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 afternoon this past December, a student named Wei Chen waited out his lunch period in a second-floor classroom instead of in his school’s basement cafeteria. He didn’t mind anymore, by then. He hadn’t eaten down there in years.

A number of other Asian immigrant students feared the lunchroom at South Philadelphia High, too — feared the beatings, and the humiliation — and they found sanctuary together on the second floor. The school’s English program for immigrants occupied that floor, so there was no reason for their tormentors, local black students, to gather there. The Asian students could use the period to talk in their native tongues, or eat food from home, or work on computers. That’s what Wei was doing when he heard a commotion in the hallway. He rose and stepped out the classroom door and saw an enormous crowd of black students — more than a hundred, he figured — churning at the opposite end of the hall. Other black students ran past him toward the crowd, screaming, “Fight!”

Wei felt his stomach turn as he watched. He was a senior now, and he’d seen this before. Over a period of years, hostility toward Asian immigrants had grown into a phenomenon — a whole culture — in Philadelphia’s school system. Now Wei knew that somewhere in the knot of humanity, someone like him was getting pummeled. And he knew he — a slight boy with moppish hair who creates his own artistic t-shirts — needed to take action, somehow, and put a stop to the violence.

What he couldn’t know, yet, was that on this particular day, the violence had only just begun. Stopping it would require him and his friends to stand up to their persecutors, yes, but also to the entire school system, and in some cases to their own parents. Because Asian immigrants generally believe that success in America means fitting in and doing well, not rocking the boat. Even when their children are getting beaten up.

NO ONE SEEMS able to articulate when, exactly, it started. But it started long ago.

Rumors still float around the neighborhood — that in the 1970s, for instance, the government gave preferential treatment to Vietnamese immigrants after their country imploded — but the truth is more complicated than the conspiracy theories. In reality, the original culprit in South Philadelphia was the subtle, tectonic grind of time itself, a thousand small changes that added up to Change. In the past few decades, Philadelphia’s Chinatown filled to overflowing with newcomers from Asia, and the cost of living there rose in correlation. Groups of Asian families started popping up in other parts of the city: Northeast, Northwest, South.

They tended to keep to themselves. Families arrived in America, frequently fleeing a Communist regime, and offered whatever skill or service might fit into their new capitalist surroundings. But given the foreignness of the newcomers’ languages, their looks, their demeanor, it wasn’t hard to distinguish “us” from “them” in their chosen neighborhoods.

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.

About a thousand students attend South Philly High. Eighteen percent are Asian, about 11 percent are white or Hispanic, and 70 percent are black. The school itself is roughly square, and occupies a full block at Broad and Snyder streets. Security guards patrolled the long halls on a schedule, Sommerkorn says, but the second floor — the floor for immigrant students — only had security in the morning. “These kids knew the schedule,” she says. “As soon as security left, boom, here they’d come.”

One day she went searching for the cafeteria and found it in the basement, behind a thick glass wall. She stepped toward the entrance, and another staff member stopped her: “Oh, going in, are you?”

“Yes,” she said. The woman gave her a look that delivered a clear message: We don’t go in.

Sommerkorn stepped inside and found chaos. “There was no security behind that wall,” she says. All the Asian students sat as close as possible to the outer glass wall: “They knew if they went any farther back, they would be attacked.” Sommerkorn made arrangements for Asian immigrants to come to her room during lunch instead.

The school’s administration treated immigrant students with apathy, she says. One day an assistant principal stopped her to address the Asian kids seeking refuge in her classroom during lunch. He asked, “Why do these kids get special treatment?”

Sommerkorn was dumbstruck for a moment, then said, “Because they’re getting attacked!”

Much of the staff at South Philly High seemed to have given in to the surrounding hostility. The pervasiveness of the violence — hearing it, seeing it, feeling it everywhere, all the time — wore down any resistance they might have once had. They couldn’t beat it, so they joined it. Eventually some Asian students reported staffers addressing them not by their proper names, but by “Hey, Chinese.” Or “Yo, Dragonball,” after the name of an Asian toy.

After a year, Sommerkorn decided to leave. She now works with international students at St. Joe’s University, but memories from South Philly High still rear up in her mind. She remembers one day in particular, when she walked down a hallway toward a tiny Asian immigrant girl. “Maybe 85 pounds,” she says. Suddenly a knot of black girls approached, and one of them punched the Asian girl in the face hard enough to drop her to the floor. “Clocked her.”

By the time Sommerkorn reached the small girl’s side, her attackers had taken off, leaving only the echo of laughter. Sommerkorn helped the girl to her feet, and as bad as the blow had been, the girl’s reaction as she walked away was somehow more disturbing: She didn’t complain, or ask for help from the school authorities. “She didn’t say anything,” Sommerkorn says. That reaction was typical among the immigrant children. “It was like they expected it. Because no one was listening to them.”

