Bay Area teens protest education

Many knew very little about purpose of rally

CONCORD — More than 2, 000 students from schools throughout the Bay Area walked out of class Wednesday and headed to the usually quiet streets of Concord for a massive if vaguely defined protest over the state of education.

Students from Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Hayward, San Leandro, Daly City, Pittsburg, Antioch and Concord left after brief stops in school Wednesday morning. They took BART to Concord, where they marched for nearly an hour through downtown streets, stop ping traffic as they went, before rallying in front of the police station.

The noontime protest was organized by Voices of Struggle, a youth coalition that has called numerous large rallies in California over education, student rights and immigration. The group chose the newly built $19.8 million Concord police station as a backdrop to high light disparities in funding between jails and schools.

Organizers said the protest was intended to draw attention to the need for improvements in education, including better funding, establishment of ethnic studies requirements, and preservation of bilingual classes. Bilingual classes in California would be effectively shut down if Proposition 227 passes in June.

But organizers readily admitted that many students who walked out Wednesday had little understanding of what they were marching for. Asked the reasons for the protest, students offered a laundry list of causes, ranging from the physical condition of the schools, bilingual education and affirmative action to the need for teachers of color in the classroom and authors of color in the curriculum.

Some students called for more widely available bilingual education, while another complained of having spent too long in bilingual classes. And some confessed they simply had no idea what the protest was about.

“We don’t know ourselves,” said Jose Lopez de Jesus, a ninth-grader at Oakland’s Fremont High School. “Just to get out of school,” he said.

The protest went off peacefully, with no violence or arrests reported. But the suburban city was ready for other possibilities. Concord police, who learned of the event in a call from its organizers about two hours before it began, activated their emergency operations center and scrambled to call in about 25 extra officers and 20 Contra Costa Sheriff’s deputies.

During the rally, some 30 officers in riot gear formed a skirmish line behind barricades in front of the police station as a California Highway Patrol helicopter circled. But as it turned out, the main need for police was the motorcycle escort they provided during the march, which remained neatly organized despite the marchers’ chants of anti-cop vulgarities.

Most of the protesters were high-schoolers, but there were a handful of middle-schoolers present, and some offered articulate reasons for participating. Justine Jimenez, 12, a sixth- grader at Alta Loma Middle School in South San Francisco, said the protest would draw attention to the need to maintain bilingual programs.

“It’s going to wake everybody up,” she said. “It’ll make them listen, because they weren’t listening before.”

The rally itself featured brief speeches, dance and rapper performances. Students listened attentively at first, but eventually began to wander away after more than an hour — and lunchtime — passed.

Organizers described the rally as a success, and pointed to the fact that the crowd — including gang members from rival areas — had put aside their hostilities and carried off a large, peaceful protest.

“We wanted to make a statement that the youth can organize themselves, said Sergio Rodriguez, a senior at Oak land’s Skyline High. “It shows how much power young people have. We’re not all hoodlums.”

Many observers were impressed with the students’ spunk and initiative. One was Bobbie Garrett, who owns a hair salon on Grant Street in Concord.

“This is great, that the young people are taking a stand for what they believe in,” she said as she watched the march pass in front of her store.

BART rider Brad Brennan, an admissions officer at the University of California, Berkeley, said he too was impressed with the students. “I think there is a problem with the planning in education … and issues regarding affirmative action,” he said.

But not everyone was happy about the protest. Dennis Franco, who was stopped at a police blockade on the march route while trying to deliver flowers for Secretaries’ Day, was annoyed.

“I support their cause, but I’m not pleased with the fact that it’s slowing me down on my deliveries,” he said.

Concord Police Lt. Ron Ace questioned the schools-jails comparison, but paid grudging respect to the protest.

“I agree that the schools need more money,” he said. “I don’t know that I agree with the analogy, but it certainly does, to the casual observer, get the point across.”

School administrators used various tactics in dealing with the walkouts Wednesday. Officials at Berkeley High School locked the main gates around the campus, causing some would-be protesters to find other easy escape routes.

But most of the 400 to 500 Berkeley High students who wanted to go avoided the problem because they did not come to school at all, opting in stead to meet in front the Main Library near BART.

At Fremont High School in Oakland, and at Jefferson High in Daly City, administrators counseled students not to leave, but did not block their way.

“We’re not going to stop them,” said Fremont Assistant Principal Carlos Gonzalez. “We could secure this gate, but they’d go out another way … and then the destruction begins.”

At Castlemont High in Oak land, about 50 students left but then attempted to return and get other students out of class, where most were taking state standardized tests. School officials tried to block their return, but students got in and banged on classroom doors before leaving again.

BART officials opened the turnstiles at numerous stations after students began jumping the gates.

One injury was reported, to a 17-year-old Castlemont student who police said fell on a broken bottle before leaving Oakland. The student nonetheless went to Concord, where he was treated for a cut arm at Mount Diablo Medical Center.

Staff writers Jill Tucker, Ronna Abramson and Cecily Burt contributed to this report.

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