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?

Olin was born of these walkouts. Between demonstrations, young organizers held "advances" (their version of retreats) under the guidance of Hernandez. Eventually, the organizers divided themselves into committees assigned to develop an ethnic studies curriculum, create propaganda, reach out to gangs, and perform other organizing tasks. These committees became the backbone of Olin.

With the increased organizing came bigger and/or bolder demonstrations. On June 14, 1996, the 150th birthday of California, Olin and its parent organization brought 300 young people from all over that state to Sonoma, where the main birthday celebration was being staged, to protest California's origins in the U.S. takeover of what had been part of Mexico. In the next two years, Olin would stage more walkouts, mostly centering on demands for better education and ethnic studies programs.

And this past year, Olin organized several thousand middle and high school students to walk out and protest in front of a Concord police station and a San Leandro sheriff's station. Both walkouts drew broad, largely positive media coverage. Thousands of students shouted "Education, Not Incarceration," and hundreds of thousands of viewers watched the shouting on television newscasts.

Behind the public relations success of the student walkouts, hidden from the media spotlight, Olin's organizing tactics have remained largely unexamined. Those tactics appear to include the conscious exploitation of children for political purposes -- often without the consent of parents or school officials.

Olin intentionally organized this past year's two mass rallies in Concord and San Leandro so they would occur during school hours. The organizers say the timing of the rallies was meant to hurt public school districts financially, so they would listen to Olin's demands. California's public schools, the organizers figure, are funded based on student attendance -- some $30 per student, per day. The more students don't attend school, the less money a school district receives.

"If we keep on doing [the walkouts] repetitive, it's hurting the school's pocket like more and more. ... The more money they lose, the more willing they are to talk to us or hear us," says Sergio Rodriguez, an 18-year-old City College student who has been organizing with Olin in Oakland since the 10th grade.

Actually, California schools are funded based on their average daily attendance for the current fiscal year. This formula means that the walkouts -- since they affect only one or two days' attendance -- have little or no financial impact on school funding.

If Olin's incitement of students to cut school does not accomplish the stated goal of hurting school district finances, the walkouts clearly do upset and frighten teachers, parents, and police. Sally Chou, principal at Galileo High School in San Francisco, says she agrees with Olin organizers who criticize the state government for budgeting too much for prisons, and too little for schools.

But she completely disagrees with Olin's tactics.
"Do these organizers help students make up schoolwork and tutor them? Are they helping them to find a job? Are they helping them to go to college?" Chou asks.

To be confrontational, to be militant, to go against the establishment to the point of lawbreaking seems to be central to Olin's strategy. In the days leading up to last October's walkout, Olin organizers handed students fliers that included comments such as "Fuck the Cops and the INS," and "[Gov. Pete] Wilson, You Liar, We will Set your Ass on Fire." At the walkout, students held up signs that bore "Fuck Cops" and "Fuck the System" slogans.

For both the Concord and the San Leandro "actions," Olin told students participating in the walkouts to converge at the BART station closest to their schools and jump on -- without paying. Olin organizers said that many stations simply opened their gates when they saw the crowds of students coming, lest someone get hurt.

"[BART doesn't] have a choice. They either allow the students to go, or they have to deal with kids pissed off in 10 cities. If [the students] can't get in, no one would get in," Hernandez explained matter-of-factly at a recent Olin meeting. And he is right: "Our basic policy was we didn't want to have a situation of confrontation between BART police and the students. We are concerned about safety," says Mike Healy, public affairs director for BART. (The transit agency does not have an official estimate of fares lost due to Olin walkouts.)

But Olin's most disturbing strategy -- at least to parents -- is probably its determination to keep walkouts secret until the day they occur. Students are not told the time of walkouts, Olin organizers say, until the day of the event to avoid persecution or harassment by school administrators and police. But an activist may see harassment in what is actually a parent's, or a teacher's, concern about safety.

During last October's mass walkout, which sent thousands of students to a San Leandro sheriff's station, parents, school administrators, and police ended up walking San Francisco's streets for hours, looking for missing children. The Mission's Everett Middle School was turned upside down by the walkout. On the morning of Oct. 1, more than 60 students, including nearly a dozen sixth-graders, walked out with "adult organizers [who] wanted them to keep the location secret," according to a San Francisco Police Department report. (Everett Vice Principal Janet Hernandez claims that the police report is inaccurate; she says the number of students who walked out was 25.)

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