Nearly 40,000 students from across Southern California staged walkouts to protest proposed immigration legislation Monday, blocking traffic on four freeways and leaving educators concerned about how much longer the issue will disrupt schools.
The protests are believed to eclipse in size the demonstrations that occurred during the anti-Proposition 187 campaign in 1994 and even a famous student walkout for Chicano rights in 1968.
Some principals put their schools on lockdown Monday to keep students from leaving campus, and Los Angeles Unified School District officials said all middle and high schools will be on lockdown today.
Monday's demonstrations appeared to start in Los Angeles but quickly spread to San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Ventura counties. Though the protests were mostly peaceful, there were a few clashes and several arrests.
Motorists were left in gridlock as youths marched down Sunset Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, Laurel Canyon Boulevard and other major thoroughfares.
At one point, protesters marched onto the Hollywood Freeway in downtown Los Angeles and two sections of the Harbor Freeway, downtown and in San Pedro, briefly halting traffic.
Students in Orange County briefly blocked the Riverside Freeway and Santa Ana Freeway in Fullerton, waving Mexican flags and tossing a rock that smashed the window of a CHP cruiser.
By noon, thousands of youths had gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall, with student leaders meeting privately with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The rally took on a festive tone, with many waving Mexican flags and yelling, "Latinos Stand Up!" and "Viva Mexico!"
"It was my dad's and grandfather's sweat and tears that built the city of Los Angeles," said Marshall High School senior Saul Corona, whose father came to the United States illegally before getting a green card. "People like them did things no one else wanted to do because they wanted me to have a better future."
The protests appeared to be loosely organized, with students learning about them through mass e-mails, fliers, instant messages, cellphone calls and postings on myspace.com Web pages. By contrast, the massive rally Saturday that drew 500,000 people to downtown Los Angeles was highly organized, with demonstrators urged to wear white and bring American flags.
Many students said they were marching in opposition to a bill sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that passed the House in December. The bill would give police more power to enforce immigration law and would lead to 700 miles of additional fencing along the border.
Even as the students marched, a Senate committee approved an immigration package Monday that would enable some of the about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country to become U.S. citizens.
As immigrants or children of immigrants, several marchers said they would be personally affected by Sensenbrenner's pending bill.
"If this law passes, what will happen?" said Yadira Pech, 16. "There would be no more Los Angeles High School. Nearly all of us are immigrants."
Added Antonio Chavez, an eighth-grader at University Heights Middle School in Riverside: "Our parents, our families came here from Mexico. We want other families to be able to come here too."
Some students said they did not know exactly what the bill said but believed that it was part of an anti-immigrant movement taking hold nationwide.
"We just walked out because we didn't want to be at school," said Diana Hernandez, a senior at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. "But we also believe [the legislation] is wrong."
The demonstrations became violent in some areas. In San Diego County, two dozen protesters were arrested in Escondido after refusing orders from police to disperse. Two patrol cars were reportedly vandalized.
In Riverside, a peaceful student protest unfolded downtown as six youths and one adult were arrested across town after scuffles with police clad in riot gear and carrying nightsticks, authorities said. After following students throughout the city and calling for them to disperse, officers confronted the group. Students responded by hurling rocks and bottles at police.
"They're pushing us around," said Pati Sanchez, a Norte Vista High School senior. "People should be able to say what they think."
In Santa Ana, officers used nightsticks and pepper spray to control students throwing bottles and rocks. They also set up barricades to prevent the protesters from disrupting traffic. One student was arrested and a few others suffered minor injuries, police said.
Four adults were arrested during a protest in Van Nuys, but no major violence occurred in Los Angeles County. The demonstrations prompted a tactical alert by Los Angeles police so the department could deploy officers to areas where they were needed.
"They're noisy but well-behaved," said LAPD Chief William J. Bratton as he walked through the downtown crowd. "Let them have their say."