About 250 people staged a loud, traffic-stopping march through Center City yesterday, demanding an end to violence in Philadelphia schools.
Old and young, male and female, black, white, brown, and Asian, the demonstrators sought to celebrate and emulate the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was observed in Philadelphia and across the nation yesterday.
"If Dr. King had a choice of where he would be, he would be right here with you," the Rev. LeRoi Simmons said as people gathered outside the School District offices on North Broad Street, preparing to march to the Arch Street Methodist Church.
School violence has become a central and contentious issue in the city, most recently because of the Dec. 3 attack on 30 Asian students by groups of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School.
The assaults sent seven young people to hospitals and sparked a boycott by about 50 Asian students. Attorneys for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund pledged to file a federal civil rights complaint against the district - a claim that could be lodged as early as today. Since Dec. 3, other schools and other ethnic communities have decried the violence they experience, and yesterday's protest was a call for it to end.
"No student should be afraid to go to school," said Kimora Lamott, a 17-year-old senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Earlier in the day, at an event organized by the School District, more than 120 people convened at South Philadelphia High for a "Gathering of Unity," where they reflected on King's work and words and pledged to strive for peaceful change.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, criticized for responding slowly to the Dec. 3 attack, told students that she grasped their anguish.
To the Asian students, she said: "I really do understand what it feels like when people make you feel like you're not welcome," because she had attended a segregated school where black students were cursed and spat upon.
"My heart aches for you," she said.
Speaking to the African American students, she said she understood the frustration of being "painted by the media and the larger community, by some, not all, as thugs, based on what you look like."
She told the crowd: "We want to put this painful episode behind us. We really do. But we really want to learn from what happened."
Students said yesterday that the school seemed to be operating under a tense truce.
"Things have calmed down a little, but I still sense a little bit of hatred in the air," said Amy Seng, a senior. She described change at the school as "slow, but better than nothing."
The mid-morning event drew people of every color and creed. Christian pastors. An imam. A Buddhist monk. Chinatown leaders. A moderator whose mother hailed from Osaka, Japan, and whose father graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. Participants donned blue ribbons, which they deemed the color of unity.
Principal LaGreta Brown, also under fire for her handling of the violence, said: "Please know that we will address the issues, the long-standing issues, at South Philadelphia High."
Pennsylvania State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson noted the diversity of the crowd and said: "I think today Dr. King is smiling down on South Philadelphia High School."
He said a half-dozen TV news cameras had showed up when fighting broke out at the school, but not to document the changes that have occurred since then.
The School District has installed dozens more security cameras, added additional police officers, and arranged diversity training for staff and students.
Wei Chen, president of the Chinese American Student Association, called King "a hero of my heart." He quoted King as saying, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools," and added: "Nobody wants to perish together as fools."
Hours later, Chen was among the marchers who stepped onto Broad Street in dim winter light. One protester came dressed as the Statue of Liberty, complete with foam crown. Another carried a huge peace symbol. People on the street snapped cell phone photos as the march passed, while news photographers clambered onto trash cans and embankments for a better vantage point.
"Part of what we're doing is reclaiming the legacy of Martin Luther King," said Daniel Jones, a senior at Masterman High School and an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union. "We're hoping this event is really a kickoff."
The student union cosponsored the march with more than a dozen other groups, including the Germantown Clergy Initiative, Philadelphia Freedom Schools, and Asian Americans United.
At the church, young people and other speakers - including District Attorney Seth Williams - offered their visions for a peaceful school system, as the names of more than 300 "witnesses for peace" were projected on a screen.
Duong-Nghe Ly, a junior at South Philadelphia High, called on "all students, regardless of race, to unify and stick together.
"I know violence cannot be eliminated by violence."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or email@example.com