On December 3, 2009, about 30 students at South Philadelphia High School were brutally attacked by their classmates during school. About 13 were sent to the emergency room. The victims were all Asian, many of them recent immigrants from China. The attackers were mostly black.
According to a detailed account of the day’s violence from Philadelphia Magazine, the attackers were organized, and unrestrained:
Most of the Asian students … ate their lunch hiding out on the second floor. A few, though, made the mistake of going to the lunchroom. At 12:31 p.m., a group of predominantly black –students — really, a front of about 70 — moved on the cafeteria. Attackers put up the hoods of their sweatshirts and, surrounded by a crowd of cheering, laughing supporters, crashed on their Asian targets in the hall outside the lunchroom like a wave.
Several Chinese students suffered face and head injuries, and one boy’s nose was smashed, horribly broken and gushing blood. The campaign moved into the lunchroom, where the 70 or so attackers and supporters found a handful more Asian kids. Some in the crowd seemed to serve as pointers, directing the fighters toward new victims. Cafeteria workers, following school policy, pulled down steel doors to shut off themselves and the possibility the fighters could grab kitchen utensils to use as weapons. The school police arrived, but were shielded for several moments from reaching the victims by the crowd around them.
One of the students at South Philly High School that day was Wei Chen, who’d arrived in the U.S. from China at the age of 16, without speaking any English. His first welcome to his new country, he said in a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday, was two punches to the back of the head.
“There was a culture in the school that allowed young people to beat each other,” Chen said. The adults in the school were unable or unwilling to stop the violence that Chen and his fellow Asian students endured daily.
So Chen decided to fight back himself, using a move straight out of the textbook of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—he organized a boycott. He called his fellow students one by one to encourage them to stay away from school. He organized the collection of homework assignments. He wrote a letter for his classmates to take home to their parents explaining their actions. And for eight days, Chen and about 50 of his classmates studied and rallied outside of the school.