years, student organized and otherwise. I couldn't believe it. At the height of the Iraq invasion protests in 2003, I probably saw half as many students. As I joined the march, which was momentarily stopped between Seventh and Eighth avenues, I finally registered how close to home this issue hit, and that kids really do care. These weren't the same kids I see at other protests, from war to animal cruelty-these were average high-school kids doing something. Most of the people I saw leading chants, guiding the route and maintaining order I recognized as community-college student organizers and other student representatives, not adult masterminds. I was actually hard-pressed to see any adults at all in the crowd, though there were a few.
My astonishment grew as we marched north from Market Street and ran into more protesters on Broadway. There were seemingly thousands of kids, more than I could attempt to estimate. The biggest number I heard was around 5,000, a number I wouldn't quarrel with.
"Si se puede! (Yes we can!)" and "We want justice" resonated throughout the crowd and up to the top of buildings where construction workers gazed down, many cheering encouragement.
I had been warned by my parents, the media and other kids to be cautious if I was going to take part in the protest. "It could get pretty messy down there-there are a lot of people pissed off about a lot of things," my mom said. The television warned me of gang-related violence because of Chicano Park's location. But as the march continued through downtown, stopped in front of City College and made its way back to Chicano Park, I witnessed the most civil and well-organized protest I'd ever seen. As we turned onto Park Boulevard from Broadway, passing by a construction zone, the girl in front of me noticed that one of the neon-orange construction cones had been knocked over and, without any prompting from anyone, turned it upright and continued on. I was blown away by this small gesture. At this point it was more than a display of courtesy but, to me, a metaphor for immigrants in our country. The entire thing was just really powerful.
I would get a phone call from a friend still in school just as the protest stopped in front of City College, telling me that the most hardcore lockdown of the week was happening on campus. The substitute teacher in his class had made students sitting near windows or the door move closer to the center of the room as they watched the Adam Sandler movie, The Waterboy. Was this one of the resources sent from the school district to educate students about changing legislation?
Back at Chicano Park, I talked to more students and was able to reach a conclusion about these people, my peers. Even if some kids had just been walking out in order to ditch on the first day, and even if not everyone knew the precise details of the immigration bills before Congress, after the Friday march had reached its end, nearly everyone I talked to could tell me something.
One girl from San Diego High who preferred to remain anonymous said it wasn't "cool at all" for those who give aide to illegal immigrants to be prosecuted. "I can understand if you don't want immigrants or whatnot-they aren't supposed to be over here... but if someone helps them out, why you gotta convict them? ... Or they could be a family member-you can't help being a family member."
San Diego High student Erick Socito told me he was protesting for immigrants' rights because "the people [are] the base of the government; without the people, there wouldn't be no government. They're supposed to represent our choices and decisions and it's also supposed to protect our rights... not take them away."