Racial Tension at Los Angeles High School

Black and Latino students were involved in brawls for two weeks straight at Jefferson High School in south Los Angeles. Farai Chideya and Mandalit del Barco travel to A Place Called Home, a safe haven for students. Six teenagers talk about the racial tension and fighting. Plus, Chideya has a conversation about tips to keep teens safe from violence with Thyonne Gordon, executive director of A Place Called Home, and Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone.

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Los Angeles could elect its first Latino mayor in more than a century tomorrow. Several African-American leaders have rushed to endorse the leading candidate, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa. Political analysts are calling it a black and brown coalition. White it may offer hope for long-term relations between ethnic groups, there is no black and brown alliance at a South Central Los Angeles high school. Kids have thrown racial barbs at each other and riot police have been brought in to break up fistfights at Jefferson High School.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco and Farai Chideya met with a group of students from that school to get their take on the violence. Jefferson's principal is calling on ministers and community leaders to help find solutions. But as our correspondents found out, many students are also looking for answers.

JOVAN HENDERSON(ph) (Student): I was wondering, put yourself in my position. If somebody actually hit you and you actually knew that person or if you didn't know the person and he was in my position, what was your reaction? How would you solve the problem?

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

The way that I was raised, my mom said, you know, don't hit back, and then I got beat up once, and she was like, `But I didn't mean if they hit you first,' so it's complicated, you know. I'm not pretending. I want to hear what you guys have to say, though.

That's Jovan Henderson. He's 14 and always ready with an opinion, especially about what happened at Jefferson High. I spoke with Jovan and two other African-American students. Mandalit del Barco spoke with three Latino students from the school.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

Farai and I met with them at a community center not far from Jefferson. It's called A Place Called Home. We talked with each group separately about race, ethnicity and campus tensions. According to the students, a food fight morphed into what some are now calling a race riot.

CHIDEYA: The first brawl broke out on April 14th. Then another one a few days later. The students say things are still tense. Here's Jovan Henderson again.

HENDERSON: There was like a lot of police. I see like four or five helicopters in the sky. So when I was walking, I'm like sort of talking to myself, like, `What's happening?' And all I see is like a boy from behind hit me in my head for no reason. I'm like, `Oh, like, what'd you hit me for?' So I started to chase him. When I chased him, he ran away. He ran behind his friends. And so I said, `Forget, I'll catch you later,' but still watching my back just in case. So they started it again during lunchtime. So after that, like they tried to come up to me and they're, like, forget blacks and (censored) and that--excuse my language, but (censored) is down for the brown. I'm, like, OK, and I got hit again, so I started fighting.

CHIDEYA: So when you started fighting after the second time after people got in your face, what was on your mind?

HENDERSON: On my mind, man, I hope I don't get hurt or none of that stuff or get injured. But basically, I was going to fight whoever that run ups on me--black or Hispanic, but mostly Hispanics ran up on me.

DEL BARCO: The Latino students at Jefferson have a slightly different version of what went down. Ava Rayez(ph) is a really red-haired Mexican American 10th-grader who hopes to become a massage therapist when she graduates. Eleventh-grader Richard Harris is Afro-Cuban and Salvadoran, and he says he confuses some people because he's black and he speaks Spanish. And then there's Jesse Gutierrez(ph). He's close to six feet tall, stocky, with dark hair. When I asked Jesse to explain his involvement, he folds his arms and leans into the conversation.

JESSE GUTIERREZ (Student): I was involved in the fight. The reason I got involved, because I was going towards the science building, and the cops did a line, so I was right there, and then all of a sudden, the cop was holding me back, and I just seen something hit me in the face, so I got mad, so I went towards the fight and I just got in it, and the black people were on the other side of the gate and the Mexicans was on this side, so they were just screaming stuff at each other and then the words they say, you probably never heard of it, but it's chanata(ph). That's how they describe the blacks, or they call them Negro, like that. They were screaming at them, but like the racist way.

