Marches, Demonstrations... What Now?

This week, historic walkouts across the country in support of immigrant rights--read human rights--dominated the news, Congress, and most conversations. This morning, I was on "Democracy Now," hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales (Pacifica Radio), along with Yasmin Chavez, a junior from Montebello High School who led student walkouts in her community. On the phone was Montesuma Esparza, producer of the HBO film, "Walk Out," which premiered on March 18.

It wasn't planned this way, but then again, this was no accident neither. The "Walk Out" film, directed by Edward James Olmos, is about the 1968 Chicano "Blowouts" when thousands of students, teachers, parents, and activists walked out of schools in the East LA area. Until this week, this was the largest walkout of middle school and high school students in the United States.

We talked about the meaning behind the current civil demonstrations, including thousands of students walking out of schools in LA, Phoenix, Sacramento, Detroit, Denver, and other cities. Most importantly was the 38-year connection made between Montesuma, who helped organize the "Blowouts," getting arrested in 1968, and this young woman from Montebello (who attended a Chicano youth leadership conference this past weekend that also featured 1968 walkout leaders like Sal Castro).

Other veterans from 1968 include LA Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa, State Senator Gil Cedillo, radio personality Luis R. Torres, and countless others. We didn't lose it with our activism (the media and so-called politicians claimed, then as now, that we would be losers for walking out of school). The point is many of us from those times have continued on to become skillful, relevant, and alive.

This is leadership engendering leadership, across the years and generations with deep and lasting links.

My first political act at age 13 began in 1968. I walked out with a handful of other students from South San Gabriel's Garvey Intermediate School in solidarity with the greater East LA walkouts. I took part in Chicano Youth Leadership Conferences that eventually helped create the Brown Berets and the United Mexican American Students (that later transformed into MeCha: Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan).

At age 16, I participated in and got arrested during the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, which was eventually attacked by sheriff's deputies, culminating in a so-called riot that destroyed millions of dollars of property and the deaths of several people, including Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar.

Although I had dropped out of school by then, and had became active in gangs and drugs, the movement provided me with revolutionary ideas, tactics, and a new imagination about my life and my community. I eventually returned to high school, taking part in a Chicano student organization, fighting for Chicano Studies and representation on the school board as well as the school's decision-making process.

As a senior, I helped lead three walkouts for Chicano rights and dignity. I wrote plays and poems. I also danced Aztec/Mexika dances and painted several community murals.

Paula Crisostomo, the student leader in 1968 who is the main character in the HBO "Walk Out" film, worked at my high school, helping mentor us young activists and leaders in that rough year of 1972.

In time, I found purpose and meaning in organizing, studying revolutionary texts outside of the school curriculum, and meeting other revolutionary leaders. This eventually helped me remove myself from the violent and paralyzing street life--including seven years of drug use since the age of 12.

At age 18, while I faced a six-year prison sentence, leading members of my community rallied on my behalf, writing letters and convincing a judge to give me a lesser charge and sentence (which I served in the LA County Jail, then as now, one of the worse jails in the country). When I got out of jail, I made a vow--never to do a criminal act that would jeopardize my ability to be a well-rounded and disciplined revolutionary thinker, writer, and leader.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I found a movement and a cause. This also helped shape my creative spirit that took the form of murals, dance, music, photography, but most importantly, writing.

Watching these young people, and hearing the voice of someone like Yasmin Chavez, I felt emotional and proud. Close to 40 years have amassed between the time of "Walk Out" and this week's actions. But it felt as if it were only yesterday, when the words, the ideas, the rhythms, and the dreams filled the blood and awoke my soul to a life that now I know I was destined to live.

Some schools have locked out students. Many administrators are demanding that students return to schools and "get their education." Police in places like Santa Ana, have attacked and beaten up protestors. Everything now is about closing the imaginations, the purposeful possibilities, and the hopes of these students.

We have to keep the momentum going, but on a higher level. Now it's time for real teachings, real strategies, for vision and direction to come out of all this activity. The fact is these walkouts are education.

It's time to teach and realize a new kind of leader. The youth are hungry to be involved, to change things, to better this world. Real knowledge of where the world has been, where it's going, and how to organize to get it there must now be the order of the day.

I will do my part. I call on all veteranos, OGs, revolutionaries, and thinkers to help make this happen. Not by telling the youth what to do (they have great ideas and energy already), but by helping forge the kind of unity, political savvy, and imagination needed to bring about humane and encompassing policies on our rights and our continual contributions to this country and world.

In time, these youth should be the future Montesumas, the future writers, the future Mayors of cities, the real rulers of this land. Let's help prepare the way.

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