A California high school was forced to erect a temporary fence to protect its students, after local conservative groups pledged to rally there in protest of the school’s decision — four years ago — to turn away students wearing US flags on Cinco de Mayo.
The heated debate over the Mexican-American holiday started in 2010, when four students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill — a small city in Silicon Valley and home to a large Hispanic population — showed up at the school’s Cinco de Mayo celebration wearing American flag t-shirts.
The then assistant-principal called the outfit choice “incendiary” and told the students to turn their shirts inside out or go home.
That predictably led to a bunch of local conservatives losing their shit, with some parents suing the school for First Amendment infringement.
The case was finally settled earlier in February, when a local court sided with school administrators, who claimed the risk of violence in a school with a history of racial problems trampled the students’ right to wear whatever they wanted.
"It was reasonable for school officials to proceed as though the threat of potentially violent disturbance was real," the judge in the case wrote in her opinion. “School officials anticipated violence or substantial disruption of, or material interference with school activities, and their response was tailored to the circumstances.”
Of course, that led local conservatives to lose their shit even further.
The group who sued the school — who dubbed themselves “Freedom X” — appealed the decision.
They were also backed by the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots, a conservative group that recently called for “resurrecting” the admittedly pretty moribund Tea Party.
The Patriots did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment.
“The purpose of this group is to Promote an Alliance of Individuals who will engage in action items leading to restoration of our American Values and Ideal… We strongly promote education of our true U.S. History and encourage leadership to all who are tired of silently standing by watching our Country be destroyed,” according to the group's description on its Meetup web page. “Freedom isn't free and you must fight for it!”
The group called for a May 5 silent flag rally in front of the school. They also released the video below, which includes excerpts from a heated school board meeting.
But while the Patriots called for a peaceful assembly, social media buzz over the event quickly turned pretty threatening — and predictably racist.
A local radio launched a May 4 “Anti Cinco de Mayo Party” and invited people to send in US flag-clad selfies on May 5.
“It is time to show people that the colors RED WHITE AND BLUE DO NOT RUN!” the group said on its Facebook page. Commenters on the page inevitably showed the best of American patriotism.
“I will be burning a small Mexico flag on May 5th, This is America, Not Mexico!!! IT WILL BE POSTED ON FACEBOOK…,” another commenter reportedly posted. That post has since been taken down and VICE News could not verify its authenticity.
A local MC club also called for a motorcycle rally to “defend our flag and 1st amendment rights,” on Monday afternoon, to end in front of the school. The group could not be reached on Monday.
In the video below, another California-based conservative radio host rants about the school’s flag ban, and invites people to turn up en masse at the school.
“They’re not proud of America, they’re still proud of their stupid home country,” the host says of the school’s Hispanic students. “So if a bunch of kids come to school with American flag t-shirts on Cinco de Mayo, the kids get all upset… Go back to your home country then! Jeez.”
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 battle of Puebla, in which Mexicans defeated their French occupiers in a battle that, some historians say, influenced the very outcome of the American Civil War.
Unlike what some Americans think, it is not Mexico’s independence day, and the holiday — which many here just associate to flowing beer and discounted tacos but is actually a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride — is actually a much bigger deal among Mexicans in the US than it is south of the border.
The Patriots said they would limit their protest to 50 people and that they were not behind any other rallies.
They also invited participants in their own rally not to disturb students, but criticized the school’s decision to raise a temporary fence.
“We interpret it as a barrier to keep out the first amendment,” President of the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots, Georgine Scott-Codiga told local reporters about the fence. “I don’t believe there’s any need in America to suppress a national symbol of patriotism and freedom.”
A couple dozen people showed up on Monday morning with flags, before classes started.
The school’s administration said the school is not the “appropriate venue” for any of these protests.
“While free speech is certainly a cornerstone of our American ideals, so is the right of our youth to safely attend school and receive an education, on May 5th or any other day,” Steve Betando, the local school district’s superintendent, said in a statement. “In spite of the District’s request for the special interest groups to take the debate to the courthouse steps or another venue away from the school area, leaders of some of the special interest groups have committed to demonstrating near the school on May 5, 2014. In the interest of student safety, organizers of protests or rallies planned for that day will have no access to the campus.”
But several parents said they would not send their children to school on May 5, for fear the rallies would get out of hand.
"Their real true agenda is racism, bigotry, hatred. They’re basically rightwing extremists, there’s a bunch of motorcycle people invited by these Tea Party folks,” Juan Lopez, the father of a student at the school told VICE News.
Lopez, who is also a lawyer and organizer for the local “We The People” group, said members of the community had planned a unity rally after school hours and not at the school — “where everyone’s invited to come join us, and learn about what Cinco de Mayo is, and be educated.”
"We decided to do a unity rally," Lopez said. "Not a rally against anyone, but against the threats that were being put out online, on the Facebook page of these so-called patriots."
Some students at the school had asked to be left alone at a community meeting last week.
"The students asked the Patriots not to be in front of the school. A young lady was crying, a student, asking, 'please don’t come, we’re taking AP exams, we’re getting ready for college, this is our last month of school and we don’t want you here'," said Lopez, who was at the meeting. "The Patriots said, 'no, you don’t always get what you ask.' That’s very disturbing.”
But while some said they thought they should be able to wear anything they wished on any day of the year, the school's students acted more maturely than any adults involved, and some released a YouTube video telling their own version of the controversy, and calling for school unity on Cinco de Mayo.
“I think we can all agree that there’s a very apparent line that lies in between patriotism and disrespect,” a senior at the school said in the video. “You can be confident of where you come from, proud of your heritage, display it in your apparel, but I think everyone can agree that when you start to impede on other people’s opinions and start to say that your culture is better than another, it crosses that line.”
The group displayed a “unity banner” outside the school in green and gold — the school’s colors — to show school solidarity. “We all pretty much like each other,” a student said in the video.
“We don’t want anything to do with this,” another student said of the displays of patriotism outside the school. “We’re over this.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi