Student walkouts against anti-immigrant legislation spread across the country last week, setting a new fighting example in the fast-growing movement for immigrant rights.
The walkouts caught on quickly from city to city, with little or no central coordination. Everywhere, students themselves took the lead–a further sign of the deep-seated anger that has erupted against proposals by anti-immigrant politicians to brand undocumented workers as felons and criminalize anyone who assists them.
The desire to take a stand against this racist scapegoating was evident in mass marches that brought at least 1.5 million people into the streets across the U.S. last month. Now the school walkouts have opened a new front in the struggle.
The walkouts began on the Monday after the 1 million-strong march through Los Angeles. Southern California was the initial center of the demonstrations.
In LA itself, an estimated 40,000 students left school, marching through the streets and blocking freeways around the area. Some schools tried to impose a lockdown to avoid mass walkouts, but students defied threats of disciplinary action throughout the week. “[F]or the small group of students who instigated the walkouts, most of whom hadn’t been politically active, but were well-connected on campus and online, it was a transformative week,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in an analysis.
In San Diego, schools across the city were hit by the walkouts, with demonstrating students gathering downtown for a rally outside San Diego Community College. The walkouts were organized as students arrived for class. Demonstrators marched, chanting, through their schools, and then through the city to arrive downtown–some taking miles-long routes though their communities and even alongside freeways.
After speeches outside the college, plainclothes school district security guards tried to convince students to board busses and return to school. Some did, but most sat down on the lawn, chanting “Don’t get on!”
In Escondido, just north of San Diego, high schoolers walked out of class and rallied in the streets. But this expression of free speech was met by lines of police who used pepper spray on protesters. At least 24 students were arrested, and a few suffered abuse at the hands of the cops.
The walkouts continued through the week across the Southwest. In Las Vegas, hundreds of students walked out of classes, according to activists’ reports.
By midweek, media attention focused on Texas–the home not only of George Bush but other right-wing Republicans who are pushing the vicious Sensenbrenner bill.
In Dallas, students who left schools across the city came together–traveling by car, truck, bus and train–for a protest at City Hall. After rallying outside, the students flooded into the building to disrupt a city council meeting. Spontaneous protests took place in Fort Worth and other cities across the state.
In the state capital of Austin, students walked out at Del Torre High School–and then marched 15 miles, down a county highway and into the city, to rally with other students from a dozen other schools outside the capitol building.
The wave of walkouts reached beyond the Southwest.
For example, on the other side of the country, in the northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., walkouts snowballed through the week, culminating March 30 in a march through Arlington, Va., for a 1,500-strong rally at the county courthouse. Students waved flags from their countries of origin. Those without flags used markers to spell the names of countries on their bodies.
Reports from activists said the protests were organized mostly through word of mouth. In many places, students relied on e-mails, text messaging and the myspace.com community Web site to spread the word.
“All these politic officials are trying to make their dreams come true by destroying ours, AND THEY WILL, unless we do something about it!!” read a call for a walkout in Orange County, Calif., posted on MySpace. The appeal convinced more than 1,500 students to leave classes at Garden Grove High School, according to the LA Times.
Another influence pointed out by New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzales was an HBO movie called Walkout that premiered last month. The film depicts the 1968 school walkout by some 20,000 Chicano students in Los Angeles against discrimination and racism.
The walkouts had an electrifying effect on those who participated. “It was great to have all of us unified, and fighting for something we believe in,” said Stephanie, a lead organizer of the protests at Wakefield High School in northern Virginia.
The students drew on their knowledge of past struggles, but also developed tactics on the spot. In LA, for example, the students who descended on City Hall March 27 sat in on the front steps of the building.
They also had to contend with the threatening presence of police. “Living in a low-income neighborhood, you just don’t have a really good image of the police,” one student told the Times. “People thought we were going to get arrested. But I told them: ‘No. We are exercising our right to free speech.'”
In the aftermath of the walkouts, many schools are threatening students with discipline. In the north Texas town of Ennis, for example, as many as 130 high school and junior high students were suspended, which bars them from attending the prom. In Houston, a principal at a school where 88 percent of students are Latino was disciplined for flying the Mexican flag below the U.S. and Texas flags.
And Steven Graham, one of the leaders of the walkout at Stoney Point High School near Austin, says that police who had escorted them to the Thursday demonstration outside the capitol building the next day tackled them, forced them on a bus and returned them to school. Some students were given $250 citations for truancy.
Nevertheless, the protests have had a huge impact. Everywhere, the protesters were predominantly Latino, but Ben Miner, a high school junior in Austin, said he wanted to demonstrate to show solidarity with his Mexican and Mexican American friends. “It’s racism all over again,” he told a reporter.
Like in other cities, several teachers were at the protest in Austin outside the capitol to support their students. “It’s pretty ironic–we were learning about Gandhi all this week,” Lacey Glover, a geography teacher, told the Austin-American Statesman. “Most of my students either are from a Latin American country or their parents are, and one of the things we talk about is the need to support our kids. So that’s why I’m here.”
Cindy Beringer, Eugene Chigna, Mike Corwin, Jon Van Camp and Laura Woodward contributed to this report