High School Resisters:
Locke'd Down in Watts
By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #1109, July 1, 2001, posted at rwor.org
Locke High School sits on the corner of 111th and San Pedro in Southeast Los Angeles. It's on the edge of Watts and a few blocks from the murderous Southeast Division Police Station. There's no other way to describe it--when you first see Locke it looks like a jail. One big cinder block building covered in a coat of government surplus blue paint. It takes up an entire square block and is surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Standing on the northern edge of the school and looking south, the school yard is sectioned off into a number of smaller cages packed with students. These are exercise/sports areas that look just like cell block exercise yards. School police maintain a constant patrol around the outer edges of the school in order to maintain what they call a "secure perimeter."
One morning in early June, I watched as "tardy" students were lined up at the front door of the school and forced to go through a metal detector and pat-down searches before they could go to their classes. Around the block, three school cops took off for the east end of the school grounds with lights flashing. They pulled up to the fence and blocked off traffic as they tried to capture four young women crawling under a loose part of the fence so they could get into school without passing through the search and without getting a 0 truancy ticket.
I first learned about Locke a couple of months ago. A friend invited me to a community meeting called by a group of Locke students at the Watts Labor Community Action Center. As I waited for the meeting to begin, I watched the kids in the front of the room. They were up there poking each other, whispering and laughing nervously. They were Black and Latino, girls and boys, and they were just like every other high school student in the city. Then they began to speak. They introduced themselves as members of the Locke Student Union and started to read from a list of ten demands--each student reading one demand.
What a trip...here were these kids in Watts--kids who have been demonized and criminalized just for living where they do--and they were up there demanding things like books and supplies for all classes in the schools. They wanted teachers who were qualified and who didn't talk on cell phones and stayed awake during their classroom time. They wanted teachers who would do more than hand out crossword puzzles every day instead of teaching. They wanted an end to racist standardized testing. And the first of their demands read, "We demand an immediate end to brutality towards students, including illegal searches and seizures, unlawful arrests, constant surveillance and excessive use of force." Over the next month or so I had the chance to talk with some of the Locke students and teachers fighting against these conditions.
They tell a heavy story.
When the students at Locke speak about the brutality at school they make the point that they see violence every day. Locke is extremely overcrowded. It's one of the schools that takes the overflow from other schools, and it also takes in the "opportunity transfer" students--kids who have been kicked out of other high schools for various reasons. At any given time during the day there are hundreds of kids in the hallways and in the schoolyards just hanging out. All kinds of contradictions can and do come up. There are often fights. But all of the students I spoke with were quick to say that the violence and brutality that they are mainly concerned with comes from the police, security guards and school officials. The young women talked about sexual harassment from security guards--verbal and physical. One student emphasized that security guards have reached out and touched her a number of times as she walked down a hallway.
Kevin is an upperclassman and he told me about his best friend who is a junior at Locke. When this guy was 15 years old he had a fistfight with his father. The next day he went to the counselor at Locke to try to get some help. Within a few hours the school officials called the police and had him arrested. He was later sentenced to five months in Juvenile Hall and six months in a group home and probation. Kevin says his friend tries to walk a straight and narrow line so he can stay out of the system, graduate from high school and maybe go to college.
Kevin's friend told me how hard it is to do this when you are in the situation he is in at Locke every day. "I seen a lot at the school that shouldn't happen. A few months ago there was a fight between two girls and two male officers came to break it up. These were two male police officers with billy clubs and pepper spray and they were there to take on these two girls, two small girls. One cop took out pepper spray after the fight was over and sprayed one of the girls and then hit the other girl on the shoulder with his club. The new dean at the school hit a girl and busted her lip when he tried to take her CD player. That made me hot--seeing her with her earphones broken and lip busted up. When she told me who did it I was hotter than fish grease. I don't like the cops on campus--they can kiss my ass."
Dee is a junior. Her mother, sisters and aunts have all gone to Locke before her. In her three years at the school she has been searched and harassed many times herself. And, she has witnessed a whole lot more. "We don't feel safer when we see cops. They let fights go on for five minutes or so and then they pepper spray everybody around. They mace us. Even if you're trying to break up a fight or something they will spray you, they will arrest you. We have sheriffs, school police and LAPD on our grounds."
