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50 years after the Chicano Blowouts, still waiting for justice and the need to reject more police in our schools

Manuel Criollo | March 6, 2018

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Xochilt Ramírez, a senior at Roosevelt High School, speaks at Tuesday’s special board meeting in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Walkouts. She asked the board to continue the legacy of the student movement and demand equal opportunities for Latino students in LA classrooms.

Fifty years ago, on March 1st, 1968, several hundred Mexican American and Chicana/o students at Wilson High School initiated an impromptu walkout protest in response to the cancelation of a school play by their principal. Their action sparked into motion a yearlong set of discussions, strategizing, and organizing among eastside Chicana/o students, activists and teachers that culminated in a two-week coordinated student walkout movement in East Los Angeles schools and beyond, which included a parallel student sit-in and strike by Black students at Jefferson High School, demanding an end to educational racism and inequality.

Like many, I look forward to participating, commemorating and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the youth-led Chicana/o Blowouts and Los Angeles Walkouts. My hope is that we can take the time to deeply reflect on its legacy for youth activism today, recommit ourselves to realize the unfinished potential and deferred dreams of the Walkout movement, and squarely challenge the harmful by-products of the proliferation of police presence in schools which was introduced to squash this movement’s demands and legacy.

Legacy of Organizing

The 1968 Chicano Blowout and LA Walkouts was a marvel of youth organizing. I hope that we can really uplift the incredible organizing strategy of that movement and the numerous young women and men who led and organized the walkouts. In contrast to seeing the movement as a spontaneous moment, its leaders had been organizing for many months, if not years, toward the flashpoint in the early spring of 1968, and in fact, the movement that continued strong beyond March of 1968.

The organizing was led by a rich and tightly knit network of community institutions and organizations which included the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Lincoln Heights, La Raza and the Chicano Student Movement newspapers, Young Chicanos for Community Action (originally Young Citizens for Community  Action), the Brown Berets, the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), and of course the key role that the Hess Kramer racial justice camps organized by Sal Castro (who was a key organizer and teacher at Lincoln High School) that enriched and emboldened the amazing action of young people who decided to walk out of their classrooms and into the streets to demand justice.    

• Read more: 50 years after the Walkouts, Los Angeles Latino students are still fighting for educational equity

The political consciousness and nuance of the movement was reflective in their 36-point demand document presented to the LAUSD school board which called for bilingual education, Mexican American studies, ending corporal punishment and unfair suspensions, the hiring of Chicano teachers and administrators and calls for community control of schools, Mexican inspired food options and open bathroom policies. In their totality, these demands would have transformed eastside schools.

Yet the reality is that true school transformation never came — as educational funds for inner city schools began to shrink, coupled with LAUSD’s desegregation busing schemes prioritizing bussing Black and Brown students instead of moving critical resources to inner city schools, and equally embracing counter-insurgency strategies by embedding police and security in our schools, became the primary institutional responses — resulting in 50 years of deferred dreams.

Reflection for Today’s Youth Organizing

How prophetic and coincidental that as we reflect on the Chicana/o Walkout of 1968, that the student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School have sparked a new round of walkouts throughout the Miami-Dade area calling for a series of national youth-led actions around the country demanding for stronger and stricter gun restrictions.

Just like the 1968 Walkouts, which were a jumping off point for a nascent Chicana/o movement, the mass actions and civil disobedience tactics of student strikes reflected an escalation of youth activism among Chicana/o students who were not only rejecting a tepid Mexican American civil rights agenda of patience and gradualism, but also undoubtedly inspired by a Black-led civil rights revolution that had shaken every institution in the United States at that time.   

Therefore, it would be remiss to not contextualize and connect the activism of these young people and Stoneman Douglass High students to the street actions and audacious organizing by young Black people in Ferguson and Baltimore and the movement for Black Lives that has demanded an end to police and state-sanctioned violence against the Black community.

This new round of youth organizing is also tied to the Latinx and students of color-led DREAMer movement that seeks to challenge the bi-partisan mass deportation regimes. Likewise, on a grassroots and regional level, I’ve been part of important organizing campaigns led by young Black and Latino students in Los Angeles to end punitive discipline and policing policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District. These movements are all interconnected. Therefore, this current moment in youth activism in Florida should not be separated from the movements that have called for an end to all forms of violence be it racial, institutional, and interpersonal forms of violence.

Legacy for Long-Term Change

Unfortunately, but not surprising, one of the most concrete responses by city and school officials to the walkouts and youth activism in Chicano and Black schools was to expand the policing and security apparatuses in those schools. Not only were many of the student walkout strikes brutally suppressed by various LA police agencies in the spring of 1968, thirteen of the Walkout leaders had their homes raided and were arrested by LA law enforcement agencies on charges of conspiracy for disruption of schools and peace. LAUSD became a laboratory for zero tolerance around the country. School and police officials embraced a racially coded rhetoric that schools had become hotbeds of “social and political disorder,” transforming LAUSD classrooms and playgrounds into criminalization and infraction zones and ultimately normalizing the presence of police in our schools.   

Today, LAUSD has the largest dedicated school police department with over 500 armed and deputized police and school safety officers and a nearly $70 million annual budget. Over the past ten years, the resurgence of student organizing has ended some of the most extreme punishment and policing practices at LAUSD, yet the disentanglement of our schools from police and the criminal justice system remains at the forefront of the movement.

Today, many politicians, parents and even students believe that safety equals more police and guns. And of course, with every major shooting in a school, it only increases new calls for more police. I can understand why people would feel comfort in that logic. But, just like 50 years ago, our communities and schools need real justice and transformation from racial and economic inequality, but more police in our school systems only reinforce further violations of the civil, human and educational rights of Black and Brown communities.

I hope that we can bridge the dynamic student organizing in Florida who are calling for an end to gun violence in schools, with the racial justice demands to end mass incarceration and criminalization and begin a serious discussion to disentangle our schools from the criminal justice and police system. We are already facing moments where critical support services and staff like nurses, counselors, librarians, and custodians are sacrificed to maintain police in our schools and the even worse scenario of attempting to justify the police as replacement counselors and mentors.

While many school and district officials will whole-heartedly commemorate the courage and sacrifice of the legendary students, teachers and leaders of the 1968 walkouts, I hope they will also deeply reflect and move away from the continued entrenchment of police in schools that ironically was ushered in as a response to student activism and community demands for community control of our schools.   

Manuel Criollo, a community organizer for over 20 years, is currently Activist-in-Residence with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, writing on the history of policing and resistance movements in LA schools.

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