It started with an online call to action.
“Heads up to my Poly Parents. Please do not let your child walk down 16th St between Atlantic & LB Blvd.,” Michelle Williams posted to Facebook on May 15, referring to an area between Poly High School and its nearby sister school Poly Academy of Achievers and Learners (PAAL).
The same day, that’s where a 17-year-old special-education student was attacked by a group of boys and young men.
Soon, camera crews were outside the school reporting on the videotaped fight and subsequent arrests.
But this was more than just an isolated incident, according to parents, community activists and even the rapper The Game.
Similar attacks had happened in the weeks before and continued in the following days, they said. There’d been rumblings about the fights going on for weeks.
More to the point, the violence wasn’t new. Parents said it mirrored experiences they had at Poly High School a generation ago.
“Nothing has significantly changed,” community activist Rev. Leon Wood said.
Wood and others with ties to the communities around Poly say the root of the violence is intertwined with the systemic disenfranchisement, poverty, unemployment and racism black and Latinx people have experienced for decades.
Last week, parents tried to stop the immediate safety threat by watching over students as they walked to and from school, but it left them crying out for broader answers from school and city officials.
“I’m hoping to collaborate with the police and school and find out the plan,” said James Marks, one of the patrolling community members. “We’re talking about a long-term plan moving forward.”
Recent attacks get attention
While the attacks have been popping up in the last couple of weeks, Michelle Williams said she remembers similar incidents when she was a student at Poly High School in the early ’90s—an issue she said was compounded by a drug epidemic and the L.A. riots at the time.
Recently, Williams and others watched as multiple videos have been passed around social media, showing teenagers jumping each other. The clashes are often between black and Latino youth, although the Long Beach Post has not been able to confirm identities or surrounding circumstances.
The online narrative that developed was the fights started over the last month between black and Latino gangs but Williams and others say they believe the violence has spilled over and affected innocent bystanders based on their race.
Williams spoke to school administrators who told her they were aware of the incidents and videos online. She saw a beefed up security presence, but she wasn’t getting the answers she wanted.
Instead of waiting for officials to do something, Williams, a mother of a Poly High School student, called on parents and other community members to take action.
On Monday, May 20, a small group gathered in front of the campus holding signs reading “Our lives matter.” They spoke with police about their concerns. Among them was the mother of the 17-year-old special-education student who’d been beat up.
Then, throughout last week, Williams and a handful of women and men patrolled the neighboring streets considered “hot zones” for trouble near the two schools, which are only a few blocks away from each other.
They acted as watchful eyes every morning and afternoon. They gave their phone numbers to students in case they didn’t feel safe. Some students at PAAL were even using ride-share services instead of risking the few-block walk to get home or to practice after school.
“It’s not a racial issue; we’re fighting for safety,” said Williams, who is black, clarifying that the concern isn’t only for black students, but for all students. “Our fight is we demand to have safety. It’s a public safety issue.”
It’s not happening in a vacuum
Word of the violence has spread outside the city. On Instagram Saturday, Los Angeles–based rapper The Game denounced the “Black & Hispanic war going on in Long Beach,” recalling the times he encountered the same type of tensions growing up in Compton.
“No one is really there to give youth the comprehension to make them understand that there is no root to the self hate we possess for one another,” he wrote.
The rapper called for an end to the cycle he said allows leaders to gentrify neighborhoods and avoid spending money on education and job creation.
Wood, the reverend, pointed to other contributing factors: poverty, unemployment and racism.
During last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Wood made that same case and called on the council to take immediate steps.
Any plan for change must include the people directly affected and right now those making the decisions “don’t have a feel for the community and their needs,” he said.
The official response
To date, no city leader had publicly addressed the recent attacks. The Post reached out for comment from Councilman Dee Andrews, whose district includes Poly High School, and Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, whose district includes PAAL.
In a statement, Andrews said he was saddened by the assaults in a community as diverse as Long Beach and thanked parents and community volunteers for stepping forward in the wake of the incidents.
“Their efforts have been the silver lining in these incidents and provide us with the solution to these challenges—it is the responsibility of every parent to raise their children to be responsible members of society—to be respectful to all and to live together in harmony and peace,” Andrews said.
Gonzalez, in a statement, said the incidents are of deep concern to the city and she appreciated the support of the concerned community members.
“We hope to continue partnering with neighborhood leaders, the school district, and students to ensure that the safety of our youth remains a top priority for everyone,” Gonzalez stated.
Long Beach Unified School District board member Felton Williams, whose district includes both schools, said the district is working with the principals who are taking the lead in resolving the issue.
Right now, it’s unclear what the best course of action is, he said.
“We want to make sure we do this correctly, not knee-jerk or rush to judgment,” Williams said.
Williams acknowledged that many of the associated issues like poverty and hunger seep into the classrooms.
“Our students live in the real world and go to school for part of that time, but you don’t stop the real world entering the schools,” Williams said. “You try to get kids to understand there’s good ways to combat that. Some don’t.”
The school district has also worked with the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ) youth organization to address some of these issues.
CCEJ Executive Director Kimmy Maniquis said the tensions that exploded into public view this month are not new. They’re linked to a long history of systemic disenfranchisement and harm for communities of color, in particular black and Latinx people.
“We’ve seen these cycles of violence repeat themselves, and because the root causes are so deeply complicated, CCEJ attempts to address the violence both preventatively through education and dialogue, and responsively through collective healing and conflict resolution,” Maniquis said. “Our work exists at the interpersonal level, working to transform hearts and minds so that everyone together can make the large-scale change needed.”
Over the years, Poly and PAAL have participated in the organization’s flagship Building Bridges Camps program, which focuses on the causes of systemic discrimination, fosters dialogue and empathy, and inspires action, Maniquis said.
Teachers are also trained in restorative justice, a disciplinary system that tries to take into account the trauma students may have experienced. It attempts to steer them toward alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, Maniquis said.
Whatever plan school administrators come up with, the parents who took matters into their own hands hope to be a part of it, said Marks, who participated in the patrols.
However, neither school nor police officials have communicated with them, Marks said. He expressed frustration, saying parents felt “like yo-yos” between the two agencies.
Williams, the concerned mother, said she has not received any memos from the school acknowledging the recent attacks.
Some in the group claimed that there’s been a decrease in security officers on both campuses over the years, resulting in the lack of control in certain situations.
One of the recent attacks circulating online shows a large fight on the street in front of PAAL. Two men believed to be school administrators are seen trying to separate individuals.
But Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the school district, maintains that security staffing levels have remained stable in recent years.
He said each large high school either has one armed school safety officer (SSOs) or a Long Beach police officer. High schools are also allocated unarmed campus security officers (CSOs) based on the student population (one per every 560 students).
At Poly High School, there is one police officer and seven unarmed CSOs. PAAL has one CSO.
While administrators decide on a course of action, the group plans to continue its watch until the end of the school year, even during summer school. They hope to coordinate a community meeting as well.
They also hope to get more parents involved and urge them to talk to their children about what is happening at school.
“If the city and police isn’t out here,” Marks said, “We’re going to be.”
Stephanie Rivera covers immigration and the north, west and central parts of Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.
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