Sofia is one of those youth who can't sit still. Her eyes are always moving and she is always carrying on a conversation or getting ready to start one. She jumped right in when Dee stopped for a moment. "And they use excessive force against us. Instead of just holding you back when they grab you, they throw you against the wall or they pin you down to the floor. They put their knee on your back. You know like how they hogtie a person--that's how they do you in our school. They put you on the ground and they pull one arm back and pull one leg up. I mean these guys are big and we're just high school kids. We're small and a person like me, they would totally beat me up."
"And even if you surrender they still use excessive force. I seen this boy who was fighting and when he seen the police he just stop fighting and started walking toward the police. He was just walking to them or whatever and three of them ran up to him, they charged him and took him to the ground and held both of his arms back. He was walking towards them with his hands up so how was he gonna hurt them? How was he gonna pull something on them when his hands are up and he have a short sleeve shirt on. And even if they were gonna arrest him, why they need to throw him on the ground. It was abuse. I wouldn't take that. It wasn't right. Somebody needs to do something. We got people being arrested, handcuffed, taken to the station, fingerprinted, booked and then getting a record cuz they don't have a lawyer or anybody to speak up for them, to fight for them and show that they are truly innocent or whatever. I feel that at our school by your color you get set up to get a record. Especially if you "fit the description."
"Fitting the Description"
Black and Latino youth in Watts are very familiar with what it means to "fit the description." And they can all talk about this from personal experience. Each one of these kids have cousins and classmates doing time. Many of them know people who have been beaten and shot by the police. They all know what it means to be targeted for the way you look, the way you dress or who you hang with. At Locke the police label just about everything as gang related. The students told me that "cowbangers"--Latino immigrant youth who wear cowboy boots and clothes and hang together--are considered a gang. A teacher explained that one group of students who really got into a pop song and organized themselves around that song, decorating their backpacks and clothes with references to it, were also categorized as a gang.
Yolanda is small and quiet but her voice is big. She is still very angry over something that happened to her in the ninth grade. "They came to my classroom. I was taking a test and they came to the classroom and knocked on the door. They had the handcuffs ready and everything. They asked for me and when I get to the door, I didn't even get a chance to walk outside the classroom before they slapped the handcuffs on me and arrested me. And as we're walking down the hall they saying 'You know what you done.' And I'm like I don't know what they are talking about. I'm seriously like, no clue. They take me down to the police room in the school and they steady just badgering me and I don't know what they talking about. So then they tell me that I got arrested for assault and battery. I was shocked, but they said that I fit the description and they said the person told them my name. I didn't argue cuz I knew I was innocent. They take me down to the station and I get fingerprinted and a full record. They took my story and the detective sitting up there trying to get me to say that I did it, but I don't know what he's talking about. So he ask me about after school--who picks me up and what time do I leave. I'm telling him everything. Now I was in the ninth grade then and this assault was supposed to happen a year ago when I was in the eighth grade and they just coming to get me now. So I tell him that in eighth grade my mom picked me up after school--no playing around, no talking with friends, nothing. So he questions my mom. Then he says that he has no choice but to let me go cuz he don't have nothing. My mom wanted to know why I was arrested in the first place and why she wasn't contacted when I was first arrested. They couldn't answer none of her questions. And you know they never did take that off of my record. So now I have a police record that is also on my school record."
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) requires that metal detector searches be done on at least one class each school day. School officials, including the Chief of the School Police, admit that these searches never turn up any guns or other weapons. Last year 52 guns were reportedly found in or around a school--and this figure is for the entire school district (the largest school district in the country). Most of these guns were left outside the school or hidden in the schoolyard. One gun was brought to school by a teacher. And even according to school officials, statistics show that it is actually very few students who bring guns to school and even these small numbers are growing smaller. The L.A. school district carries out the searches to deliver a message and they intend to continue carrying them out.
At Locke High School the message is clear. Many students talk about how the authorities are trying to criminalize them, about not being able to tell whether they are in school or prison. The police maintain an interrogation room at the school--a room the students call the "pig-pen." Although no one is supposed to know where the room is unless they are brought there, the students once plastered the door with "pig-pen" stickers. The entire third floor of the school is under constant surveillance by 27 hallway cameras. There are literally cameras watching other cameras and no one can make a move without being seen by a camera. According to the students, cameras are due to be installed on the other floors soon.
