More than a thousand high school students in Berkeley, California walked out of class on November 5 in a protest against racist threats left on a school library’s computer in support of the Ku Klux Klan and threatening a “public lynching” next month.
“This is an act of domestic terrorism,” one student attending the protest told Fusion. “This is terrorism and it should be treated as such.”
The controversy began at around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday when people at Berkeley High School — a public school located a few blocks away from University of California — discovered that one of the school library’s computers was displaying a page full of racist slurs and threats, including messages like “KKK Forever” and “Public Lynching December 9th 2015.”
School district spokesperson Mark Coplan said that no hacking or actual changing of the school library’s website was involved. Instead, the messages were part of a displayed image that someone left open on the computer screen. Later that night, Berkeley High School’s Black Student Union tweeted a photo of the computer screen for everyone to see and released a statement.
“The perpetrator sympathizes with the racist cause of the KKK and makes a clear threat to lynch black students this December,” the statement read. “The terrorists call for the death of all black people in the message. We are disgusted by this act of terror and demand it be investigated as such.”
The school’s principal, Sam Pasarow, also sent out an email at around 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.
“Today in the library, at approximately 12:30 p.m., a hateful and racist message was discovered on one of the library computers, containing threatening language toward African Americans,” he wrote in the email. “The administration is looking into who posted this message. This is a hate crime and messages such as this one will not stand in our community.”
The next day, Berkeley High students Alecia Harger, Nebe Zekaryas, and the rest of the Black Student Union organized a walkout, rally, and march to spread awareness of the incident, as well as racism in general on school campuses. Early on Thursday morning, students walked out of class and held a rally at the community center on campus where Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Donald Evans, Principal Pasarow, students, and members of the Black Student Union addressed the crowd.
After the speeches, students began walking off campus through Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park and headed toward Old City Hall. After hitting Old City Hall, the protesters then marched through the streets and arrived at UC Berkeley, where they chanted “You’re the ones who showed us how, UC Berkeley join us now,” “Black lives matter,” and “No justice, no peace,” as they marched through the university’s campus.
“Never have I seen something this unified,” Berkeley High senior and Black Student Union member Dante Ryan told Berkeleyside. “All the legends of the civil rights movement are looking down on us real proud.”
The protesters made more speeches once on the UC Berkeley campus and thanked authorities like Principal Pasarow for supporting the march and the students. Pasarow then raised his fist in solidarity.
“I absolutely support the protests. The leadership the students have shown today is incredible,” he told Berkeleyside. “I’m all in favor of the importance of instructional minutes in the classroom, but this learning experience is incredible for the students.”
He also promised to hold an all-school assembly on December 9, the date that the racist messages said would include a “public lynching,” examining the contributions of the black community.
Shortly before 1 p.m. the protest ended and Berkeley High students made their way back to their school. No arrests or confrontations were reported by police.
Later that night, Pasarow sent out an email informing students and staff that the 15-year-old student responsible for the racist messages had been identified. The student’s name will not be released due to student privacy laws, but Berkeley police say the student will be turned over “to juvenile probation for review of charges.”
This particular racist incident follows two other incidents over the past year, including a noose left on a tree at the school in October 2014 and an incident earlier this year in June where a message in the yearbook referred to a group of students of color as future “trash collators” (sic).
Despite these incidents, Thursday’s walkout and protest was well-attended, peaceful and widely supported by school staff and local school officials. It also ultimately pushed the student responsible for the threats to confess while bringing together many of Berkeley High’s students.
“It’s really heartening to see this many people turning out,” Black Student Union co-president Alecia Harger told Berkeleyside. “It’s a great event of healing for black students from Berkeley High who had to endure this incident.”