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

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.”