And on top of all this are the so-called random searches. On any given day a number of classrooms at Locke are raided by a crew that usually includes administration officials, teachers and security guards. Sometimes it also includes the School Police. They come into the classroom and pick out students to search based on what they look like or what their record is. They pat people down, do a metal detector search and empty backpacks. They sieze CD players, cell phones and beepers. They confiscate markers used in art classes and if you are on a graffiti probation that might bring you some more trouble. Often male cops and security guards are used to search female students. One teacher told me about a male cop who kept feeling up under a young woman's bra claiming that he was searching for hidden weapons.
The administration says the searches are random. The students don't believe this. It is rarely the honors--or AP--classes that get raided. Instead, school officials concentrate on the regular classes where many of the students have already had run-ins with the police and significant numbers are on some kind of probation. And it is a probation violation for a student on probation to refuse to submit to a search.
Sofia asked the principal, Annie Webb, to explain how they picked the classrooms to search. "The principal told us how they do it. They put numbers on the classrooms and then they use dice to see what numbers come up and then they search each classroom with that number. They do this by rolling dice but one of the rules is that we can't have no dice in school. They will take those dice from us if they find them. We wanted to know because we thought that they were picking on this one teacher a lot, like searching her classroom every day. The principal told us that some teachers just have the luck of the draw. And I'm like, damn, can anybody have that much luck? The principal and the assistant principals just kept going on about the dice thing and they told us it was like playing poker and if you have the luck that day then you might get picked three times that day. But if they did it another day you might also have the same luck again. We know that this is bullshit. We know certain teachers are being targeted."
Dee talked about how some kids think the only problem is that not everyone gets searched and that if everyone was searched then things would "fair." But Dee talks to these students about how these searches are not about protecting students but about making students seem like criminals. Dee and many others are looking for the ways to resist these searches.
"One of our teachers helped us to resist these searches," Dee said. "She told us our rights and all, and most of us agreed with this. Then the principal and security guards came to our class and said we had to be searched. Our teacher told them they couldn't do it. The principal took our teacher away, but our teacher told us that we know what we believe in and we know what we should do. We resisted the searches. Some of us walked out and some of us didn't leave, but we didn't let them search. They didn't notify our parents about the searches so it was illegal, and if they want to arrest us for not letting them search us then they will have to notify our parents first. They violate all of us like that, and we were the first to not let them do it."
When you're in high school sometimes it seems like everybody and everything in the world is lined up against you. This is doubly true in a place like Locke. And sometimes you're lucky enough to run into a teacher who really cares, who stands with you, who trusts and respects you, who really does love you. This is rare and so when it happens you really love and care for that teacher.
Ami Motevalli is one of those teachers at Locke. She is an art teacher and has been at Locke for two years. She has a very deep connection with the students and they want to protect and defend her for many reasons. But one of the most important reasons is that Ms. Motevalli has always stood with the students, especially when they decided to fight the powers at Locke. And more, she stood straight up against the classroom searches, refusing to allow them to search her classes and talking to her students about what's behind the searches and what their rights are.
Ms. Motevalli has spoken out against many of the dismal conditions at Locke. She has fought hard to make sure her students have books and basic supplies for her classes. But she has been most affected by the constant brutality she witnessed at the school. She's tells how armies of cops are always around the school. And while the administration claims that there are only LAUSD School Police on campus, Ms. Motevalli and many students say there are often LAPD on campus. Ms. Motevalli has personally witnessed young students arrested and processed into the system as "criminals" for simply using someone else's bus pass. On one occasion she saw the police stand by while grown men pistol whipped a 15-year-old student until he went into convulsions; the attackers left the campus, and then the police tried to arrest the student while he was still in convulsions and being loaded into an ambulance. She has also seen the cops use excessive force against her students.
Ms. Motevalli has never hesitated to raise her voice in anger over these outrages and to challenge both the school officials and the police. Because of this, Ms. Motevalli has good reason to suspect that her classes have been targeted for searches. "The first time the whole crew--security guards, deans and two cops, a group of about eight people-- came up to my class and said they were about to conduct a search. My students were so scared. I told them I couldn't let them do the search because we were in the middle of something. They said they had to do it and I said I can't let them do it. I told them I didn't think the searches they were doing were constitutional. After debating a little while they left. Later I got a letter in my box from the principal that said I had been written up and that I was supposed to accept the search, that it was school policy and that she was going to meet with me. She came to my classroom the next day and gave me a slap on the hands and said that I had to comply. I told her I wouldn't. She said I must and that I can't infuse my opinion into it.