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.”

In the days following the subway attack, Wei formed a new group called the Chinese-American Student Association. He greeted all new Chinese immigrant students as they first arrived at the school, to help them make the transition. And he started keeping a notebook, detailing assaults on immigrant students. Before long, he had filled it with the meticulous strokes of Mandarin script, ready for the moment when the world would, at last, pay attention.    

December 2nd last year. It’s unclear what, exactly, or why. But the incident, like a match tossed and forgotten, lit an inferno that eventually consumed the whole school.

According to reports filed by the school police at South Philly High, the spark may have been this: About 1:30 p.m., a Vietnamese student bumped a black student. That student and his friends viewed this as a direct challenge to fight after school, which led to a standoff between black students and Vietnamese students in the hallway.

School police arrived to find a crowd forming. They took two black students into one room and two Asian students into another, for questioning. They ended up handcuffing the two black students, who were, the officers said, beyond control.

After the final bell, a group of black students attacked several Asian students on Broad Street near the front of the school.

Early the next morning, December 3rd, according to statements by students and teachers, groups of black students roamed the halls, scanning classrooms and apparently searching for Asian students. About 8:45 a.m., one such group found a particular Asian student—one who had been the target of previous scuffles — in room 424. When class was dismissed, they confronted him and beat him in what was, apparently, a case of mistaken identity.

About 10:30 a.m., eight Vietnamese kids made their way down to the first-floor office of the school police sergeant in charge of security. They felt threatened, they told him. They wanted to go home.

The sergeant decided to escort them back upstairs to the second floor, where someone in the administration could handle the students’ request. Before they left the first floor, though, they met a band of seven or eight black students coming down the stairs. When they saw the Asian students, they started shouting, and made a move toward them despite the sergeant. He yelled at the aggressors, and most retreated; the sergeant did restrain one, though, after he refused to return to class.

Principal LaGreta Brown heard some sort of disturbance on her walkie-talkie and walked up to the second floor. Brown had come to South Philly High at the beginning of the school year, arriving from New Jersey with a history of trouble. In 2006, as principal at Atlantic City High School, she received a vote of “no confidence” from her faculty after allegations she mistreated students and staff. Then the state attorney general tried to pull her administrative license after charging her with endangering students when, during a small fire at the school, she ordered that the fire alarm be dismantled; those charges were later dismissed. (Brown declined an interview request for this story, saying, “Maybe later.”)

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.

WEI CHEN skipped his final class that day and made his way to the school nurse’s office, where he found a half-dozen fellow immigrant kids sitting in shock against the wall. His heart sank as his gaze moved from one to another; their clothes told him these were new kids, recently arrived from across the sea. They were young, and small. Their silence told him they knew no English, and their posture spoke of utter defeat. One boy’s face bore a circle of blood around one eye where his eyeglass lens had cut into his face. Another had massive bruises spread across his bare back, and others that disfigured his face. One’s face was covered with so much blood that it dripped steadily onto his shirt, which had become entirely slicked with red. “I felt very, very sad,” Wei says now. “Sad for immigrant people, for how their life was beginning here.” He remembered the attacks on him during his first days in America, and how helpless he felt trying to navigate the bureaucracy of a school system that sometimes seemed openly hostile. Administrators had taken no interest in Wei’s book full of notes detailing systematic abuse when he’d tried to show it to them. They let acts of terrible violence go uninvestigated, much less punished.

Wei grabbed a cell phone to call the parents of the children sitting in the office. He also called Xu Lin — the boy who had been attacked a decade earlier on the empty lot while he walked home — who was now 25 and working as an advocate for the city’s Chinese students. Wei and Xu Lin had both come to America from Fujian Province, both at about the same age, and their shared experience gave them a brotherly bond.

We’ve been attacked, the boy told Xu Lin, fighting tears. What do we do?

“Do not leave the school,” the young man told Wei. “Stay there.”

Xu Lin hurried to a subway station in Chinatown, headed for South Philadelphia. Xu Lin felt terror rise in his chest, not because he didn’t know what would happen next, but because he did.

NOTHING ABOUT Principal Brown’s “silent dismissal” —- whereby instead of a final bell for the whole school, floors were released one at a time onto the street — worked that day. Some school police officers thought the dismissal started with the fifth floor and worked down through the building; other staffers thought, correctly, that the second floor went first. Meanwhile, critically, city police officers in the area had left to respond to a drive-by shooting outside another school in the city.

Xu Lin stepped from the subway entrance to find a scene that bristled with bad intentions. Crowds of students and onlookers gathered on every street corner. “Way too many people,” he thought.

