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By Herman Sillas
In 1965, I was an attorney for Mexican-American teachers in Los Angeles. Their students were mostly Mexican-Americans who called themselves “Chicanos.”
They had a high drop-out rate. Teacher Sal Castro began working with them and the Chicano students submitted a list of items to the school’s board that they wanted for their respective schools.
Their letter was not responded to by the board. The frustrated students decided they, along with Castro, would walk out of school for three days. On March 6, 7 and 8, 1968, the Chicano students and Castro walked out of five East Los Angeles schools into the streets. The press followed the students. Police clubbed the students, but for three days the Chicanos walked out. The children’s parents confronted the school board and demanded the representatives address the needs of the students. Afterward, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office brought a felony indictment against Castro and 13 other defendants. I represented Castro in this action. The appellate court dismissed the indictment as being unconstitutional and released the defendants. It was a great day for the students.
I recently attended a gathering of those students participating in a walkout a couple weeks ago in Los Angeles—50 years later. Many spoke of their experiences and their commitment to getting a good education. They spoke with passion and gave reasons for their three-day walkout. They said walking out of school was the only way they could get the attention of the board. This generation of students had found their goal and were committed to achieving it. They walked out of school because it was the only way their generation could get an education.
On Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 17 people—teachers and students—were killed by a student who was armed with automatic-firing guns. He walked off the campus and was subsequently arrested and is now in jail awaiting trial. The students at the Florida school mourned the death of their 17 classmates. But they did more than mourn them; they wanted to know how this happened. What would stop this from ever happening again? What could they do?
At their press conference the following day, the Florida students stated that their school must be free from any such gun activity in the future. The students spoke about the sale of automatic weapons. They announced to the gun industry that they intended to advise each public office holder that they cannot receive money from gun manufacturers while still relying on the support of the public. If they receive money from gun manufacturers, they will be campaigned against by the students. The students asked all parents and other voters to boycott the gun industry. Some stores have already stopped selling automatic guns and ammunition.
At San Clemente High School and other neighboring schools on March 18, students walked out of their classes to honor the victims who were killed in Florida and to advocate for stricter gun laws, to which some students counter-protested. On March 24, millions of students and families gathered in Washington, D.C. and major cities throughout this country. Their message was simple; if you run for office, don’t take money from gun manufacturers or we will defeat you at the election.
This issue isn’t going away. In 1965, I saw what happens when a generation of students make an issue their issue. When a student generation adopts a platform, it stays with that generation for life. They will not let it go. Seventeen minors killed by one person in six minutes is too much to accept. This young generation has its goal. They know that publicly elected officials traditionally get money from gun makers. If they do this in the future, this young generation is committed to defeating those office candidates. It lasts forever. That’s the view from the Pier.
Herman Sillas is a former director of California’s DMV and a former U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.