A press conference and culture festival in the Florence Schwimmley Little Theater on Wednesday capped off Berkeley High School’s three-day student-led effort to raise campus consciousness of scapegoating in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At the press conference, several students recounted incidents of verbal harassment in the last two weeks. City Councilmember Kriss Worthington presented the resolution, passed unanimously by the City Council Tuesday, that declared Berkeley a “Hate-Free Zone.”
“This resolution is just the beginning,” Worthington said. “There will be a series of events to address individual cases, such as students discouraged from wearing their ethnic clothing and being verbally harassed.”
School Board President Terry Doran also attended. “Young people are showing us the way, and they’re an inspiration,” he said.
The student organizers, members of two campus groups vocal on minority issues, were prepared with name tags, some saying “press person.” Their press release stated that even in Berkeley, “the Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities, as well as those bearing a physical resemblance to them, live in a climate of fear, under the threat of daily violence. Physical and sexual violence, verbal threats, threatening phone calls, and a deluge of negative media images have created this climate of fear.”
Shortly afterward, the Little Theater filled up for a “cultural festival,” organized by the Youth Together and Culture and Unity student groups, after school administrators nixed an outdoor rally-type event last week. (Students were allowed to attend in lieu of classes.)
One by one, girls wearing the light-fabric dresses of South Asia and boys wearing green armbands went out on stage and read poems or sang songs in front of their schoolmates, each in some way expressing the urgency that people learn not to discriminate. Backstage, the students nervously fanned themselves with their poems, scrawled on lined notebook paper. Viveca Hawkins, a senior who sang a song named “Reflections” to screams of approval, shed tears when she came offstage.
In a slightly trembling voice, Lily Colby, a freshman, read a poem she had written, with flowers as a metaphor for racial harmony.
“It’s hard to talk to the teenagers,” she said afterwards, “because they’re always looking for the bad side – because they’re teenagers. It’s not like talking to adults.”
Indeed, amidst the earnest message emanating from the stage, occasional wisecracks punctuated the audience chatter. When the performing students assembled side-by-side on stage toward the end, some in the audience sang a few bars of “We Are the World,” a 1980s rock fundraiser anthem that came to represent pop-culture kitsch among many youth. Scattered groans could be heard during the more politically strident moments, including anti-Bush comments by Josh Parr, the outreach coordinator at the school’s Student Learning Center and coordinator of Youth Together, one of the two student groups involved in the event and teach-ins.
“He’s still George Bush, he’s still George junior, and he’s still following in the footsteps of his pops,” Parr said, attributing the current military buildup in South Asia to economic reasons, rather than political ones.
“Some would say that war is another business,” he said.
Barbara Lubin, head of the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance, a Berkeley-based non-profit group that has organized trips to Iraq and the Occupied Territories, spoke to the audience about the consequences of U.S. policies there.
“I was not surprised when I looked at those pictures” of the east coast attacks, she said, “because I saw pictures like this in Iraq at the beginning of the Gulf War when we killed 200,000 people.”
Eman Tai, a Moslem woman and law student who teaches an American government class, said a prayer and told the students of the importance of identifying with those who suffer.
“You guys really are the future,” she said. “How you really see these things, and how you treat one another, is the best part of being American.”
The most rousing cheers and applause came during a Pakistani traditional dance by eight students, at least one of whom hit the floor for a brief interlude of break-dancing as exotic rhythmic music filled the hall.
The festival ended with an attempt to teach everyone how to say “hello” and “good-bye” in Arabic, and a ritual of everyone clapping faster and faster in unison.
Afterwards, the indefatigable Culture and Unity students left the theater and served a few dishes of Pakistani food from a table in the central courtyard during lunchtime.