From the school’s gate, he saw Wei and the bloodied students by the school’s entrance, herded outside wearing t-shirts in the December cold. He called out to them.

When Wei saw Xu Lin, he wept with relief. Staff members were telling Wei and the other students they needed to leave the property. “It’s over,” they told Wei. But Xu Lin — who by now had worked his way inside the gate — insisted they stay in the school. He and about 15 students gathered in the school’s auditorium, and called an ambulance to take six of them to the hospital.

Outside, when a group of about 30 Vietnamese students felt too frightened to walk home on Broad, Principal Brown and other staffers walked behind them, assuring safe passage. The moment the group left the school’s property, though, scores of black students descended on them. The Asian kids started running north, but were cut off by a second band of attackers.

The immigrant students never bothered to fight back, as they dropped to the sidewalk, pummeled and kicked. The police came, and broke up the melee; Principal Brown arrived afterward. It’s unclear how, exactly, she became separated from the students, but they say the circumstances left them feeling abandoned.
WEI REACHED FOR his notebook, full of names and phone numbers for every student he had welcomed to America in the past two years. In the weekend after the attacks, he called each of them, one by one, with a proposal: a boycott. In the time since his last attempt at a protest, he had paid attention during history lessons about the civil rights movement, about equality and nonviolence. This time, he would make it work.

It’s difficult for anyone with a Western upbringing to grasp what a terrible task he asked of the students on his list. It frightened them, in many ways, more than returning to continued abuse at school. Boycotting meant risking failure, and the disapproval of their parents.

At dinner with his parents, Wei told them what had happened, and of his plan to resist with civil disobedience.

“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.

“This is not China,” Wei told him. “If I don’t do this, your grandchildren will be attacked, too.”

Wei set to work organizing the boycott, encouraging other students to stay strong and resist the adults around them. In a city that struggles to get its young people to attend school, Wei had to fight to keep his friends from sneaking back into class. He drafted a letter for the other students to take home to their parents, explaining the cause. He sent a representative to the school to collect homework assignments from the second floor, and created an enrollment form that worried students could sign to show they weren’t just taking an unauthorized holiday. “If you sign this, it proves you are here,” he said, rallying them at a meeting with community advocates. “And if you are here, you are in school.”

Wei’s parents had seen enough.

“Stop this,” his father said. No one in the family was a naturalized citizen yet. Each held only a green card. If their son caused trouble—is boycotting school even legal? — they thought he could risk much more than his education. “The government will send you back to China,” his father said.

Wei appealed to his parents’ Buddhist background, with its emphasis on benevolence. “If I don’t do this,” he said, “more people will suffer.” His parents relented.

WHEN LEADERS IN Philadelphia’s Asian community called a meeting to discuss the events at South Philly High, Wei Chen spoke with thoughtfulness: This is about more than race, he said. After all, 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.

To his mind, he said, the black students who perpetrated the attacks were, themselves, victims in a broader sense. “Now they have a record, and are more likely to go to jail later,” he said. “They are victims of the school, too.” So the boycott, he said, should not draw attention to the classmates who had abused them, but to systemic apathy, incompetence and bias among the administrators themselves.

More than 50 Asian students joined Wei in protest over the next eight days. They met together in Chinatown for the duration of the school day, doing classwork and refining their approach to the problem of violence. They held rallies, carrying signs that demanded “No More Violence in Our Schools.” They marched to the school wearing bandannas over their faces, afraid of revenge — either schoolyard or –administrative — if they were recognized. Yet they put themselves at huge risk.

In one sense, they succeeded in spectacular fashion: The atrocities of December 3rd gained national attention, which placed enormous pressure on school administrators to, at last, do something. They installed 126 new security cameras throughout the school. They brought in extra security and counselors. And maybe most significantly, principal LaGreta Brown resigned in May, after it was revealed that her state principal’s certification had lapsed. Only the passage of time will reveal whether they succeeded in a larger sense. Security cameras and counselors may help deter outright abuse in the hallways at one school for the moment, but as the current generation of emboldened students moves on from secondary school, the question arises: Will shamed administrators, and a scandalized public, remember what happened here? In the often lonely existence of immigrant children, will school remain a place of mental and physical torture, or become a sanctuary for learning?

Wei graduated this summer. But he still feels the work at South Philly High remains unfinished. “We’ve done something,” he says, suddenly emotional. “But I would like to see how the school manages the school climate. The way they use punishment and mediation. I want to see the school’s efforts to blend the students, not just to show other people, but to change the school climate.”

Then, he says, the next generation of young immigrants can find liberty — real liberty —in Philadelphia.  

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