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Lessons from history

Five years ago, Asian students were attacked at South Philadelphia High. What have we learned since then?
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Five years ago today, we were at South Philadelphia High School when it erupted in a day-long series of anti-Asian, anti-immigrant attacks. Dozens of students were assaulted, and 13 went to the hospital. Afterward, the School District's leaders refused to even acknowledge the issue of race and racism in our schools – until we filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and won a consent decree in the case.

We will never forget that day and wanted to write about what lessons we’ve learned over the last five years.

What happened at South Philadelphia High in 2009 was not just an isolated incident, but a more conspicuous symptom of a larger structural problem. That problem was, and still is, an underfunded urban school district that has been slowly taken over by neoliberal policies and ideologies.

The increasing dehumanization of students and teachers as a result of relentless attacks on public education (for example: high-stakes testing, reduced individualized support for students, attacks on the teachers' union, etc.) had eroded a focus on us as students. It pitted groups against each other and contributed a great deal to the rise in racial tension between the different student groups in the school. Moreover, the School District’s indifference toward the harsh anti-Asian, anti-immigrant climate contributed to a culture of normalized violence that hurt all students, especially and including Asian immigrant youth.

But that is not the only lesson of South Philadelphia High. One lesson is that it wasn’t the School District that fixed this situation. It was the community that held the District accountable. It was also the students. Along with community leaders, we students launched an eight-day boycott to demand a safer and better school environment for all students.

That boycott was so important to us. We knew the school had let us down. It was time for us to figure out some real solutions of our own.

For the first time, we talked about racial violence and learned from each other in order to find the root causes. We worked with community leaders who brought us in touch with multiracial groups across the city who were also working for those same goals. We welcomed a new principal, Mr. Otis Hackney, who is still there today. For a school that once had five principals in six years, we fought for that kind of stability.  

The case also became part of a federal initiative to address bullying and harassment in schools. Our settlement with the District became a model for other districts also addressing bias against youth in schools.

The last five years have also been transformative and life-changing for both of us. Because of our involvement in the boycott five years ago, we learned to see the world through a more critical lens and became involved with local community organizations like Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley and Asian Americans United. We’ve worked to develop a political consciousness that has informed our passion in working with youth through political education. Thanks to this political awakening, we know that the struggles and injustices that my community and so many others face are by no means an accident.

One of us helps lead a Peace First initiative in Philadelphia. The other just participated in a study abroad program in Mexico under the Mexico Solidarity Network to study social movements and learn from the social actors who have constituted such movements in Mexico. It was shocking to be in Mexico and witness how those citizens who dare confront the state and expose its corruption can be disappeared and even murdered.

Every day, Black and brown folks in the United States are being disenfranchised, policed, harassed, attacked, and even murdered by the state through many means -- from the denial of basic rights to police brutality -- because our very existence threatens the stability of a system capitalizing on mass political ignorance and oppression.

In the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decision, more and more people across the country have realized that the system we’re living under was never meant to protect us. Black lives are being belittled and dismissed every single day, and Black folks are incarcerated more and more at an increasing and alarming rate.

But there’s hope. Out of South Philadelphia High, we witnessed a movement to reclaim humanity and dignity for young people in our schools. In Mexico City, we witnessed a global march in which over 150,000 people participated to demand justice for those who have been disappeared and assassinated by the state. Similarly, in the United States, protests and civil unrest are happening across the country, not only because of Ferguson and the tragic death of Mike Brown, but also because people are fed up with the system.

Five years later, we are thinking about the possibilities of mass-mobilizing marginalized people, especially youth, to continue to challenge the system and transform it. From South Philadelphia High, we learned that we have to unify, that we have to hear the voices of students and young people, and that in the face of injustice, we cannot keep silent.

We don’t have to wait for another South Philly High, or another Ayotzinapa, where 43 university students disappeared, or another Ferguson to happen before we realize that to exist, we must resist.


Wei Chen is the Peace First Prize Fellow and civic engagement coordinator at Asian Americans United. Duong Ly is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a youth organizer with Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley.

The Asian Americans United portable exhibit on the civil rights struggle at South Philadelphia High will be available in early 2015. Contact Asian Americans United at for more details.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

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