AVA RAYEZ (Student): To us, they were saying, `Go back to your country. You don't belong here, you (censored) wetbacks.' They were saying that, `You don't belong here.' They were throwing cans.

GUTIERREZ: And after everything happened, the cops were talking about the Latinos started it and everything, when it was nothing like that. It was the black people that started it. They were the ones who hit first. All we did is just defend ourselves and never hitting a woman. Of course, we ain't going to let nobody hit a woman.

DEL BARCO: So has it always been like that...

RICHARD HARRIS (Student): Never.

DEL BARCO: ...kind of separated?

RAYEZ: Never.

GORDON: No.

RAYEZ: No.

HARRIS It's more self-segregated, you know. People choose to go with their cliques or whatever. You know, you see the rockers somewhere, the rap, the jocks, the football players. You know, you hang out with the friends that you're comfortable with, and most of the time, it's with your own race, you know.

JUSTIN (Student): Only people that come to our school that talk for us is our parents.

CHIDEYA: Justin, another of the African-American students, wears a T-shirt down to his knees. The day we visited A Place Called Home, it was Justin's first day back at Jefferson after avoiding the problems at school. Until the 1990s, the neighborhood was predominantly African-American, but now Jefferson's student population is roughly 92 percent Latino and just 7 percent black. Like many of the students, Justin grew up in a neighborhood with both black and Latino families.

JUSTIN: Yeah, my block--it's mixed and everything. Everybody get along on my block, and the thing that we should do to get along like at school is like, they should just take everybody to a picnic or something and then just play around, like get in the water, beach, and play basketball, run around and just play some, and everybody should just get along.

DEL BARCO: We talked with each group of students, Latino and blacks, separately. Now all six teens are together.

I wanted to ask you guys if you have any questions of each other first, just to start off?

HARRIS: Well...

DEL BARCO: You probably do.

HARRIS: ...yeah.

DEL BARCO: Like the others, Jesse and Richard want to get along with all the students at the school, but it's not always easy.

CHIDEYA: If somebody asked you to jump into the middle of some mess and you don't do it, it's like you're a traitor or a coward.

GUTIERREZ: Yeah. And if you don't do it, they don't get you, and if they don't get you, whoever the guy with the problem is going to get you.

CHIDEYA: So, Richard, like is there any way to just be yourself and not join sides and not get involved or is that impossible?

HARRIS: Like if you don't want to choose sides, just avoid it. Like go to like a classroom or something like that, but outside, when you're walking home, there's no way to avoid it. You're caught in the mix.

DEL BARCO: I asked if they were optimistic that things would change. Jovan and Ava seem split on the issue.

HENDERSON: It going to get worse. It can't get better than this right now. It's going to get worse.

Unidentified Student: Unless we have to.

HENDERSON: It have to get worse before it get better.

RAYEZ: Because they're saying it's going to get worse because they're saying there is going to be a drive-by and all this stuff, that ...(unintelligible) people are scared these days because, you know, of their color, they think that they're going to get just shot, only because it's black or it's Hispanic.

CHIDEYA: Rumors about more racial violence are keeping students pensive.

DEL BARCO: Administrators at Jefferson High School say they'll continue to meet with city officials, parents and even the Justice Department to try and find solutions. But the young men and women we talked with at A Place Called Home suggest that school officials might want to talk to the students themselves. I'm Mandalit del Barco.

(Soundbite of door closing)

CHIDEYA: With me now are two individuals who have spent years working with youth of all races. Thyonne Gordon is the executive director of A Place Called Home in South Los Angeles, and Geoffrey Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children Zone. Welcome. And let's jump right in. Thyonne, what do you think really lies behind the violence at Jefferson?

Ms. THYONNE GORDON (A Place Called Home): I think a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication lies behind that violence.

CHIDEYA: Did you hear anything, as they were talking, that shocked or surprised you or was this pretty much what you expected?

Ms. GORDON: I think it was what I expected because I've heard it so much over the last couple of weeks. I'm saddened that our kids have to go through this. If you heard them talking about, `We should just go to a park and play,' and that's what our kids really want to do. They want to be kids.

