The tit for tat that led up to the brawl at Inglewood High School last week is common knowledge by now: Black teen-agers walked out on a Cinco de Mayo assembly, saying their Latino classmates had earlier slighted them during Black History Month.
Insults were exchanged. Punches were thrown. Class was cut short. The police were called.
But days later, the deeper roots of Tuesday’s confrontation are still being debated throughout the community.
Some blame rapid demographic change, which has increasingly forced blacks to make room for Latino immigrants. In the past 10 years, Latinos have grown to make up more than a third of Inglewood’s population and 43% of the student body at Inglewood High. Blacks make up 53% of the student population, Anglos 2% and others the remaining 2%.
Some say that immaturity was the cause of the brawl and that a few rabble-rousing students started the melee.
But many, particularly black students and teachers, say the conflict never would have occurred had it not been for the school principal, Lawrence Freeman.
At issue, those critics say, are Freeman’s authoritarian style and his perceived favoritism toward Latino students.
Hired six years ago for his reputation as a dynamic reformer of crime-plagued inner-city schools, Freeman, who is black, has been both lauded and sharply criticized locally for the methods he has employed in cleaning up Inglewood High.
Those methods, he has acknowledged, have included strict discipline for students and teachers. But critics say that discipline has been excessive and has not been meted out with an even hand.
Teachers say he is harsh to the point of violence--"Screamin’ Freeman” they call him behind his back. In the course of his tenure, he has been picketed, sued and found guilty of unfair labor practices in his treatment of the faculty.
Until Tuesday’s incident, most students criticized Freeman only privately. But this week, many students went public with their discontent.
“Mr. Freeman is the reason why this happened,” charged Kelli White, 17. “He shows favoritism to the Hispanic students.”
“He does little subtle things,” added classmate Chaka Jones. “Like during the Black History Month (assembly), he wore a Mexican poncho. And he was so cordial to them during the Cinco de Mayo thing. They had this little beauty contest and he was hugging the girls and passing out roses. And during Black History Month, he was barely even around, except to tell us to shut up and sit down and behave.”
When the homecoming queen was elected last November, Freeman announced that the vote was too close to call and there would be two winners, a black girl and a Latina. But the black students believe the “co-queen” was named at Freeman’s behest. Moreover, they say coveted part-time jobs in the front office routinely go to Latino students rather than blacks, and black girls are sternly rebuked for wearing miniskirts and tube tops on campus, while Latinas seem to violate the dress code with impunity.
Some Latino students maintain that they do not receive any special treatment.
Glen Garcia, 17, said it is Latinos who often feel unwelcome and are on the receiving end of insults from their classmates. “They tell us this is a black high school,” he said.
Added 18-year-old Alex Quintanilla: "(Blacks) don’t show respect for us. . . . They think they’re superior to us.”
Some teachers, many of whom have sought Freeman’s ouster for years, said the 67-year-old principal fosters bad feelings between the races.
“Mr. Freeman is what we call an Oreo,” charged math teacher David Whitaker. “He does not do or say anything supportive of the black race. When you look at him he looks black, but . . . inside he is definitely not that.”
Freeman’s advocates, many of them parents, counter that if anyone has been supportive of black students, it has been Freeman.
“It’s not that he intentionally favors one group over another,” said Sandra Mack, a parent and Freeman ally. “He’s tougher on some blacks only because he wants them to work harder. That’s not racism.”
And Freeman himself denies any favoritism.
In an interview Friday, he said he played no role in selecting the homecoming queen and approved the co-queen only because the voting was close. Students from both races work in the front office, he said, but it may seem that there are more Latinos because the school’s bilingual student-tutors must sign in and out at the front office.
As for the dress code, Freeman said he has sent both Latinos and blacks home for short skirts and exposed midriffs. And if he comes down hard on students, he said, it is because he wants desperately for them to succeed.
“If I’m tough on (black students), it’s because I’ve lived 67 years and I know that a big mouth won’t get you a job,” he said in an interview Friday. “Social events don’t get you jobs. Fancy haircuts and clothes don’t get you into college. The only thing I’m trying to do is make all of them, black and Hispanic, believe they can do anything if they have enough education.”
Freeman called allegations that he is anti-black “the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard in my life” and attributed Whitaker’s Oreo remark to sour grapes over reprimands that Whitaker has received from the school administration.
Freeman took indefinite sick leave after last week’s protest and still has not decided whether he will continue as principal. He said he has spent the days since Tuesday’s protest in “reflection, re-evaluation and prayer.”
He insists that his leadership style is not the real issue.
“I don’t think all of this happened because of Mr. Freeman’s repressiveness,” he said. “You had bad elements on both sides taking advantage of a situation. Now they’re trying to find legitimacy for their situation by attacking me.”
It is not the first time the former Army officer has drawn fire in his six-year tenure at Inglewood High. Credited by many with curtailing the school’s drug and gang problems and establishing high expectations for students, his critics charge that Freeman has also damaged school morale with dictatorial tactics and an abrasive style.
In 1985, administrative law judges found him guilty of eight counts of unfair labor practices, including preventing teachers from distributing materials that criticized his policies, forcing teachers to check their classroom keys at the main office before leaving the building and refusing to allow teachers to have union representatives with them during disciplinary meetings.
