We Know Student Walkouts Can Change America Because They Have Before

As Parkland survivors and student activists geared up for a nationwide walkout, veterans of past protests put the moment in perspective.

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Mar 14 2018, 4:00am

A local congressman addressed students in Los Angeles's Hazard Park as the East LA Walkouts grew in March 1968. Photo by Bruce Cox/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

If you want a sense for the scale of the gun-reform protests planned across America Wednesday, consider: By the time students at Maui High in Hawaii step out of class at 10 AM to mark the deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors of the shooting will have already been dismissed for the day.

Many districts across the country have pledged leniency and even support for those who walk out, while a handful of others in places like Maryland and Texas have vowed publicly to punish them. Nevertheless, there were close to 3,000 registered actions on the Women’s March #Enough website by Tuesday evening in what could amount to the single-largest student walkout in American history.

But will it work? Experts say that depends a great deal on what student-activists do next.

“Many of these young people will find out that it’s the entry point to taking social responsibility,” said Harry Gamboa Jr., a professor of photo-media at Cal Arts in Los Angeles and a leader of the 1968 Chicano Blowouts, a series of walkouts by Mexican-American teens over school conditions in East LA. “It really took many people, students and their parents and many of the other people involved to document, to complain, to sue, and to engage in legal battles,” to win even a fraction of the students’ demands.

It also took grit.

“It was kind of a life-or-death situation for students to protest for their rights,” the photographer explained. “Within minutes we were surrounded by hundreds of police officers who were armed to the teeth.”

In fact, organizers had been jockeying with school administration for close to two years by the time Gamboa walked out of James A. Garfield High School that March. But the protests helped change the game.

“There was documentation of students getting hit for speaking Spanish—literally high school students getting paddled because they spoke Spanish in class,” said Dolores Delgado Bernal, a professor of Chicana(o)/Latina(o) studies at Cal State LA and an expert on the Blowouts. “You see that getting abolished shortly after.”

The next year, Latinx enrollment at local colleges soared. Soon after, Chicano studies programs began springing up across the southwest, while LA's school system saw hints of what would become a major influx of Mexican-American educators. But many of the students’ most urgent demands were never met, and others languished for decades.

“The thing I try to explain to people when it comes to social protest is that what you can do as a movement activist really depends on the constraints around the issue,” said Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington and an expert on social protest.

Take the 1963 Freedom Day boycott in Chicago: Among the largest student walkouts ever staged, it pushed perhaps 200,000 students into the streets to protest segregation and second-rate schools, and preceded a wave of similar actions in cities from Cleveland to Seattle. In New York City, more than 450,000 were estimated to stay out of school as part of a boycott in February 1964.

“This walkout was a powerful event in the context of a massive campaign to integrate Chicago’s schools,” recalled Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University.

But as recounted in Matthew Delmont's 2016 book Why Busing Failed, Chicago schools remained heavily segregated. Likewise, the 40,000 LA-area students who clogged the streets of downtown Los Angeles in March 2006 couldn’t ultimately force comprehensive immigration reform through a conservative Congress, even if they may have helped (at least temporarily) prevent a right-wing crackdown.

“They got a lot of publicity, they were on TV, but immigration law is still what it is today,” Rojas said.

In other cases, a little attention went a long way. When school board members in Colorado's Jefferson County—the district that includes Columbine High—proposed revising the AP US History curriculum to be more “patriotic” in 2014, hundreds of students walked out in protest. The walkouts won national coverage, the planned revision was widely condemned, and the district got a warning from the College Board, which writes the AP exams.

“The Board got our message very clearly,” said student leader Connor Reetz. “We were successful in recalling [part of] the Board, which I believe made our walkouts extremely effective.”

The success of that protest showed how important the relative size of an action is in determining what political fruit it bears.

“Say you live in a school district with 40,000 people—only 4,000 people may vote in a school board election," Rojas noted. "But on the national scale, to change Congress, that takes a huge swing in public opinion.”

Still, even if protesters fail to change any federal gun laws in the short-term, they may succeed in other ways.

“There’s quite a bit of agreement that one of the biggest outcomes [from the Blowouts] was empowerment of these students,” Bernal told me. “Some were arrested, beaten, suspended, but it gave these students a sense that they could make a difference.”

Gamboa agreed, expressing a hint of optimism that this moment might somehow stand out amid America's long, painful history of (mostly) avoiding real gun control.

“Everyone who walked out had a belief in themselves, had a belief that they would achieve something,” he recalled of the LA protests. “I feel the young people that are protesting now are actually in the process of making history.”

Follow Sonja Sharp on Twitter.

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