CHIDEYA: But essentially what's happened is that there have been more threats of violence and more scuffles. How are the kids responding on a daily basis? Some of them, it sounds like, don't even want to go to school anymore.

Ms. GORDON: Well, just recently, there was rumors about that there was supposed to be drive-by killings; 500 blacks were supposed to die on Cinco de Mayo. And again, it was a hoax. They put it on the Internet. The police were aware of it, and again, it was a hoax being put out by I don't know who. But starting a lot of pandemonium.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. Now, Geoffrey, you wrote the book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun," about the violence that you saw as a kid growing up in the South Bronx of New York. The South Bronx, like LA, is a racially mixed community. Was race a factor in the violence when and where you were growing up?

Mr. GEOFFREY CANADA (Harlem Children Zone): You know, when I was growing up, race was not a factor. This was mostly black-on-black violence. But the root causes and I think the responses that we should take I think are very similar. You know, it's just really sad to me to know that young people are trying to figure out how to survive, and we as adults sometimes don't take these issues serious enough in terms of our own planning and strategy to come up with really a series of sound interventions, which keep children safe; at the same time, teaching them what they need to know in order to handle what's going to be the inevitable conflicts that come up between people of both the same races and ethnic groups, as well as people who come from different races and ethnic groups. We know more than we're sharing with kids right now about what to do in these kind of circumstances.

CHIDEYA: Now you've really spent so much of your life dealing with youth and violence. What are the concrete things that teachers and counselors and parents and friends can do when something like this flares up, and there really have been flare-ups all over the country of racial violence between youth?

Mr. CANADA: Yes. I mean, one of the first things we do--and we know that there is a conflict going on--is that we get adults to get to the facts. Because people said, `No, they said that Charles was going to come.' And we say, `No, we talked to Charles. That was never said by Charles, who actually said there was this other kid, didn't have anything to do with it,' and you begin to just dispel a lot of the myths that start young people believing that something's going to happen when nothing is actually going to happen.

The other thing that's absolutely critical, that we have to make sure that we anticipate where violence is going to happen. Now look, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you really put a lot of pressure that there's not going to be violence in school, going home from school is going to be the place that kids are going to get into fights or coming to school, and then we don't staff those areas, that we don't get adults out and say, `Look, in the next six blocks, we just want to have an adult present to make sure our kids get to school and get home safely,' so when something like this happens, we have to deploy people who know how to work with young people; not the police.

CHIDEYA: And, Geoffrey, who should get involved in this issue? Is it an issue for government? You said you don't need to send police. You need other adults who care about the children. Who really needs to move the ball forward to prevent racial violence and youth violence in general?

Mr. CANADA: We need to develop something that we've done here in New York called Our Harlem Peacemakers(ph). These are college age young people, 19, 20, 21. They come from the same streets that the kids come from. They wear the same clothes. They talk the same language. But these are young people who have decided they're going to go to the local community college. They're struggling to make something out of their lives. One of the things we don't realize, that this is an opportunity to train the next set of leaders, and right now, all the leaders are saying, `Go out and cut somebody, go out and shoot somebody,' because that's all they know right now as tools, and this is the perfect time to get a group of 19- and 20-year-olds who have conflict mediation training involved, to say, `Let's get our act together as the African-American group or as the Mexican group or the Latino group--let's get our act together, and then once our act's together, let's go in with a set of demands that says to the school and to the police, "This is what we expect from you,"' and it takes that rage, and it turns it from being focused on another 14- or 15-year-old and it turns it into a strategy of how you improve the conditions in school, how you improve the conditions with police. I think that's the opportunity we have to grab right now.

CHIDEYA: Geoffrey Canada is the author of "Fist Stick Knife Gun," as well as the president and CEO of the Harlem Children Zone. And Thyonne Gordon is the executive director of A Place Called Home. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. CANADA: Thanks so much for having me on.

Ms. GORDON: Thank you.

GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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