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.