It seemed a perfect moment for the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his inimitable brand of crisis politics.
A month ago, a group of Watts parents had called a press conference to complain that students from one housing project were afraid to attend Jordan High School, fearing what would happen when they crossed turf claimed by street gang members. The complaint struck a media nerve, and Jordan High found itself cast as a symbol for youth violence infecting Los Angeles.
So Jackson went to Jordan on Wednesday, ready to rouse what he assumed would be a sympathetic student body assembly with a suggestion that the National Guard be summoned, if necessary, to safeguard any student who wanted to get an education.
But first the students had their say, and it changed everything.
As Jackson listened, a 30-minute parade of angry, articulate Jordan students told an emotional, attentive audience of 1,400 classmates in the school gym that the real Jordan High is not a mirror image of the often-violent community that surrounds it.
To frequent standing ovations, the young men and women declared themselves victims of mass-media stereotyping. They complained about a a Los Angeles Herald-Examiner editorial that compared Jordan to the notorious high school featured in the 1950s movie “Blackboard Jungle.”
In fact, said student Imelda Zambrano, Jordan is “a place where we achieve, we participate, we care.”
Abandons His Theme
Clearly this was not the environment in which to evoke the image of National Guardsmen leading students into Jordan. So Jackson, who had listened with seeming delight to the students’ indignant oratory, shelved the theme he had discussed at length before his appearance.
Instead, he stuck with his basic “I Am Somebody” speech, decorated with customary frills, like the good-natured interrogation of a Jordan High basketball player over how many hours he spent practicing for games versus examinations.
It was, as always, an inspiring presentation. Yet, for one of the few times in his charismatic career, Jackson had been upstaged. The ovations he received fell markedly short of the intensity generated by student speakers, whose passionate addresses triggered not merely applause but the furious waving of many hand-lettered placards with phrases like, “Stop Exploiting Jordan,” “Sensationalism Hurts,” and “We Don’t Dodge Bullets,” a reference to the “Blackboard Jungle” editorial.
Los Angeles school board member Warren Furutani, whose district includes Watts, said student feelings were hurt because “people used (the complaint about some students being afraid to go to Jordan) to beat up the whole school, which was unfair.”
“We have been very hurt by this,” added Leslie Lamont, a health teacher.
The complaints were first made Feb. 17 by residents of the Imperial Courts housing project, who said tension between one gang of Crips in Imperial Courts and a rival Crips gang in the Jordan Downs project next to the high school had made it unsafe for Imperial Courts residents to walk to school.
School officials said the allegations were overstated and dismissed them as a personal vendetta against Jordan by one of the protest leaders, Ezola Foster, a former Jordan teacher who is an officer in a politically conservative group called the American Assn. of Women.
Santiago Tomlinson, a dean of students at Jordan, said in an interview Wednesday that of the estimated 150 Imperial Courts residents who attend Jordan, the only ones affected by gang tension were two dozen members of their project’s gang who brought problems on themselves by “throwing” gang signs on their way to and from school.
School district officials said on March 2 that any Imperial Courts students who wanted to transfer to other schools would be permitted to do so.
It was against this backdrop that student body leaders at Jordan High began planning two weeks ago to stage a rally to boost confidence among students and to dedicate a “Bulldog Pride” mural in the lunch area. It was coincidence that Jackson, in town to tape television appearances on a talk show and network comedy, requested permission to visit Jordan, where he had spoken several times in the last decade.
From the first student speaker, Jordan’s student body--now almost two-thirds Latino compared to one-third black as a result of an attendance area that has expanded east toward South Gate--exploded in righteousness.
“You never hear about those of us who strive to make a difference,” said Ulunder Martin, referring to a wide variety of student clubs and counseling programs. “People only are told about those who have given up on themselves.” Students are, in effect, “guilty until proven innocent.”
“The school is not responsible for the community. . . . We take pride in our school,” said Trenetta Newman, slamming her hand angrily on the podium as she finished her remarks.
“We’re not only surviving, we’re striving for the best,” said Student Body President Ivin Jasper.
Added Furutani, shouting so loud that his voice cracked, “Some people think in order to teach young people like yourselves you need a baseball bat or a bullhorn. You don’t need that at Jordan High School.”
When Jackson finally took the microphone, he challenged students to overcome the adversity they had decried.
“You want a better record from the media?” he said. “Let the academic exams come out and have Jordan be in the top 10 . . . that’s how you do it.” Jordan achievement scores are generally near the bottom among district high schools.
The energy of the rally, Jackson said, was “like resurrection. It’s new hope. Don’t you surrender. You can be what you want to be. Let those who underestimate you challenge you. Bring them on!”
Jackson asked everyone in the audience who was 17 or 18 and not registered to vote to come forward to the speaker’s platform and take a voter registration card. Scores did. He asked everyone who wanted to pray for a friend to get off drugs, or to get rid of a weapon, to come forward to say a prayer for peace. Scores more did. Then Jackson introduced singer Mel Carter, who performed a gospel song.
“We need to reflect, not just react,” Jackson told the students.