RICHMOND, Calif. - The white streamers were everywhere - worn as armbands, headbands, neckties, leg-bands - as hundreds of Richmond High School students gathered on the football field with teachers, parents and community members to express their support for the victim of a horrendous gang rape on the school grounds and their determination to act together to prevent future violence.
Elected officials and school system leaders shared the platform with anti-violence advocates and many youth and student musical and spoken-word performers at the Nov. 3 after-school "community healing event." Speakers emphasized building a culture that rejects racist and sexist actions and comments and fights back against the underlying social conditions in which such attitudes flourish.
"Violence against women knows no city boundaries, no school boundaries," Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin told the crowd. "We have a society that still has a strong component of sexism, of racism. Poverty is growing in our country. We need to face these social injustices and turn them around, and we need our youth right there leading the way, speaking truth to power." Then there will be no passive bystanders, McLaughlin added, "because they will be facing the injustices of our systemic environment on a daily basis, not just when an acute problem comes up."
School board member Antonio Medrano drew on the history of U.S. social protest as he urged everyone to emulate civil rights heroes like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez in their struggles for justice and equality.
A hush fell over the crowd, followed by loud applause, as the 15-year-old victim's statement was read: "Violence is always the wrong choice. We realize people are angry about this. But let the anger cause change; change that is necessary to keep our children, our neighbors and our friends safe. We thank everyone for their love, support and ongoing prayers."
The incident took place in a secluded spot on the sprawling high school campus, during a homecoming dance Oct. 24. After leaving the dance to call her father for a ride, the young woman accepted an invitation to hang out with a group of young men, including some who were not students. The attack, which lasted over two hours and left the victim semiconscious, was also witnessed by several bystanders who did nothing to stop it. Learning what was happening, students at a nearby house called police. Seven alleged attackers are now in custody.
In a conversation during the program, 16-year-old junior Stephanie Avendano said she felt the attackers may have experienced little affection in their own families, and needed help to learn how to deal with their emotions. "We can help people talk about their feelings, and set up programs where people can talk anonymously," she said.
Sagar Raj, 15 and a freshman, emphasized the need for more community support. "When we do something good, the media should report it," he said, noting that Richmond High has the best academic test scores in West Contra Costa County, and also has the county's number one football team. "So many good people go here, we can come together and keep bad things from happening," he said.
Kevin Gil, a 15-year-old sophomore, emphasized safety measures including a neighborhood watch and the role of campus clubs in providing counseling and building solidarity. "If people know they're safe, they'll feel better," he said.