Most protest marches go unnoticed. But after hundreds of high school students staged walkouts across Arizona this week, parents, polititians, and school administrators reacted with alarm. The Tucson Unified School District tried to diffuse the situation:
We're asking kids, "instead of a walkout, let's talk it out"...Try and give them the opportunity to express what's going on, but also want them to understand what's the best way to make this happen in a school setting. Students, however, did not walkout to gain the ear of the school board. Together with hundreds of thousands of protestors around the country they hope to influence policy debates now underway in Congress over immigration reform. Social movements have been trying to influence political decision-makers for over two hundred years - these walkouts are nothing new. Disruption, as sociologists have long known, is one of the principle sources of power for social movements. While we ignore thousands of marches and rallies reported in the press every year, we sit up and take notice when protestors shut down the meetings of the WTO, public transportation employees go on strike, or black students sit-in at segregated lunch counters. Disruption resonates in Congress. If students agreed to sit down and talk with school administrators, we would not be seeing an avalanche of press coverage and public debate about immigration reform. Arizona governor Janet Napoletano would not have held a press conference to say:
I appreciate your civic involvement, and you're learning a little bit about civics, but you need to do it on your own time, not on your class time, you need to be in school. Of course, with her own cozy pulpit in the policy arena why should she encourage students to force their way in? Sure, if students wait until after school to protest they will "learn a little bit about civics," but their political clout will virtually disappear. Incidentally, the release of a new HBO film about a 1968 high school student walkout is remarkably timely. The film, Walkout, tells the true story of Chicano students in East L.A. who coordinated 3 successive citywide student walkouts that attracted enormous attention as well as hundreds of riot police who chased, clubbed, tackled and arrested these kids. Check out this film and tell me that the similarities with current events are not absolutely uncanny.