Me in my cap and gown and too much red gloss, 2001.
For my freshman year, I attended Inglewood High School. Home of the Sentinels. Next door to the public library, city hall, courthouse, and police department. Overcrowded and underfunded and constantly tense.
Kids will be kids. But there was usually a fist fight every day. If one of the fighters turned tail and ran, a crowd of spectators would follow. I never tried to watch fights; violence was something I experienced regularly, and the only fight I was interested in was the one waiting at home. Some classmates had transferred from the junior high where I’d beaten a bully, and my reputation was that I was not to be fucked with. Labelled “serious” and “quiet” and left to the few friends I made.
The school was scheduled to be closed on Cinco De Mayo (administration’s attempt to keep kids from fighting on campus). Everyone thought they knew the story: some Hispanic kids had walked out on an assembly commemorating Black History. Some people thought it was out of disrespect, others said they didn’t know English and had heard the lunch bell (the assembly had run long) so they thought they could leave. Whatever the reason, a group of Black kids walked out of a May 5th assembly, which led to one large battle in the cafeteria.
May 4th, 1998. I walked down the cafeteria steps and looked across the Main Courtyard for my mid sis. She usually sat with a group of girls under a tree in the middle. She wasn’t there, but I noticed a definite color divide. Kids were eyeing each other while they ate, the air was electric. I told my friend Heather, “Oh hell no”, and we walked across campus to the deserted Senior Courtyard. A few seconds before the 6th period bell rang, shouts and screams erupted from the center of campus. Heather grinned, “We’re gonna go home!” She was excited at the thought of early dismissal. I worried for my sister, hoping that she’d avoided the danger.
We ran in separate directions to our classrooms. I skidded in the door of my Algebra class, seeing only 4 other worried faces. My teacher, Mr. Lindsey, often acted as bouncer/security for other classes, and was probably off breaking up fights. For the next half hour, the other kids and I would peek out the door, watching our peers run from fighting or be chased by riot police. I was restless, but too scared to leave. Should I go home? What if my sister had gotten hurt? How could I call my mom to tell her to pick us up?
A few minutes later, my sister and 2 friends ran into the classroom. She hugged me, and was miraculously unhurt. She told me she’d sat on her usual bench and didn’t think anything was wrong (her tree happened to be on the “Black side”). A food fight suddenly broke out. Fists, bottles, umbrellas, and other improvised weapons were used soon after. Vending machines were broken open for more missiles. School security was overwhelmed quickly, and the police arrived within moments. Students running from violence or involved in it were randomly pepper sprayed; one of the girls with my sister had swollen, teary eyes and a cough. My sister helped her friends to the nurse’s office and hid there with a dozen other kids.
My mid sis was determined; we were leaving right away. One of her friends had an aunt that lived nearby, and we would have to try and walk to her apartment without being stopped. Our group snuck into the main Administration building, and saw an unbolted door that had been left open for police access. Across the street, there were 3 officers in riot gear, one holding a huge automatic weapon. They were talking to each other cheerfully and ignored us as we hurried past.
After arriving safely at the apartment, we watched the news. Our school was featured as a breaking story. The fighting had spread off-campus, and some knuckleheads had run 2 blocks over to local businesses and shopping centers to wreak havoc. Looting, broken windows, and vandalism were rampant. Riot police had calmed the fighting and no injuries were reported. We booed as the assistant principal told reporters that the only reason the riot happened was so everyone could go home early. School would resume after the holiday.
On May 6th, my sister and I exited our mom’s car and rolled our eyes. Barely 7:30 in the morning and several news vans were beside the curb, reporters gazing at kids being dropped off, hungry for story. Everyone ignored them, disgusted that they probably hoped we’d all fight in front of cameras. Sure, there were some kids that just wanted to leave, but too many others fought because of racism and ignorance. Gang activity fueled a lot of it, and even though no one reported being hurt, many kids were.
That night, I called a friend who’d been transferred from Inglewood to Luzinger when her family moved. Tataneasha speculated that the reason my sister and I had escaped being attacked was because no one knew what we “were”. We hung out with anyone friendly and had “different” features. She laughed that anyone thinking to beat me up probably thought I was Samoan, and no one fucked with the Samoan kids at Luzinger. They were big, close-knit, and always backed up the Black kids during race riots. I laughed with her, then sighed about when it all would end. We both hoped for better, for people to wake up and stop being stupid.
In 1999 (after mid sis and I transferred out), Inglewood High cancelled all of their February and May cultural activities. They hoped lack of emphasis on race or history would end the violence and animosity.
No one is better than anyone else. We all have diverse, rich backgrounds and stories. Everyone is human. Respect is something we all need to remember.