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

When she arrived on the second floor about 11 a.m., a group of black students saw her and fled down a stairwell. Their suspicious behavior led Brown to “lock down” the school, which meant clearing the halls, locking the bathrooms, and placing school police officers on each floor. In a more revealing move, she ordered school police to question any black student who tried to enter the second floor, and ordered that no black students be allowed onto the floor unless they had a specific class there.

None of that mattered.

THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST the immigrant students unfolded that day with a militaristic orchestration.

Most of the Asian students, including Wei Chen, ate their lunch hiding out on the second floor. A few, though, made the mistake of going to the lunchroom. At 12:31 p.m., a group of predominantly black –students — really, a front of about 70 — moved on the cafeteria. Attackers put up the hoods of their sweatshirts and, surrounded by a crowd of cheering, laughing supporters, crashed on their Asian targets in the hall outside the lunchroom like a wave.

Several Chinese students suffered face and head injuries, and one boy’s nose was smashed, horribly broken and gushing blood. The campaign moved into the lunchroom, where the 70 or so attackers and supporters found a handful more Asian kids. Some in the crowd seemed to serve as pointers, directing the fighters toward new victims. Cafeteria workers, following school policy, pulled down steel doors to shut off themselves and the possibility the fighters could grab kitchen utensils to use as weapons. The school police arrived, but were shielded for several moments from reaching the victims by the crowd around them.

Another group of black students surged onto the second floor, where the Asian students had gathered. They entered from multiple stairwells, from above and below, and physically pushed past a female school police officer and then the sergeant in charge. That’s when Wei Chen stepped from his classroom refuge and saw the commotion down the hall.

The Asian students in the hallway fled into nearby classrooms; school police and staff —now aware of the magnitude of the problem — joined the rush onto the floor. So the attack stalled, and for the moment, the bloodshed eased.