LOS ANGELES, March 27, 2005--Reports are that 25,000 students walked out of
school today to protest anti-immigrant reform. Today I met 2,000 of them
walking to City Hall.
I heard them on the streets, the cheering, chanting crew, the police sirens,
the helicopter circling. By the time I shook loose from what I was doing,
they'd passed by, so I jumped in my car to catch up with them marching down
Cesar Chavez. A thousand students, spread over blocks, were walking down
the sidewalk, with a police escort shutting down a lane of traffic. I
jumped out of the car, curious about which school they represented, so I asked,
"Where are you from?" Quick as that, a student shouted back,
So I stood in a sidestreet and asked, with a little more precision,
"What school are you from?" I heard from Washington, Boyle
Heights, Montebello, Garfield, Schurr, South Gate, Roosevelt. And there
were the middle school students: from Belvedere, Griffith, and Hollenbeck.
Between cheers of "¡Viva la raza!", "¡Viva
Mexico!", and "¡Zapata vive!" followed up
with "¡La lucha sigue!", I asked one student
why he was marching. "They're trying to take our rights away,"
he explained. "We're not criminals."
I walked with them across the bridge over the LA River, as the chanting went on. "La
Migra, policía, la misma porquería" and one oldie: "Hell no, we
won't go!" I don't know where they came from but the crowd kept
growing. Six hundred, then eight hundred, then more. A Mexican flag
led the march.
"Are you really walking to City Hall?" I asked. My feet,
tightly wrapped in dress shoes, were feeling just the few blocks we had
gone. "Yes!" I got back in my car and drove over to City
Hall. Once I found parking, my companions weren't far behind.
On the south lawn of City Hall, easily two thousand young people had
gathered, a third of them on the hill in front of the terrace, the rest on the
lawn. Twelve uniformed cops stood on the steps of City Hall, while others
in plain clothes roamed the crowd. It's easy to spot a plainclothes cop in
a suit in a crowd of students.
I asked a small group of Garfield students why they were there. "A
better life, to work." "It's not all about the
money." "We came for our families." "We're here
to make this place better." "Our economy [in the United States]
isn't going to work without us." "We do the dirty
work." "Look at Villaraigosa--he's gonna show us what we can be
in the future."
A line of speakers strung out behind the portable PA system. They
demanded "Get the Mayor out here to represent." They shouted,
"I got a message for the people--We're all created equal."
Eight cops now lined the parapet around City Hall. An air horn inspired
cheers of "¡Mexico! Mexico!" and
"No more Bush!" The speakers went on, "They're trying to
kill our generation." "We are Mexica!" "We're
doing this for our children." And finally, one speaker pointed to a
U.S. flag: "The red, white, and blue: that's the same flag
that's on the border, the same flag that's killing our mothers, our
fathers." Then, "You got a voice. You got a loud
voice. Now put it to work."
I interrupted another cluster of students and asked my question, Why are you
here? This is what they told me: "Without us they're
nothing." "We pick the fruit, we clean the houses." I
interrupted: "Come on, you never picked fruit in your life," and the
others giggled at the young woman who'd made the comment. "I'll bet
you don't even clean your room," I added. I'd gone too far. She
jumped in: "I cook, I clean because my mom works, and when she gets home,
she's tired. We have to be independent because our parents are always
"We're here, and we won't go," the crowd roared.
A young man had been listening, and he stepped in. "We're here to
represent our parents and our culture." I asked what
"culture" meant. "Culture means 'us'--the
people." "La raza?" I asked. "La raza," he
confirmed. "It's pride for us. LA was built by
immigrants. We built the buildings." But then he wondered,
"Why is it just Latinos they're after? Why not Filipinos, why not
The speaker from the hill almost echoed him: "They're immigrants,
too--African-Americans, Arabs, Indians, Russians. All people are created
Suddenly, I saw The World Can't Wait handing out flyers; ANSWER-LA
students soon had a banner up, and then I saw anarchists hang a faded U.S. flag
from a tree scrawled with messages about a classless society. Radical
Women had flyers, and the South Central Farmers were holding their signs.
Students from BAMN unfurled their banner.
I sat down with Veraliz and Stephanie. They had walked 13 miles, from
South Gate High School.
I asked how the school was treating them. Veraliz told me that on
Friday the teachers had pushed her against a wall, and that the cops had pepper
sprayed them and arrested them for wanting to march. The cops, she said,
carried riot shields and swung batons at the students. Then the students
were forced to sit in the classroom for four hours, and to use cups and
trashcans for restrooms. She seemed more disturbed about her friend at
Fremont High, who was among several students who were expelled for attempting to
join the march. Roosevelt, she said, was cool.
I wandered back up the hill and found the TV cameras eagerly fawning over the
adult leaders and a single well-spoken student, who identified himself as a U.S.
citizen with immigrant parents.
The police announced that they'd brought in school busses to take the
students back to campus, an obvious effort to break up the demonstration.
A few students took the opportunity, but a moment later, the crowd swarmed to
the southwest corner of the lawn. Antonio Villaraigosa had arrived!
His bodyguard pushed the crowd aside while the cameras rolled.
Villaraigosa made his way to the City Hall stairs, where he shushed the
crowd. Two students flanked him, holding the PA speakers on their
heads. Eventually, the students began quieting each other, mostly eager to
hear what the Mayor had to say. He said he had met with student leaders,
and he shared their fear. He added, "This legislation is not
immigration reform--it would incarcerate twelve million people. Your
parents have worked hard and played by the rules." Then he outlined
three points for the students: that LA has passed an anti-Sensenbrenner
resolution that he had signed that morning; that the country needed citizenship
and a way to keep families together; and that the students should go back to
At that, he was booed and the call went out: "Hell, no, we won't
Twenty cops stood behind the mayor, and a dozen more lined the walls in front
of the building. A student off to one side began shouting down the Mayor
with his bullhorn. Students crowded on the terrace demanding he stop, but
he was relentless. "What you need to do is go back to school,"
the Mayor repeated, and suddenly the student speaker was allowed to speak.
A wad of paper flew in Villaraigosa's direction. The students responded to
the Mayor with "¡Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!"
and one by one they sat down to prove the point. The Mayor disappeared
into City Hall, and the students stood up.
Students threw a few more wads of paper at each other until one called out,
"Don't throw things--They'll arrest us and deport us!"
At 3:45, an adult coordinator called for everyone's attention. He'd
just received a call that the Senate Judiciary Committee had passed the
McCain-Kennedy immigration proposal [which wasn't quite accurate, but close]
with legalization and a guest worker program. "We won a partial
victory today," he declared.
The speakers took to the hill again, but this time with a different
tone. "We are strong!" they shouted. "We are
one! Somos uno!" "¡La raza unida
jamas sera vencida!"
Have you noticed that cops never smile?
The students called out, "¡Todos somos familia!"
The young woman behind me turned to the young man next to her and laughingly
said, "Brother!" He answered, "Sister!"
The students announced they will walk out tomorrow, too.