Freeman countered that it would take a “hard line” to restore order to a campus that even his harshest critics admit had been a gang-infested jungle before he arrived. He noted, too, that his style was the very reason he was hired. While he worked in the Compton Unified School District, Freeman had been a sort of guru for inner-city educators, who visited Willowbrook Middle School and Centennial High School just to watch him in action.
But criticism continued. In 1986, teachers picketed and called for a board investigation of the atmosphere on the campus, which they compared to a prison camp. By 1987, more than $200,000 in stress-related workers’ compensation claims filed by teachers were pending against the district, and all cited Freeman.
The controversy continued the following year with the arrival of George McKenna as superintendent. The 1988-89 school year had barely started before McKenna sent Freeman home for allegedly disrupting adult school classes by getting into an argument with Inglewood Adult School Principal John Rabun.
Later that year, McKenna ordered Freeman off the campus again, this time for allegedly shoving the basketball coach out of his office and shutting the door on his arm during an argument. The coach, whom Freeman fired this year after Inglewood High placed last in its league, has filed a personal injury lawsuit that is pending in the courts.
Throughout Freeman’s tenure, his critics have complained that he was dictatorial with students, stalking the campus with a whistle around his neck and canceling field trips and dances at a moment’s notice. But on Tuesday, students voiced their frustration as they never have before.
Students and teachers trace Tuesday’s incident back to an assembly in February celebrating Black History Month. Put on by a black students’ organization, the assembly, like most at Inglewood High, was held during the time reserved for third-period classes.
The assembly, featuring Duke Ellington music, tap dancing and brief history lessons about prominent blacks, was still in progress when the bell rang announcing the end of third period, teachers said.
From there, accounts differ. Freeman said he recalls no organized walkout by Latinos and denied giving anyone permission to leave the black history assembly early.
But some teachers said that, as the fourth period approached, a small group of Latino students left the assembly, perhaps in anticipation of the next class--or perhaps because they were bored with black history. As the students exited the gym, teachers said, Freeman did nothing to stop them.
Among some black students, the perception was that the Latinos had shown disrespect for their culture and that the principal had condoned it. English teacher Moori Schiesel-Manning said that some black students complained to her about the Latino students’ walkout in the weeks following the assembly. She said she cooled some of them down.
But the discontent of black students continued to build.
In retrospect, they said, it suddenly seemed meaningful that there had been two homecoming queens, one of whom was a Latina. And as Cinco de Mayo approached, they noted with resentment the elaborate plans for the Mexican holiday.
Look at how well-planned the Latino assembly was, they fumed: A Cinco de Mayo queen. A Cinco de Mayo dance. A Cinco de Mayo trip to Olvera Street. A Cinco de Mayo lunch.
“They even named our cafeteria El Casa Maria,” complained Maneka Hubbard, 16.
By comparison, there had been no field trip for Black History Month. Nor a special dance. Nor a queen.
School officials said a winter celebration held at about the same time featured a dance and a queen and any disparity between the Cinco de Mayo and Black History events was inadvertent.
However, some black students said that when Freeman passed roses out to the Cinco de Mayo queen and gave hugs to her court during the assembly on Tuesday it was the last straw for them.
As the fourth period approached, a few black students stood and walked out. More followed in what was supposed to have been an orderly protest. But outside the assembly, a Latino student questioned the blacks’ decision to leave, black students said, and the confrontation led to racial insults and then to fistfights.
Some in the community point to racial tensions as the underlying cause of the brawl that ensued. School board President Larry Aubry declined to discuss Freeman’s role in the protest, but he said social upheaval could be expected in a city where Latinos have grown from 19% to 33% of the population in just the last 10 years.
Aubry and others noted that Inglewood is not the only community in Los Angeles where blacks have had to make way for Latino immigrants. In South-Central Los Angeles, for instance, the black population has dropped by a third in the last decade while the Latino population has risen by 200%. Even as the Inglewood High School students were facing off on Tuesday, Los Angeles police had to be called into Watts to defuse a confrontation between blacks and Latinos at Jordan High School.
“We feel discrimination,” said Latino activist Tiburcio Maldonado, who complained that Inglewood’s schools have failed to add bilingual staff quickly enough to accommodate the growing number of barrios on the city’s west side or the increase in the number of Latino students at Inglewood High.
But both black and Latino students disputed that claim, saying that although the two groups tend to socialize separately and interracial dating is rare, they otherwise get along.
“These kids grew up together,” said Jose Zelada, a parent whose son attends Inglewood High. “They have friends of the other race. Now that they’ve cooled down, they’re repentant and they’re trying to forget that they were fighting each other.”
Moreover, the Cinco de Mayo festivities at the city’s other high school, Morningside High, passed without incident last week, even though Morningside’s racial makeup is similar to that of Inglewood High.
Some longtime residents of the community chalked up the whole incident as just a transitory symptom of growing pains.
“Every generation has to go through changes and maturing,” said Lloyd Cook, who has been an Inglewood barber for 17 years. “I think this is something that will blow over before long. And when it does, they’ll all see how silly they were.”