For the ragtag band of teen-age protesters, Wednesday was a test of the faithful, a soggy check of the spirit of their dissent, a temperature gauge of the fire they said burned in their hearts.
It was raining.
No, it was pouring . The two dozen Birmingham High School students who ditched class to walk along Victory Boulevard--waving anti-Proposition 187 banners and shouting slogans to passing cars--looked more like waterlogged rodents than concerned youths protesting a ballot measure they consider an immoral ban on immigrants.
All morning, rain pelted their parade, ripping their cardboard protest banner to tatters, running rivers of mascara down the faces of the young girls. "It's sunny all the time here," said 15-year-old William Mejia, his slicked-back hair glistening in the downpour. "And the one day we want to walk outside and speak our minds, it rains like nobody's business. It's scaring kids away. It's ruining things."
One day after Birmingham High officials locked students inside campus grounds and successfully stifled their protest, unfazed organizers planned a pre-school march outside the grounds of the Van Nuys school.
But at 8 a.m., their best-laid plans unraveled at the corner of Balboa and Victory boulevards: Some confused students went to the wrong meeting spot. Others were shepherded inside campus gates by insistent teachers. And many took one look at the skies and decided it wasn't a very good day for peaceful civil disobedience after all.
Now all who remained were the most stubborn of teens. The Defiant Ones.
The largely Latino group huddled inside a nearby doughnut shop and plotted their strategy--a walk around the campus perimeter and then on to the Van Nuys courthouse, where perhaps someone would listen to their concerns.
Then they hit the streets, this throng too young to vote but not too timid to speak its mind.
Their leader was a tough-talking 16-year-old named Desiree Saravia. Desiree, her eyebrows shaved and wrist tattooed, said she grew up in the streets near Downtown Los Angeles.
Like some skinny platform-shoed drill sergeant, Desiree barked orders at the others, who treated her with deference.
"Who's got a cigarette?" she snapped.
"Here, here, take mine," one girl responded.
Desiree took a dramatic drag, then demanded: "Somebody, get me some coffee!"
Talking nonstop, Desiree, who spoke out at the previous day's assembly, told her troops:
"Everybody listened to me yesterday because I was brave enough to speak my mind. I speak for myself because I'm too young to vote. So this is how I make my ideas known, by protest. But the rest of you, speak for yourself. Go ahead!"
Kamesha Smith, 14, said she was marching because she feared that passage of Proposition 187, which in part would bar illegal immigrants from public education, would mean that some of her Latino friends would have to leave the country.
"Like her," Kamesha said, pointing to a 14-year-old classmate. "She's like a cousin to me. If this thing passes, she and her family might have to leave. And who wants that?"
William said he had seen TV shows about all those student protests back during the Vietnam War.
"We want to be part of the protest today," he said. "People might think we're immature. No, dude. We have a mentality that tells us this is just not fair."
All along the sidewalk march, Desiree ordered students to keep their hands off parked cars. At intersections, she herded them through the street like a crosswalk guard.
Suddenly, one student noticed a patrol car trailing the procession. When students tried to enter a McDonald's to get out of the rain, the officer used his loudspeaker to tell them they would have to keep moving or be subject to arrest.
"They're truant from school," the patrolman later said. "My orders are to make sure they don't cause any trouble. During the protest last week, some kids went on beer runs and caused trouble. That won't happen today."
And so the group kept moving, yelling when motorists beeped their horns in support, shrieking even louder when passing cars sent up a drenching spray from roadside puddles. Observed one student: "Hey, how come it's only the Mexicans who are beeping at us? Doesn't anybody else care?"
As they circled the school grounds, the protesters hooted at non-participating students who congregated on a asphalt playing field inside the fence. Some cheered back before being shooed inside by teachers. The marchers squealed in delight when one young boy suddenly leaped over the fence to join their ranks.
"One out," one said.
" Vamonos ," let's go, said another.
Then dissension hit the ranks. One by one, students began to peel away from the group, some heading for home, others back to school. Students complained of the cold and their dwindling numbers.
"I'd keep going but there's not enough kids," said Oscar Elias. "You need lots more people to make a demonstration work."
Desiree stepped in.
"It doesn't matter how many of us there are," she assured them. "We're making our point, even if there are only one or two."
Toward the back of the pack, a teen-ager named Anita wasn't listening. Later, she and a friend would ditch the others and head home for a snack. Now, though, she was worried about some guy at school she thinks is cute.
"I like him. He's gorgeous," she told her friend.
"He's a dork," the other girl said.
"He's not a dork," Anita responded. "I'm going to tell him I was sorry I got so drunk the other night. As soon as we get back to campus."
Up front, Desiree talked of her plans after high school. She once wanted to become a model, but now realizes she has too many tattoos. "So, I guess I'll just be a psychologist or something," she said.
Then somebody asked her how she's going to make it all the way to the Van Nuys courthouse with her platform shoes.
"I'll make it," Desiree said. "So shut up."
Along Victory Boulevard, the shouts of the protesters were drowned out by the roar of passing cars and construction jackhammers. Drenched, the students held up placards to the windows of storefronts.
"You break my window, I'll break your face," said the cook at Panus Charbroiler. Then, to his customers: "Those kids, they're just looking for a break from classes. They don't fool me for one minute."
Finally, less than a third of the way to the courthouse, a car driven by a student friend pulls up, giving Desiree an idea: It was taking too long to make the walk, so the student would ferry protesters by the carload.
At 11 a.m., three hours after their adventure began, their numbers halved, the group stood before the Marine Corps recruiting office outside the Van Nuys courthouse--wet, tired, dispirited.
The Marines invited them in. But instead of making their case against Proposition 187, they stood around in a silent, bashful cluster, waiting for Desiree to speak for them. Somehow, this march wasn't working out like she had expected, one young girl whispered to her friend.
So, for one last time, Desiree laid out her strategy.
"We're just going to wait here until somebody talks to us," she told the others. "Maybe we'll talk to the police. Or the mayor. Anybody who will listen. And we'll keep doing this until somebody does listen. We've still got a week to go before the vote."
* MAIN STORY: A1