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

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.