News footage showing thousands of mostly Latino high schoolers walk out of classes to protest the election of Donald Trump took me back to a very specific date: Nov. 2, 1994. That day, more than 10,000 teens across Southern California left their classrooms to protest Proposition 187, the notorious anti-immigrant measure that nearly two-thirds of voters would go on to approve and which a federal judge eventually found unconstitutional.
In Orange County, an afternoon rally and march at Fullerton College drew 500 students from northern Orange County schools, including my Anaheim High. I remember it well. All week, rumors swirled around campus of the impending walkout. It finally happened during lunch. My fellow classmates jumped the fence near the gym to join the fight against hate, to denounce a law that sought to criminalize our parents and some of our friends.
I didn’t join.
Although I was against 187, on principle and for personal reasons, I was afraid of getting in trouble with the police. More important, I just didn’t see how a bunch of us ditching class would change anything. I thought the spectacle of young Latinos leaving school midday and disrupting traffic didn’t reflect well on our cause. I wondered why we couldn’t wait until the weekend. The waving of Mexican flags seemed counterproductive; some of the chants, rude. I also questioned how many students had good intentions, and how many just didn’t want to go to fifth period.
Those critiques are the same that I’ve heard pundits, administrators, politicians and even activists hurl at today’s kids as more and more walk. But 22 years later, I realize I was wrong. Now, I applaud youngsters across America who have the courage to march.
There’s a long history of student protest that scolding adults ignore, often hypocritically. Baby boomers continue to lionize their Vietnam War-era activism. (I first understood that students could participate in politics thanks to a 1989 episode of “The Wonder Years” in which Kevin Arnold inadvertently sparks an antiwar junior-high walkout.) And the legendary East L.A. blowouts of 1968 are now taught in history classes as a legitimate response to racist administrators. In both cases, students reacted to direct threats to their well-being: Becoming soldiers in an unjust conflict, or enduring a subpar education.
An existential threat is exactly what Latino students are rallying against today. Ever since those Prop. 187 days, the right has demonized them, legal or not, as little better than gang members and teenage moms, when they haven’t questioned their very right to be considered American (and critics wonder why some wave Mexican flags?). That’s on top of the general war against immigrants in the country illegally. With a president-elect vowing to deport millions of Latinos as quickly as possible, these teenagers are somehow supposed to remain meek and quiet?
Will these demonstrations change minds? Probably not, just like they didn’t change minds on Proposition 187. But rallying for a clear outcome sometimes isn’t the point. Sometimes it’s enough to voice dissent; to show a united front against hatred. And don’t discount the possibilities for growth when young people storm onto the streets for a cause.
Classmates at Anaheim High who I thought were just lovable stoners or band geeks returned from the 1994 rally invigorated; they became teachers, activists. I wouldn’t find my political voice until five years later, when yet another proposed anti-immigrant resolution, this time by the Anaheim Union High School District, moved me to speak at a school board meeting. Afterward, I met activists who encouraged me to join picket lines.
Mind you, I’m not defending the destruction of property or violence during protests. I admit to wincing whenever youngsters swarm onto freeways, if only because the concerned tío in me knows how nasty drivers can get in even the slightest traffic jam. And if students don’t want to march, that’s also fine — everyone has their own journey, and shouldn’t be mocked for their choices.
But students putting themselves out there so publicly, with their future on the line, is worthy of adult support. Those who walk out represent a generation that—despite the xenophobic claims of the Ann Coulters of this world—do everything “right”: assimilate, aspire, seek opportunities to make a life for themselves in the only country they know, want to see their parents succeed. As long as Trump and his voters ignore this reality, student protesters deserve to be heard—and they’re going to make us hear them.
Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly, a KCRW commentator and author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!