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These Protesters Do Their Homework

Times Staff Writer

They started off the morning singing the unofficial anthem of black Africa, but by noon had switched to tunes by the Sex Pistols. One student was willing to get arrested--if she could be sprung from jail in time for swim practice. And others were resigned to interrupting their civil disobedience to complete homework assignments.

So it went Monday at the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills, where more than 40 junior high, senior high and college students staged a sit-in to protest that country’s policy of apartheid.

It was the latest in a series of demonstrations by the Los Angeles Student Coalition. The county-wide group started last year with less than a dozen students who met at a rally on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and has grown to include youths from more than 50 Los Angeles schools, according to member Becky Winter.

The protesters, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, arrived at the consulate at 8 a.m., determined to prevent the office from conducting business. The consulate is on the third floor of a large office building near the corner of La Cienega and Wilshire boulevards.

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“There’s not a lot 35 students can do to bring down the system of apartheid,” said 17-year-old Winter, a Hamilton High School student who, like many of the protesters, was on spring break. “But what we can do is raise consciousness, show that people care, and help move toward the goal of getting the consulate of out Los Angeles.”

The sit-in is scheduled to last until Friday, if the students are not arrested first. During the first day, the group managed to turn away at least four people who arrived to do business at the consulate.

The students’ prowess in protesting appeared to have come a long way from their first rally last March, when they planned a sit-in at the consulate only to find that the building’s managers had locked the doors by noon.

This time they came prepared, armed with toothbrushes, jugs of water and detailed knowledge of the consulate headquarters.

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“We’ve been planning this for months,” said Gan Golan, 15. “We’ve been here before, scouting out the area, seeing where the stairwells are and the elevators. (And) we decided no one should bring more than what they could carry in a backpack.”

The students came equipped with two walkie-talkies, allowing those at the consulate’s main doors to communicate with others blocking the back entrance. And they had developed emergency measures in the event restrooms in the hallway leading to the consulate were locked, a plan which involved two pails, a shovel, a sheet for privacy, and lots of cat litter.

“We’ve got . . . like 20 or 30 pounds,” said Stefanie Bland, a 14-year-old protester.

It wasn’t needed. Building management elected to unlock the restrooms.

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The students spent the morning chanting “Amandla Ngawetu,” a phrase voiced by black South African protesters and which translates loosely into “power to the people.”

All of the protesters, according to some of their members, had received parental permission to take part in the sit-in--and to get arrested. One parent was there to monitor the activities; other parents dropped by during the day to bring food and lend moral support.

Mundane Matters in Mind

Though seemingly sincere, the students did not allow the protest to eclipse wholly their everyday concerns.

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As the hallway grew hotter, and the hours longer, conversation about apartheid and American sanctions gave way to such topics as the changing musical sound of the rock group Siouxsie and the Banshees and the demise of the Sex Pistols, the seminal English punk rock band.

Nancy Figueroa, 17, who attends North Hollywood High School, said that while she was willing to face arrest for the cause, “I have to leave tonight, because I have swim practice tomorrow and if I miss it, I’m off the team.”

Other students studied textbooks and took naps while waiting in vain for a move by the dozen police officers who stood outside the building. By 5 p.m. Monday, the police had made no arrests. And Beverly Hills Police Lt. Robert P. Curtis said none was planned through the evening.

Consular officials declined comment on the protest.

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