"I have never officially had a searching in my class. They kept coming around to my class to do it. A lot of the kids who were ditching were so much in awe of the fact that I had stood up for this one student that they protected me somewhat. They would tell me when they knew that I was about to be searched. So I would quickly tell my students to pack up their things so we could go to the library or go outside for observational drawings or whatever. So I avoided it for awhile.
"Then one day, during my second period, they walked in. They opened the door and my heart just dropped. I was really scared because I was gonna say no, I wasn't about to let it happen. I had a lot of discussion with my students about it and they didn't want it to happen. A lot of people got on my case and said that I should have just let the students say no. I couldn't do this because I kind of handpicked my second period class and a lot of them were kids who had been in trouble and were on probation so they couldn't refuse to be searched. This was two-thirds of that class. And they had come to me at different times and said that their lives didn't belong to them ever since they went on probation. They said they didn't own any of their time and they didn't even own their own body. People can just tell them what to do anytime they want and touch them whenever they want to.
"That really depressed me, especially after this one really big tough girl just broke out in tears in my classroom after everyone was gone. She just put her head on my shoulder and cried that she couldn't take it anymore because she felt that she was constantly suspect. So I said that definitely these searches were not going to happen. And I remember when I was a kid it was at the height of this whole atmosphere that anyone who was an Arab or Middle Eastern was a terrorist and I used to get cops come in the middle of my class pointing me out and then take me out and search me. So no way was I gonna let that happen to my students.
"So they came into the classroom and said they were going to conduct a search. I said that I couldn't let them do it. I was pacing and saying I couldn't let them do it. The head dean--who is also the football coach--was conducting the search, but I looked outside and there were two cops hanging out in the back. He kept insisting and said that he had to do it this time. He called the principal and she came upstairs. She was so mad she was shaking and she said that of course they had to conduct the search. She ordered me to go to her office. I said no, that I was going to stay there to make sure that they were not going to conduct the searches. So now I'm not leaving and they order me to leave.
"I got my purse and before I left I turned to the students and told them 'You know what to do.' This is something I tell my students everyday in class and it means get to work and be on task. I'm a strict teacher and if you aren't working in my class you will get a call at home. But also in this instance it meant 'you can say no to the search if you want to.' But it meant to do it calmly, tell the officials that they have to inform the parents if they want to do the search. Then half the class said 'fuck you' and split. They just ran out the door and the cops were chasing them. The other half of the class stayed in the classroom and told them that they could not do the search unless they asked parents for permission to do it. So, of course, they said no and they couldn't conduct the search and they left."
Ms. Motevalli may be facing severe disciplinary action, but she cannot comment on it because of her contract. Meanwhile, the ACLU and some Locke students recently filed a federal lawsuit against LAUSD and Locke High School because of the searches. Alfredo, a sophomore whose parents are Mexican immigrants, is committed to fighting for better conditions at the school and especially against the searches and other forms of brutality at the hands of the police. When I asked Alfredo what he hoped to accomplish with this struggle, why he thought it was so important to take it up and to put himself on the line at Locke, he took a few minutes to gather his thoughts. Finally, he got this crooked, self-conscious smile on his face and said, "The problems that we have now didn't just happen overnight. It has been building up for years and years before this. It's not just one thing I can point out. It's not just one main problem, it's many. We come to learn. We're being treated like criminals. We're watched by cameras. We're being harassed and intimidated. We're being criminalized. It's wrong! It's the whole thing. If they were to improve the conditions at Locke--ok, make the buildings better and all that--that doesn't really help. It can be the most beautiful looking school anywhere but it's just pointless if we're being treated like criminals. It's like having a bird in a golden cage. It still feels like jail. Everything we are fighting for goes hand in hand with each other. When you're always being told that we can't dream, that we will never amount to anything in our life, then it's not easy to be in school. When they try to stop you from dreaming they are trying to say you aren't a human. I can't accept that."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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