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

ABOUT THE TIME Jennifer Sommerkorn left South Philly High, soft-spoken Wei Chen arrived as a student.

His father, a truck driver in Fujian Province back in China, moved to America in search of a better life when Wei was a child. He found one—driving long-distance coach buses around the country — but it took him years to establish himself and bring his family over, to South Philly, when Wei was 15.

The idea of racial diversity frightened Wei; he had spent his whole life surrounded by fellow Han Chinese. Now he faced America’s ethnic, religious and economic mosaic without any English, or any friends. He knew his best chance of success lay in keeping his head down, working hard, and not attracting any attention.

A month after starting school, he stood at his locker reaching for a book when a fist smashed into the back of his head, and another into his neck. He crumpled and looked up with bewilderment at the boys who had hit him. Why?  he wondered. What terrible insult have I made?

The school’s staff asked Wei to describe the boys, and pick them out of a photo book. He stared at it in frustration; he knew they were male and black, but otherwise he hadn’t yet figured out how to read the features of American faces.

Wei wanted to quit attending class. He didn’t want to tell his mother about the violence because it would frighten her, so he couldn’t simply stay home. He started spending his days at a nearby park, counting out his class schedule hour by hour until he could return home.

EVENTUALLY, A FEAR of failure drove Wei back to class, but conditions there only deteriorated. Two of Wei’s new friends — twins — were beaten at the subway entrance outside the school, battered so badly that their parents told them to drop out of school. They did. Wei stayed with his plan: Head down. Hard work. Avoid attention.

That changed in October 2008, when a group of about 30 black students chased five Asian students a block from the school into the Snyder Avenue subway station, where they beat them until they needed hospitalization. The attack — its ferocity, its –unfairness — shocked Wei.

He tried to persuade his fellow students that they should do something. Raise their voices, cause a scene. And then he hit on an idea: They should boycott the school.  

It didn’t work. “We didn’t know how to boycott,” he says. So nothing changed at South Philly High. But maybe more importantly, something changed in Wei. Artistic, idealistic Wei, who loved to paint, studied calligraphy and performed traditional Chinese opera, had become something else. “I was always quiet before the October incident,” he says, wearing a t-shirt of his own design, which features a ferocious Chinese mask. “Then,” he says, struggling for the right words in English. “Then I changed my face.”

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 < Previous Next >View as One Page
  • Mark

    Hats off to Wei Chen for his courage and leadership. One question, though: Where are the parents of the violent bullies wreaking havoc in our schools, and are they being held accountable?

  • Alphonse

    I’m a student at Penn, and I’ve worked with these kids who are trying to provoke change. The sad thing is administrators are so worn out by the violence and the misbehavior, they seem to have given up on the possibility. And the parents of the bullies [most of which are black] either are non existent or don’t feel like their kids have done anything wrong. Even if the fights are taken out of the school they will undoubtedly resurface in the subways or on nearby streets where school officials can’t always be present.

  • J

    It may be a problem with the system, but if the offending students (whatever race, gender or creed) would rather commit criminal acts than act like responsible citizens, they should be treated as criminals. Maybe only then they will realize what goes around comes around,

    It is ridiculous that people who want to obtain an education spend more time being afraid of each school bell, and people who want to bully others are given a free pass. If anyone is receiving special treatment, it’s the bullies. Fix this, Phiadelphia. You should be embarassed!

  • Jennifer

    No!” they both said. In China, there was no such thing as civil disobedience. The very idea seemed absurd. Terrifying. “Just drop out,” his father told him, not because he didn’t value education, but because in China’s Communistic schools, there is no expectation of institutional change. Students fit in, or they drop out.

    If we look to the early roots of Mao’s communism and the later “Red Guard” and the young who stood up to Communist tanks in Tian An Men Square we come to understand that indeed, the Chinese young, when provoked hard enough… are strong enough to cause a revolution of tumultuous change… this is nothing new to their culture.

  • Donna

    I was sickened when I read this story. I can’t even imagine trying to go to school every day, knowing full well my physical well-being is in danger. Shame on the administration for allowing this to g

  • mike

    What a sickening story. The savages doing the beatings are nothing but criminals. And I don’t believe in making excuses for the “weary” staff. They chose to turn a blind eye.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • R

    I am Chinese, and I grew up in a racist suburb in the mid-west. My family had to move to San Francisco for safety reasons. I now live in Philly, and I thought it would be a safe place since it’s so cosmopolitan. But, this article shakes me to the core. After reading it, every time I look at a black person, I wonder, “Do you hate Asians, too? Are you going to try to beat me up the moment I walk down an alley? Are you a parent of a kid who likes to beat up Asian kids? Did you teach them to hate people like me?” It chagrins me to know that the Civil Rights movement, which worked so hard to free black people from oppression, means nothing to the black youth who are engaging in the beatings at Philadelphia High. Minorities should be helping minorities. In the mid-west, at least minorities would help one another.

  • Jenn

    First of all, the Phildelphia school system is a hot mess. South Philly High is just one school that is seeing the effects from the lack of resources, attention, etc. needed at inner-city schools. There is no accountability from the city to the school system. It’s ONE city and taxpayers pay for both city and school taxes. Where is the accountability from the local government? Where is the accountability from school officials? It starts from the top and trickles down (which reminds me, uh, do school officials even do a background check? WTF is up with LaGreta Brown? How the hell did she get the job, even after her past incidences??). African Americans were the crux of the segregation and violence during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, hello, Philly! Here it is again in 2010 but it’s now African Americans violating and discriminating Asian Americans. There needs to be change!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–a handful of white students — and apparently even one Asian student — had contributed to the bullying. “And, likewise, some black students had made valiant efforts to protect the immigrants.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–a handful of white students — and apparently even one Asian student — had contributed to the bullying. “And, likewise, some black students had made valiant efforts to protect the immigrants.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • reggin

    niggers man…