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."

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.)

While Everett students were walking out, Mission High School administrators spotted organizers handing out fliers, and the principal of Philip and Sara Burton High School saw people outside the school trying to "lure" kids to the walkout via a megaphone.

Once the walkout was in full swing, an unusual number of missing-child reports flooded the SFPD. A group of parents who happened to be volunteering and working at Everett that Thursday morning soon learned of the walkout and got involved in the search for missing students.

Ruth Wilson, mother of an Everett student, says she'd heard there would be a protest, but she believed it would involve a march around the school. Wilson says she had no idea her daughter would be heading off to San Leandro.

Eventually, Wilson followed other students onto BART to San Leandro, where she found her daughter in the crowd. But it was not a reassuring scene. Wilson says she saw a sea of students, some clueless and others disorderly. "There were children there crying. There were children of 11 years old. Many of them were wandering around confused. Many of them were fighting, throwing garbage around -- it was a disaster," she says.

The parents, who never found out who organized the walkout, have plenty to say about it.

"As a parent, I was really upset. I don't know who these people are. ... Kids have a right to protest, but under safe conditions," Sandra Estrada said in a recent Thursday parent coffee hour at Everett. "Whatever cause they have, they are using kids."

The October walkout was just the first chapter of Olin's showdown with the San Francisco Unified School District.

School officials, who took minor, seemingly legitimate disciplinary actions against some students who walked out, were soon labeled by Olin as oppressors of First Amendment rights.

About two weeks after the San Leandro walkout, Olin organizers showed up with about 150 supporters at an SFUSD board meeting. The Olin protesters not only demanded an apology from the school district and a cancellation of disciplinary measures taken against students who left class; they asked the district to praise the students who joined the walkout.

For two hours, Olin organizers and supporters spoke, shouted, whistled, and blew horns ferociously. The school board was forced to give up that night's regular agenda, after repeated, failed attempts to calm the crowd.

One after another, Olin student supporters went to the microphone. "I want to know why you are trying to put down our youth voices, if we are the future of this country, of this world. ... Why do you put our voices in chains?" one student shouted at the top of his lungs.

"You guys are a bunch of hypocrites," another student yelled. "You guys put up Martin Luther King on your walls and everything. We are trying to do his work that he passed on. You suspend us. What is wrong with that?"

And one after another, self-styled "progressive" activists from the Mission District also spoke in defense of the walkout.

"I am here to support the students, to say I am proud and incredibly inspired by the activism of the young people in this room," said Ana Maria Loya, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for Latino immigrants. "No students who participated in the walkout should have in their student files any reference to the walkout as a form of punishment. ... Instead they should be praised."

Joining Loya to testify on behalf of Olin that night were Reva Enteen, program director of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization of volunteer lawyers who are often involved in First Amendment issues; Renee Saucedo, an attorney with La Raza Centro Legal; and Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which is dedicated to fighting police brutality.

With Olin leaders threatening more trouble, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas promised on the spot to suspend all disciplinary actions taken against students, and ordered an investigation of all events surrounding the walkout.

Olin had won -- even though what it had protested against, excessive punishment, had not happened.

The district's investigation showed no students had been expelled or formally suspended for participating in the walkout. School officials say the discipline that was meted out consisted of calling parents, to let them know their children had skipped class, or assigning students to detention periods. Such actions are not noted in students' official records.

"We have disciplining procedures taking effect -- it does not matter what the destination is," says Sally Chou, who, as principal of Galileo High, had to deal with a number of students who walked out. "On the day of the supposed 'walkout,' we did not deal with the 'walkout'; we dealt with students being off campus without permission."

Although Olin's protests against excessive punishment apparently were groundless, two weeks later Olin organizers stormed Chou's office. During a lunch hour late in October, about 40 Olin supporters and organizers snuck into Galileo High and forced their way into Chou's office, chanting.

While the two sides disagree on what transpired that day at Galileo, there clearly was an uncivil exchange, with plenty of finger-pointing and accusations of rudeness from both camps. The standoff ended when the police came and, to avoid being arrested for trespassing, Olin protesters left.

Jose Luis and Belen Trigueros, two Olin leaders from San Francisco, say they'd given the school district a deadline to produce a memo that halted walkout-related disciplinary actions. They say the school district's failure to give them such a memo led to the takeover of Chou's office.

Actually, though, the school district did what it promised to do at the school board meeting. Rojas issued a memo, dated the day after the meeting, asking his staff to investigate matters raised by Olin protesters. Two weeks later, his staff concluded that, Olin's claims notwithstanding, no formal suspensions had been issued.

Olin has protested against Proposition 184, the state's three-felonies-and-you're-in-prison-for-life ballot measure; Proposition 187, which disqualifies illegal immigrants from receiving most social services; and Proposition 227, which outlaws bilingual education. Over the years, high schools in San Francisco, Oakland, Daly City, Pittsburg, and Concord have yielded to the group's demands to institute ethnic studies programs. In some cases, the schools have even used an ethnic studies curriculum put together by the youth organizers themselves.

It is clear that the positions taken by Olin on these issues have wide support in the generally liberal San Francisco Bay Area. But it seems just as clear that the group's tactics are encouraging ever-younger students -- students who can have only the dimmest appreciation of the policy questions involved -- to skip school and travel long distances, without the prior approval of parents or teachers. At the least, these sudden disappearances of students cause parents and teachers real and unnecessary heartache. If a student engaged in such a protest is seriously injured or killed, that heartache may well be accompanied by civil litigation and/or criminal prosecution.

For all the adoring press Olin's multithousand-student rallies draw, the rallies themselves have produced relatively little, other than television spots that hold up the protesters as heroes for ... protesting. And for all the energy and passion put into Olin, many of its protests seem misinformed; much of its anger misplaced, or even a bit pathetic.

Thinking back to the day her office was taken over, Chou says she has no hard feelings toward the Olin organizers -- just pity. "The police asked me whether I wanted them arrested. I said no," Chou says. "I felt sorry for them. I think they are misled.

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