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Coalition Offers Plan to Tackle Racism Behind Violence

By Ann Williams and Gene Williams

April 29 -- Exactly two weeks after inter-racial strife erupted into a lunchtime melee at Santa Monica High School, a group calling itself the “Unity Coalition” on Friday held school officials “accountable for failing to address the persistent pattern of institutionalized racism in our district.”

Tightly packed around a small wooden podium in a driveway just a few feet inside the school, the coalition of Black and Latino students, parents and community leaders presented a “Ten Point Plan for Student Success” as reporters and TV camera crews crowded in around them.

The plan -- which coalition leaders say addresses the root causes that led to the violence -- contends that, in spite of years of talking about the issue, little action has yet been taken.

“This is a community problem,” said School Board member Oscar de la Torre. “This is not a problem of black and brown. The conflict is not between Latinos and African-Americans. The conflict is…. against injustice in this society.”

School Board member Oscar de la Torre calls on District to address roots of violence (Photo by Gene Williams)

The document calls for a variety of reforms that include more people of color in faculty and administrative positions, teaching conflict resolution and role modeling, using discipline in ways that “focus less on punishment and more on transformation” and instituting “culturally relevant teaching practices in every course” to “de-colonialize the curriculum.”

The speakers at the Unity rally -- including SAMOHI students from M.E.Ch.A. and the Black Student Union -- explained their perceptions of the April 15 conflict and faulted the administration for sweeping the problems that led to the fights under the carpet.

“The minute I got here there was racial tension,” said senior Gina Clay, who began attending the school as a freshman. “Administrations have gone and came and the problem has never been taken care of, it’s never been addressed.

“They would consider it as just a regular fight between two students and just bypass the whole root of the problem,” Clay said.

“This was simmering for some time and it simmered to the point of boiling,” said moderator and parent Jules Bagneris, “and when it boiled over the administration did not have the system in place to assure that there wouldn’t be violent consequences to our students.”

Wendy Gonzales offered a more poetic interpretation.

Citing the proverb “One generation plants the tree and the other gets the shade,” she elaborated saying, “For too many years at SAMO our seeds have been victims of an unyielding earth.”

“This needs to stop,” she said. “We’ve taken enough damage and hardship.”

De la Torre tried to elucidate the complex of causes that led to the violent eruption by recalling an incident he witnessed on the beach that “made me think about the root cause of the problem.”

“There was a group of tourists feeding the seagulls off of the pier and one of them threw a bagel,” de la Torre said. “Two seagulls started fighting over the piece of bagel and one tourist said to the other, ‘I didn’t know that these birds were so violent.’

“I thought to myself, ‘Who are we as human beings to blame the seagulls for the violence when it’s our pollution that has killed the plants and fish that they used to eat?,” he said. “It’s easy for a society that creates haves and have-nots to blame the have-nots for all the ills of our society.”

Despite their criticism of the school administration, members of the coalition declared their eagerness to work with the school, the district and the community.

M.E.Ch.A and B.S.U. representatives met with the school administration during the final periods of the school day.

When called for comment, School Superintendent John Deasy said he appreciated the concerns raised by the coalition and would “welcome the opportunity to work with this group on these points or on any points to make our school system better.”

Deasy said that he felt “very encouraged,” by the document, noting that “nearly all” of the ten points “are reflected” in the District’s own plans, including one responding to the April 15 violence that will be brought before the School Board Thursday.

The Superintendent also was quick to point out the high level of student achievement in the district, but acknowledged a gap along racial and economic lines. That gap, he pointed out, has been narrowing in recent years as indicated by higher test scores and more minority students in higher level classes.

But, Deasy added, "we can always improve."

Friday’s event included Reverends Lewis E. Logan II, Cecil Hayes, and William Smart; Stan Muhammed, executive director of Gang Intervention Specialists, and Charles Brister, Director of 1-800-Unite-Us.

The coalition represented a “simultaneous unity process” in which students and the community came together spontaneously and then coordinated their efforts, according to de la Torre.

The gathering closed with rousing cheers of “Black and Brown” and “Unity,” reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations of the past.

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