On January 11, 2022, about 1,200 students from an Oakland, California, high school boycotted classes to protest insufficient COVID protections (NBC Bay Area). Fueled by frustration with the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) negligence, students and teachers across three schools took their safety and the future of in-person education into their own hands, demanding a shift to online instruction, provision of KN95 and N95 masks, and increased PCR and rapid testing. Ayleen Serrano, Ximena Santana, and Benjamin Rendon, 15-year-old MetWest High School students, never expected the boycott to garner so much media attention. Not only did the students’ efforts succeed, they inspired student activism across the United States.
Linh Linh Trina, a teacher at Oakland’s MetWest High School, worked closely with students to organize a Zoom protest in which students and teachers voiced their concerns regarding the school district’s failure to properly address the surge in COVID cases on campus. Following the protest, 8,500 out of 34,000 students, costing the district $512,466 in state funding. As a result, district officials decided to provide KN95 masks, install outdoor eating spaces, and implement an improved testing system (The Mercury News).
Zoom and social media platforms provide a new medium for student protests, but successful student activism has a long history in the U.S.
The creation of social media made way for the adaptation of entirely new forms of protest that have decreased the risk previously associated with activism. Prior to online protests, students were restricted to physical demonstrations as a means of raising awareness of social causes. Social media has provided students of all ages with platforms for them to create movements that gain traction before reaching the physical stage. The Oakland protests exemplify how an online petition can quickly shift to a larger movement with demonstrations including walkouts, strikes, and sit-ins.
Oakland is not the first instance in which student protesters have affected change on a large scale. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees were critical to the Civil Rights Movements, conducting grassroots organizing, direct actions, and voter drives throughout the South (SNCC Legacy Project). A coalition called Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) formed between San Francisco State University’s Black Student Union and other student groups to lead a five month strike in 1969 that resulted in the creation of Ethnic Studies as an academic discipline (CRG Berkeley).
Student organizing has transformed the United States and faced repression as a result. A police officer went viral for pepper spraying student protesters at a Davis, California campus occupation during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (The Guardian). In 1970, the National Guard killed four people and injured nine during protests at Kent State University (Britannica). But new generations of high school and college students are keeping up the pressure — and winning. Students are on “the front lines” of Black Lives Matter (Forbes), the fight for immigrant justice (Cosecha), unionization campaigns (The Guardian), defending Ethnic Studies (CRG Berkeley), and the struggle against school closures and over-policing (Philadelphia Student Union, Rolling Stone).
While student activists’ determination to create social change is admirable, it also calls attention to ongoing systemic harms that force the youth to bear heavy burdens. We need to support and provide platforms for and solidarity with student activists. Changing the narrative surrounding student-led activism begins with allowing the youth to lead conversations.
KEY TAKEAWAYS • Mass student strikes over COVID safeguards continue a long history of student protests in the U.S.
• The Civil Rights Movement, the discipline of Ethnic Studies, and contemporary movements for racial and economic justice are indebted to high school and college students.
• Youth should have support, autonomy, and platforms to make demands on unjust systems.