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Courageous Resisters at Locke High Refuse to Be Locke'd Down

by Stephanie Abraham Saturday, Aug. 11, 2001 at 11:13 PM

Students in Southeast LA / Watts face brutal criminalization on campus, including illegal searches where police frisk them, open backpacks and seize cell phones, pagers and cd players. One teacher refuses to allow searches in her classroom and is fired. Lawsuits have been filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District and Locke High.

errorAmi Motevalli, 32, doesnt consider herself an organizer or a radical. Shes an artist.
When she became an educator at Locke High School 2 years ago, she was eager to take
on the challenge of being the first permanent art teacher there in ten years, bringing
creativity to the classroom and getting various artistic programs up and running. But, she
soon discovered that instead of getting an education, the students at Locke were facing
heavy repression. So, she accepted when her students asked her to be an advisor for the
Locke Student Union, a group formed to protest the verbal and physical abuse they face
from administration and police, and the illegal searches for weapons, in which police frisk
students with metal detectors, open backpacks and seize cell phones, pagers and cd
players. These searches, which serve to create a climate of control on campus, happen
everyday at Locke, inside and outside of classes, violating the students right to privacy,
which is theoretically protected under the Fourth Amendment.

Ms. Motevalli, refusing to be another brick in the wall, educated her students on their
rights. She didnt allow the search teams into her classroom and became very vocal, along
with her students, in speaking out against the searches. As a result, she received an
unsatisfactory evaluation, a suspension and finally, was fired.

However, Ami, like her students, is still fighting back. At the end of June, six students
along with the ACLU filed a suit in the federal courts against the Los Angeles Unified
School District (LAUSD) and Locke High, citing the searches as unlawful. Ami filed her
own suit shortly afterward, which echoes civil liberties concerns and also demands her job
back. Recently, I caught up with Ami to find out more about the repression and resistance
at Locke.

Locke High School is located in Southeast Los Angeles on the border of Watts. A high
chain-link fence surrounds the light blue building. It looks like a small prison. For students,
it feels like one too. Theres a police interrogation room on-site, known as the pig-pen.
The third floor of the school is under constant surveillance by 27 cameras, and more
cameras will be installed on other floors soon. The youth here are terrorized for being
who and what they are - young people of color from this part of town.

Everyday Locke students face the tense reality of encounters with administration, security,
school police and - although illegal for them to patrol the campus - the LAPD and sheriffs.
This is gang turf, so, while the threat of violence from other students is real, the worst
violence comes from the authorities. Its even in the yearbook. On the page of Good
Things and Bad Things at Locke theres a picture of a kid face down on the asphalt
getting handcuffed. People get maced by police often. Female students are verbally and
physically harassed by male officers. It happens all the time. Ami tells me. A kid will be
walking down the hall, a cop will grab them, throw them up against the wall, handcuff
them. Everyday theres a student bloody at school. Everyday theres a young person
handcuffed. Many. Even students that say its for our own good wont deny that this is

The LAUSD has an eight year old policy of randomly searching students for weapons on
middle and high school campuses, although the Chief of School Police and other school
officials admit that these searches have never produced a single weapon. Statistics show,
and LAUSD officials admit, that very few students bring guns to school. Although that
small number is steadily diminishing, the district has no intention of stopping the searches,
especially in Southeast LA, with its high population of Black and Latino students.
At a recent school board meeting some Locke students stood up and brought a fired-up,
cant take no more attitude to the sullen boardroom.

The methods used at my school are doing more harm than good. I feel like a criminal
rather than a safe student. Crystal, a senior, declared. A dean and a cop come into our
classes and say Now your class will be randomly searched. Then they point to students
and say You, you, you, and you! Were chosen according to how we look. They target
certain students. AP [honors] classes dont get searched. They dont call our parents to
get permission [which, legally, they must do.] I feel like a prisoner or a criminal.

Starlett, 17, a solid young black woman, determinedly laid it down. My school erupts in
violence everyday, not because of the students, or the neighborhood, but because the
school tries to control us rather than educate us.

In March, the Locke Student Union called a meeting at the Watts Labor Community
Action Center, where they announced a list of 10 demands, and told the truth of their own
experiences. They wanted qualified teachers for every classroom, who would stay awake
and wouldnt talk on cell phones during classes - who would actually engage them as
students. They asked for books, supplies and materials for all classes, especially those
that arent AP honors classes. They called for an end to racist standardized testing. And
they demanded an immediate end to brutality towards students, including illegal searches
and seizures, unlawful arrests, constant surveillance and excessive use of force.

Ami tells me that school officials tried to discredit the students by saying they were her
puppets. After the community meeting staff members were saying things like, We know
our students couldnt come up with these demands. As if they werent capable of
expressing themselves at all. And if a school is viewing its students that way, you can
imagine how its treating [them].

None of the students demands were met. The attacks on Ami increased. She tells me
about the event that she believes led the principal to terminate her contract, the last time
she refused to allow a search in her classroom. Her body language shifts, she becomes
more introspective. Her words carry greater caution, yet, new determination. I sense that
shes revisited this scene many times. Its the one where the search team comes in and
tries to get her to back down. Where the dean insists that they must search her students.
But theres no way shell let them do it, especially in this class that she hand picked,
where two-thirds of the students are on probation. It violates probation to refuse a search
and shes not about to see her students arrested.

The dean threatens to call the principal. Ami holds her ground. The principal arrives
sweating profusely, top lip quivering. She looks at Ami with hate, with that this time, you
have gone too far look. She orders Ami to go down to her office. Ami refuses. After
being ordered again she gets her things together and as she walks out the door she says to
her students, You know what to do. - Stay on task, get to work, stay calm.

Instead, her students righteously rebel. Half the class runs out with shouts of You aint
gonna search us! The other half demands that the administration call their parents and get
permission to do the search. Its the scene where everyone of her students stands up.
Every one, she repeats slowly, consciously. Its the scene she would do over and over
for her students if she had to, if she could, even if it cost her job.

And it did. But she has this to say about it, The school needs to keep its order. I was like
the beginning of a cancer and they saw that. [They hoped to] get the cancer out. But Im
not the only one. Its not going to stop. This is the community that produced some of the
greatest organizers in SNCC and the Black Panthers. Somethings going on there.
Theres somethings fertile in Watts and Southeast LA that you cant stop, no matter how
hard you try, Ami asserts with a smile.

Today, in the overall climate of criminalization of young people, these resisters at Locke
High offer us a model of what we need to do. We must continue to send a message that
no matter how badly they try to control our bodies, our hopes, our futures, we wont
take it. We must continue to stand up for the youth. We must continue to resist, fight
back, and unite, everyday in greater numbers. As Mumia Abu Jamal says, People say
they dont care about politics. They think they are not involved, but they are. When you
dont oppose a system, your silence is approval...Many people say its insane to resist the
system, but, actually, its insane not to.

Please send letters of encouragement to :Mark Rosenbaum, Dan Takagi, Christopher Tan
and Ramona Ripston, ACLU, 1616 Beverly Blvd., LA, CA, 90026. Send letters
demanding justice to Board Members: Roy Romer- LAUSD Superintendent, Caprice
Young -President, School Board, Mike Lansing- District I Board Representative,
Genethia Hayes - (Sympathetic) Board Member, at: 450 N. Grand Ave., LA, CA
90051. Also to: Sylvia Rousseau, District I Superintendent, 611 W. Sixth St., LA, CA

Call the Locke Student Union Hotline at: (323) 878-5656
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A student at Locke High School Eddie Villalobos Friday, Sep. 14, 2001 at 10:42 PM
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