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Forest Grove students take anti-discrimination message to Portland rally

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - PCC student Eddie Bolanos reads from a letter from United We Stand Oregon to the Forest Grove and surrounding school districts at a rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square May 22 2016, sparked by protests against a banner reading Build a Wall. Thursday’s wave of student walkouts in Washington County become a rally in Portland Sunday afternoon as about 60 westside students and their allies converged on Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Students were protesting the hanging of a banner at Forest Grove High School that said “Build a wall” took their message to Portland, many arriving together by MAX just after 2 p.m. May 22.

Protestors carried placards protesting racism and declaring solidarity, and painted each other’s skin different colors with Window Writer window paint. They gathered to hear speakers, and stayed despite the sunny weather turning into a downpour around 3 p.m. The protest was peaceful.


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FGHS students march in protest of banner, racism


Last straw

Portland Community College student Eddie Bolaños said the students were organizing under the a new group named United We Stand Oregon, and that the rally was about more than one offensive banner.

“The sign was the last straw,” said Bolaños. “A series events of events have occurred before at Forest Grove High School, such as a teacher being called the N-word and students being pushed around and people saying things like ‘Go back to your country, we don’t need you here.’ It was obviously something that was bottled up.”

He said today’s message was aimed squarely at the Forest Grove School District and neighboring districts where there are many Latino students.

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Melina McGlothen at a rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square May 22 2016, sparked by protests against a banner reading Build a Wall.

Protestors stay despite downpour

FGHS student Jose Mata came with his face painted orange to show that skin color should be irrelevant to how people are treated. “We want to make a statement that we want to see as a change and protest for what we believe is right,” he said.

A majority of students at the rally were Hispanic. Mata praised the white students who came to show their support. “This is not only about Latinos or black people, this is about racism in general," he said. "I know that white people also get discriminated against, and people tell them racist comments because they’re white. So they stand with us because they’ve read stories about it or they’ve experienced it themselves.”

Bolaños read aloud a letter from UnitedWeStandOR addressed to the school districts “demanding a change of policy and protocols, and an action plan” to deal with systematic racism in the schools.

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - United We Stand Oregon protestors

Chicanx student rights

Students passed the megaphone and explained what they were fighting for. One said, “This is not for us, this is for the future and for our kids. We’ve got to stop hating on each other, we’ve just got to unite.”

Many mentioned the riots of East Los Angeles in 1968 and stressed that Oregon’s chicano students need to find their voice. Western Oregon University student Evelyn Guzman came representing MEChA, a Chicanx student rights organization. (Chicanx means chicanos and chicanas.)

Diego Hernandez, a Democrat running for state representative in East Portland's House District 47, spoke last, telling students he identified with the crowd since he “was a student who organized and fought for fairness and justice in school and at the University of Oregon, where there was the same kind of culture and the same type of programs that were missing that encourage including, where there was still a culture of discrimination and racism.”

Hernandez said there is a need, “One, to change the culture in schools and be more inclusive, and two, a curriculum that is inclusive to all of our histories.” He advocates for the teaching of ethnic studies across Oregon public schools and said he would support any such bill in the legislature.

He urged them to continue to build coalitions to get their message out, and noticed that west side students were stirring. “I think the Trump effect is one way that young people are saying that enough is enough, it’s very dangerous to have a wannabe politician who spews discrimination,” he said, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Students have always dealt with discrimination, but I think there was a breaking point when even more escalation happened,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez stressed that there was a history of discrimination at Forest Grove High School, which he had heard of through his nonprofit, Momentum Alliance, which develops young leaders. He said a female student recently presented a list “racial incidents and typical things heard in the classrooms and hallways” to teachers and the school board.

“I heard about it before the walkout, and it wasn’t a shock when they walked out, because the principal and the administration didn’t act fast enough, so the students decided to take matters into their own hands.”

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Students from United We Stand Oregon at a rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square May 22 2016, sparked by protests against a banner reading Build a Wall.

Hasty retreat

On May 18, a crude “build a wall” banner draped on a wall at Forest Grove High School was taken down within minutes. Outrage spread, and by the morning of May 19, students walked out of class to protest the banner and its message. A third of Forest Grove High’s 1,900 students walked out at 10 a.m. and marched on Main Street to the school administration building, waving Mexican and American flags and banners.

"Build a wall" refers to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the United States' southern border to keep out illegal immigrants. The banner was made of separate sheets of copier paper strung together, each with a letter spray painted on it in red.

It was draped to partially obscure another banner that read: “Spread the word to end the word,” about ending the casual use of the words “retard” and “retarded.”

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Jose Mata and Cynthia Zamudo at the anti-racism rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square Sunday May 22 2016

'Intolerable'

At the time Forest Grove schools Superintendent Yvonne Curtis called the "build a wall" banner “intolerable.” Forest Grove High is 46 percent Latino and 48 percent white.

The two students who placed the banner were found, disciplined and apologized, saying it was a comment about free speech and not intended to offend. They have not been publicly identified.

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