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For These Kids, Path of Protest Is a Hard Road : Activism: Birmingham High students mount a not-very-organized march against Proposition 187. It rains on their parade but the urge to action perseveres.

November 03, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the ragtag band of teen-age protesters, Wednesday was a test of the faithful, a soggy check of the spirit of their dissent, a temperature gauge of the fire they said burned in their hearts.

It was raining.

No, it was pouring . The two dozen Birmingham High School students who ditched class to walk along Victory Boulevard--waving anti-Proposition 187 banners and shouting slogans to passing cars--looked more like waterlogged rodents than concerned youths protesting a ballot measure they consider an immoral ban on immigrants.

All morning, rain pelted their parade, ripping their cardboard protest banner to tatters, running rivers of mascara down the faces of the young girls. "It's sunny all the time here," said 15-year-old William Mejia, his slicked-back hair glistening in the downpour. "And the one day we want to walk outside and speak our minds, it rains like nobody's business. It's scaring kids away. It's ruining things."

One day after Birmingham High officials locked students inside campus grounds and successfully stifled their protest, unfazed organizers planned a pre-school march outside the grounds of the Van Nuys school.

But at 8 a.m., their best-laid plans unraveled at the corner of Balboa and Victory boulevards: Some confused students went to the wrong meeting spot. Others were shepherded inside campus gates by insistent teachers. And many took one look at the skies and decided it wasn't a very good day for peaceful civil disobedience after all.

Now all who remained were the most stubborn of teens. The Defiant Ones.

The largely Latino group huddled inside a nearby doughnut shop and plotted their strategy--a walk around the campus perimeter and then on to the Van Nuys courthouse, where perhaps someone would listen to their concerns.

Then they hit the streets, this throng too young to vote but not too timid to speak its mind.

Their leader was a tough-talking 16-year-old named Desiree Saravia. Desiree, her eyebrows shaved and wrist tattooed, said she grew up in the streets near Downtown Los Angeles.

Like some skinny platform-shoed drill sergeant, Desiree barked orders at the others, who treated her with deference.

"Who's got a cigarette?" she snapped.

"Here, here, take mine," one girl responded.

Desiree took a dramatic drag, then demanded: "Somebody, get me some coffee!"

Talking nonstop, Desiree, who spoke out at the previous day's assembly, told her troops:

"Everybody listened to me yesterday because I was brave enough to speak my mind. I speak for myself because I'm too young to vote. So this is how I make my ideas known, by protest. But the rest of you, speak for yourself. Go ahead!"

Kamesha Smith, 14, said she was marching because she feared that passage of Proposition 187, which in part would bar illegal immigrants from public education, would mean that some of her Latino friends would have to leave the country.

"Like her," Kamesha said, pointing to a 14-year-old classmate. "She's like a cousin to me. If this thing passes, she and her family might have to leave. And who wants that?"

*

William said he had seen TV shows about all those student protests back during the Vietnam War.

"We want to be part of the protest today," he said. "People might think we're immature. No, dude. We have a mentality that tells us this is just not fair."

All along the sidewalk march, Desiree ordered students to keep their hands off parked cars. At intersections, she herded them through the street like a crosswalk guard.

Suddenly, one student noticed a patrol car trailing the procession. When students tried to enter a McDonald's to get out of the rain, the officer used his loudspeaker to tell them they would have to keep moving or be subject to arrest.

"They're truant from school," the patrolman later said. "My orders are to make sure they don't cause any trouble. During the protest last week, some kids went on beer runs and caused trouble. That won't happen today."

*

And so the group kept moving, yelling when motorists beeped their horns in support, shrieking even louder when passing cars sent up a drenching spray from roadside puddles. Observed one student: "Hey, how come it's only the Mexicans who are beeping at us? Doesn't anybody else care?"

As they circled the school grounds, the protesters hooted at non-participating students who congregated on a asphalt playing field inside the fence. Some cheered back before being shooed inside by teachers. The marchers squealed in delight when one young boy suddenly leaped over the fence to join their ranks.

"One out," one said.

" Vamonos ," let's go, said another.

Then dissension hit the ranks. One by one, students began to peel away from the group, some heading for home, others back to school. Students complained of the cold and their dwindling numbers.

"I'd keep going but there's not enough kids," said Oscar Elias. "You need lots more people to make a demonstration work."

Desiree stepped in.

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