In the aftermath of the Republican victories of November 2, 2004, it is heartening to know about young activists like the Radical Teen Cheerleaders (RTC) of Franklin High. Many demonstrators in the Los Angeles area are familiar with them, as they have performed at major demonstrations, community peace vigils, and other events. The group, which now has 26 active members, formed in 2002.
"As far as we know, there are no other Radical Teen Cheerleaders," said RTC instigator Meredith Ryley, a history teacher at Franklin High. "There are radical cheerleaders who are adults. I read an article about them and gave them to some students, and then they wanted to start something." "I was really loud about my political views," recalled 16-year-old Cat Vega, an original RTC member. "Ms. Ryley approached me with an article about these girls in Minnesota, who are actually college age. She decided that it would be good for us high school students to get involved."
Nidia Escobado (age 18), also an original member, recalled the first RTC event, which was a demonstration against Disney's sweatshops. "We had our homemade t-shirts with Mickey Mouse with an anti sign around him, and we had our black pants and fish nets," she said. "It was in Hollywood at the big store they had right by the El Capitan. We kept telling people: 'Oh, don't buy from there. They have sweatshops.' It was really cool because we influenced a lot of people not to buy there. They were like: 'Yeah? I'm going to return this.' It was the coolest thing to go to our first [event] and see how people react."
"We had been practicing for a couple months, and it was just a scaggly crew," remembered Ryley. "We only had a few cheers [including] the sweatshop cheer. So we went to the demonstration, and afterwards there happened to be an anti-war rally on Hollywood and Highland. We walked over there, and a friend of mine cleared some space. There was just about six of them, and they only had a couple cheers related to war, and everybody just went crazy. They loved them immediately. That was the first time they got a big [reaction]. Like they say, they're 'teen,' and they're 'cute.' It kind of took off from there. And then Bush started talking about Iraq right after we had formed. We didn't form to do anti-war protests. The war happened, and then the rallies were huge. By that time, we managed to get t-shirts printed up. Kids kept bringing other kids who kept bringing other kids."
The group continues to draw new members. "I saw what they were doing, and I was pretty interested in it," said Desiree Garcia (age 16), who joined in the spring of 2004. "I thought, 'Maybe I should join and get my ideas out.'" Her ideas included "how the media changes what people say and make it into their own," the actions of George W. Bush, violence, and "kids today and what they do and what they think." Like many RTC members, Desiree has long been interested in politics. A stimulant for this interest was politically-oriented music, including that of Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and TSOL. "My mom loves the idea of me being in here," she continued. "She's 100% behind me. She really thinks it's a good idea for teens to get involved with politics and what's going on in the world."
However, some parents have expressed concerns about the possibility of demonstration violence. The mother of Yesenia Avila (age 19) lived in El Salvador when citizens were killed for criticizing the government. Consequently, "she worries about me being in this because she thinks it's kind of like that," Yesenia said. "I always try to reassure her." Nidia's mother was also concerned. Nidia: "All you would see on the news [of the protests] was the bad stuff: 'so many people got arrested, so many people got trampled by the police.' [My mom] was like, 'No, you're not going anymore.' And one time I just took her with me. She saw what we were doing, and she was like, 'cool.'"
Some RTC members are involved in politics outside of the group. A few of them are vegetarians, several go to protests on their own, and one talked a fellow Franklin High student out of enlisting in the military. Also, "I do a lot of stuff with PETA," said Cat. "There [are] anti-KFC protests in Hollywood. They protest KFC's use of chemicals and antibiotics in chickens that deform them and make them crippled and how they chop their beaks off with hot irons. I could tell you so many gruesome stories and show you so many pictures of chickens in overcrowded places. Don't eat meat."
However, Ryley noted that not all RTC members are activists. "They're all individuals," she said. "They have different priorities; their beliefs aren't the same. Some of them are more 'radical' than others. I think most of them would better be described as liberal."
In early 2004, Larry Smith of Franklin High's ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) program told the Los Angeles Times: "Some of these [Radical Teen Cheer] kids could care less about the war. Kids are just looking for their identity, and somewhere along the line they may ask themselves, 'Why was I even involved in that?'"
"I think that people will say the same thing about ROTC," countered Cat. "I think lots of people are going to look back on themselves and be so ashamed that they actually did something in support of the military. They're going to open their minds later on, and they're going to say, 'God, that's so disgusting: I was supporting a war profiteer institution.'"
"When you're older, the war is going to be in the history books," commented Yesenia. "If [my] grandchildren say, 'What were you doing at that time?' I can tell them, 'I was protesting against the war.' I don't think I'll ever regret it." "If it's still going on, I would encourage my kids to do it," added Nidia.
As the Radical Teens say, "we're diverse and we're proud." However, "I think the outside world may percieve them as alike ghetto kids," said Ryley. "But they're all completely different. There's no one clique here. There are kids who never would have communicated with each other unless they all ended up in Radical Teen Cheer. They really are different types of kids. Social barriers are massive, and to see them break those barriers is pretty cool."
"It took on a life of its own that I had absolutely no idea would happen," she continued. "When they were just a scraggly bunch practicing, I remember saying, 'This may sound kind of strange, but I think you guys could catch on.' But I really had absolutely no conception of what would happen. Somebody's working on a two-hour documentary on them, plus there are the spots on MTV [Rock the Vote]." RTC was also the subject of a front-page story in the February 22, 2004 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Newseek has also featured them (see: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3068921/
Note: Some of the ages given in this article may have changed.
Photos by Reuben A. Rivas http://la.indymedia.org/news/2003/02/29961.php