Demonstrating Exploitation

A Latino activist group has gained largely positive media coverage for organizing student walkouts to protest government social policies. But how admirable is it, really, to endanger young children for political purposes?

Gabriel Hernandez doesn't need to stand on a stage to get the attention of this auditorium full of teens. With no notes, microphone, or props, he projects a street-wise, anti-authoritarian charisma that comes from half a lifetime of grass-roots organizing.

A short, nondescript, 30-ish man with a fresh, clean-shaven face and jet-black hair impeccably combed back on the front and sides, Hernandez is speaking this early Saturday morning on youth organizing and a hodgepodge of social issues. His audience consists of East Bay high school students, mostly African-American and Latino, who are enrolled in Upward Bound, an academic and cultural enrichment program at the University of California, Berkeley.

"What color are the ground troops? Who do they send on the ground, not the ones in the planes that ain't going to be hit? Who do they send to get Agent Orange?" Hernandez fires one question after another at the students.

Then he fires back the answer a few students had volunteered. "Black and brown. The color of your people."

By the end of his one-hour talk, Hernandez has touched on prisons (he points out that inmates are also predominantly black and brown), bits of native Mexican history (the persecution of the country's first inhabitants by Europeans), and indigenous spirituality. He uses his T-shirt, which is painted with the original Mexican flag, as a prop.

Clearly, this type of presentation is -- and has been -- effective, at least with chosen audiences. Over the past several years, Hernandez has built a sophisticated network of youth organizers, collectively known as Olin, that has become widely recognized for orchestrating a series of massive student walkouts in the Bay Area.

Pronounced like the no-fat oil Olean, olin is a word, taken from the Aztec language Nahuatl, that means "movement." This particular movement has staged walkouts involving college, high school, and even middle school students to dramatize protests about education, immigration policy, and other social issues. Hernandez boasts that his walkouts have attracted a total of 24,000 students, been widely covered by the news media, and resulted in "less than two arrests."

Indeed, Olin has been successful -- to the worry and consternation of the San Francisco Unified School District. If Olin organizers portray themselves as part of an inspiring and vibrant youth-empowerment movement, many parents, teachers, and police officers -- even those who agree with Olin's politics -- call the group's tactics exploitative. Olin may believe its student walkouts constitute a political movement. But detractors say the group has opened school districts to civil liability and encouraged what amounts to child endangerment to populate "demonstrations" that are, actually, little more than opportunities for students to play hooky on a mass scale. And neither parents nor teachers know when the hooky-playing will begin, or where, exactly, the players go.

For the massive walkouts it seemingly conjures out of thin air, Olin is a surprisingly small and obscure organization. An offshoot of the Chicana Moratorium Coalition, a little-known, East Bay nonprofit group of veteran organizers with deep roots in land grant struggles and anti-Vietnam War movements, Olin is composed of a handful of young organizers who have been taught grass-roots organizing tactics.

Both groups operate out of a windowless, cluttered office inside the Hotel & Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union Local 2850 in downtown Oakland. The union, they explain, lets them use its space and toll-free phone number, if they help out with union organizing. Olin also makes money by selling ethnic studies materials and T-shirts with themes relating to indigenous peoples. Some members of the group also charge speaking fees.

But Olin is powered less by money than it is by the energy of a core of highly committed high school- and college-age Latinos -- no more than a dozen -- and Hernandez, who, outside his job as a union organizer, dedicates much of his life to Olin.

Among the ranks of Olin supporters are some of the most noted activists from the 1960s and '70s. Angela Davis, once an avowed communist and now a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, joined students in a walkout that led to a demonstration in San Leandro last October. And Elizabeth Martinez, a San Francisco social critic and activist prominent in grass-roots Latino political movements, has written extensively and in glowing -- if more than slightly hyperbolic -- terms about Olin. She sees it as the "revolutionary future."

"The current generation of Latino teenagers had seen little in their lifetime except the intensified reaction and racism established under Presidents Reagan and Bush, unchanged under Clinton," she theorizes in her recently published book De Colores Means All of Us. "Attempts at multiculturalism, bilingualism, and affirmative action had been repeatedly attacked by staunch advocates of White Supremacy. A prolonged recession had further eroded young hopes for a decent life. At the same time, Raza were being fingered as the cause of those economic problems."

In Martinez's eyes, "angry alienation" among young people of color fueled a succession of massive student walkouts across the Bay Area in 1993 and 1994. During that time, students from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, and Gilroy blew out of class every few months. In April of 1994, 2,000 students marched to San Francisco City Hall, carrying banners such as "Educate, Don't Incarcerate" and "Our Story, Not History."

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