Heroes: South Philly High’s Protesters

News that Asian students were being viciously beaten within the halls of South Philadelphia High stunned the city. But the real story is the courage of the teens who banded together to stand up to their attackers

One more sign went up in an indecipherable script. One more family moved onto the block. Another corner store changed ownership. And along the way, resentment—deep, and deeply unfair — gradually gripped people’s minds, then their children’s. No one can articulate the exact moment it started because there wasn’t one moment. There were millions.

A decade ago, for instance, a boy named Xu Lin arrived in Philadelphia from China’s Fujian Province. He spoke no English and had no friends, as he started school at Furness High in South Philadelphia. On his fourth day, as he crossed an empty lot near the school while heading home, he heard footsteps coming from behind, and turned just as the fist of an African–American schoolmate smashed into the side of his head. There were several boys, laughing now. Xu Lin reeled — physically, yes, but mentally more so — as he stared at the boys’ moving mouths, forming sounds that meant nothing to him.

His confusion, his inability to understand his attackers, would come to define not just his own experience in Philadelphia’s schools, but the bewilderment of a whole generation. After that first punch, Xu Lin started learning English to strengthen his vocabulary, and lifting weights to strengthen his body.
He felt determined to defend himself and his fellow immigrants in South Philadelphia. Even if it took a lifetime.

JENNIFER SOMMERKORN doesn’t look like a hardened veteran anthropologist, with her youthful smile and her red hair tucked behind her ear. But in the years before she arrived in Philadelphia, she taught English in China, Korea and Turkey. When she decided to return to America in 2006, one job in particular caught her eye.

“I find working on the edges of cultures extremely gratifying,” she says. The job at South Philly High — coordinator for new immigrant students — seemed perfect. On her first day, she arrived to find two parents speaking Vietnamese to a translator. “What’s going on?” she asked a co-worker.

“They’re taking their son out of school because he got attacked in the lunchroom,” the colleague answered, “and they had to wire his jaw shut.”

Conditions never improved.

“I was shocked that in America we have schools like this. It felt like a school from a developing country,” she says. The building struck her as bleak and prison-like, with students roaming institutional gray and green hallways. And much worse, she says, “Teachers were afraid of students.”

The staff, she says, seemed “beleaguered” at best.

“When someone faces constant violence all the time, and you’ve only got six and a half hours each day, you end up tending to the immediate danger, instead of the things causing it,” she says. If she stopped students misbehaving in a hallway, they would call her “cracker bitch whore” and laugh.