They had been milling around for an hour in the sun, 2,000 restless, agitated teens packed onto Jefferson High’s football field, waiting for the earthquake drill to end and lunch to begin. When the bell rang they rushed the gates, shoving, elbowing, knocking classmates aside.
In the crush, two black girls began tussling over a cellphone or a boy, or maybe a boy’s cellphone.
As school police officers dug them out of the center of a heckling crowd, a Latino boy launched a milk carton across the quad. It landed in a group of black football players.
“Who threw the milk carton?” one demanded, confronting the Latino boys.
“Go back to Africa!” was one shouted response.
The entire quad erupted in fights.
In that brief moment, a food fight became a race riot. And in the days and weeks that followed, racial skirmishes on this and other Southern California campuses unmasked a current of racial tension that has alarmed law enforcement and school officials.
The Jefferson fight was over in less than 20 minutes. But for two months after that April 14 battle, Jefferson’s black and Latino students faced off in spontaneous skirmishes, orchestrated beatings and at least two more large-scale melees. Twenty-five students were arrested, three hospitalized and dozens suspended or transferred. Hundreds more stayed away from classes, and those who showed up did so with fear.
A close look at the first Jefferson fight shows how racial tensions can quickly balkanize a campus—even one where peacemakers outnumber troublemakers.
Steve Bachrach teaches in the school’s Film and Theater Academy, a self-contained “small learning community” on campus. He was in his classroom with students when the quad fight began.
A student ran past the room yelling, “Food fight!” Bachrach shrugged it off. But a few minutes later another kid shouted, “Race riot—brown on black!” and several of his students bolted. Outside, Bachrach saw half a dozen kids scaling the school’s chain-link fence, desperately trying to escape from campus.
Bachrach headed for the quad to retrieve his students and found one, a black girl, in a standoff with three Latino boys. She had been beaten and was in obvious pain. He ushered her back to class, where a group of her Latina classmates, all juniors, gathered to console her and press for details. “I was jumped by a bunch of . . . Mexicans,” she said. The group, almost all of them Mexican immigrants, brushed the expletive off as anger speaking.
But across the room, a group of younger Latinas bristled. They strode over, and one angrily challenged the black girl: “Why are you disrespecting me?”
The older girls quickly intervened, ordering the others to back off. The younger girls retreated, but not before belittling their Latina classmates for having “no pride in your own people.”
In the months since that first lunchtime fight, many others faced the same brutal choice: “race pride” came to trump friendships, common interests and personal history.
“Basically, I guess you can say that you had to pick sides. It was just a must,” said Yessinia Rivas, 18, a senior who has since graduated.
Her worried parents gave her advice she didn’t expect: For your own protection, they said, stay away from other people. Her Latino friends demanded she declare allegiance. “Either you were with them or against them,” she said.
Pressure From Peers
In an essay for the independent teen publication “LA Youth,” an anonymous Latino student described being drawn into the initial fight by friends’ demands that he “stand up for my family, my Mexican ancestors, and the people who worked hard so I could be here—my heritage that I’m really proud of.”
“I felt good defending my race,” he wrote. “I was hitting anybody I could get my hands on . . . Many of my friends who knew I was involved in the fight asked me, ‘Aren’t you proud that our people are at war with the blacks?’ . . . Because of that fight, I lost many friends who are African American. The whole tension between Latinos and blacks is changing the way we all think about each other.”
The school reflects the changing demographics of inner-city Los Angeles. In 25 years, the student body has gone from 31% Latino to 92% Latino. More than half of Jefferson’s Latino students are immigrants, most of them from Mexico, where only 1% of the population is black. During the 1990s, the black population of Jefferson’s attendance area declined from about 34,000 to less than 22,000 while the Latino population, mostly recently arrived Mexicans, grew from 105,000 to 121,000, according to the U.S. Census.