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Protest Hits a High Note in Montgomery Co. Schools

by John Tarleton
April 8, 2000

ROCKVILLE, Maryland—With chants of "This is what democracy sounds like!", a group of high school activists called the Chaos Marching Band held a spirited protest Friday in front of the headquarters of the Montgomery (Co.) Public School District. They were protesting recent actions by school authorities to suppress posters they have put up for the A16 Mobilization for Global Justice.

The protesters gathered after school in the parking lot outside the administration building. It was a quiet spring day in a generic DC suburb and these 25 or so students and their supporters were ready to raise hell.

The students have put up hundreds of A16 posters in their schools in recent weeks only to have them repeatedly torn down by school authorities. Liz McLaughlin, a sophomore at Wootten High School, is currently taking a mandatory class in government called NSL (National, State and Local). In the class, her teacher explains how democracy works.

"They are teaching us about democracy and freedom of speech and why it's so important," McLaughlin said. "And then they won't let us put our posters up. Isn't it contradictory?"

Local newspaper and television reporters were on hand. Making use of the Internet, the Chaos Marching Band had organized this rally in two days. A controversial school district memo (along with the IMF and the World Bank) was the focus of their ire.

The Memo

On March 15, the school district's Department of School Safety and Security, at the behest of the Special Investigations Division of the Montgomery County Police Department, sent out a memo to 23 high school principals warning that outside agitators might try to infiltrate their schools.

"Police are concerned that a group named "Mobilization for Global Justice" might attempt to recruit high school students to join in a planned rally," the memo said. "The police report the following: splinter groups, possibly associated with this group, took part in the recent demonstration in Seattle that turned violent. If you see any materials on your campus which refers to these rallies, please contact the Department of School Safety and Security at (301)279-3066."

Brian Porter, Director of Communications for the school district, has since announced that the district will send out a mailing to parents reminding them that the Mobilization will be going on during spring break.

Chaos in Action

A group of students held up signs that read "We-Are-Not-a-Violent-Splinter Group". Ben Gore (the, a senior at Quince Orchard High School, announced the memo had been forwarded to the ACLU and that he was waiting for a response. The students mustered their instruments - a flute, a clarinet, an alto and tenor sax, drums and cymbals - and began marching toward the administration building.

"I'm sick of close-minded people and the Board Of Education saying we are horrific people," said Lauren Nagel, a junior at Poolsville High School.

The students approached one of the side entrances, made some righteous noise, looped back to the parking lot and then headed toward the building's main entrance to the tune of "When the Saints Come Marchinmg In". It was the kind of outburst of youthful enthusiasm that the pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune off of subduing.

There were several Montgomery police officers present as well as a half-dozen plainslothes school security guards. They made no move to interfere with the protest. The Chaos Marching Band approached the front entrance and stopped. Some of the school district employees watched the protest from behind glass doors. The local media has bombarded the natives with stories of the fearsome protesters who sacked Seattle. What to make of this spectacle?

Liz, who plans to host 30 protesters at her house during the coming week, was on the megaphone leading chants like a veteran activist.

"Hey, hey. Hey, ho. The IMF has got to go! Hey, hey. Hey, ho. World Bank has got to go!" The students shouted before changing to, "This is what democracy sounds like! This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy sounds like! This is what democracy looks like!" and then, "Ain't no power like the power of the students cuz the power of the students don't stop!"

Neal Schlosburg's son Julius is one of the drummers in the Chaos Marching Band. Schlosburg, who was an activist in the '60s, came by to offer moral support. "It's funny," he said. "I think corporate America thought they bought these kids off. I think Seattle got these kids out. It was a coming of age."

The chanting died down. Someone requested (without luck) that a representative of the school district meet with their group. Several of the band members took turns speaking.

"We know that our democratic rights are quickly eroding because international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are putting profits before people," said Gabe Shalom, a senior at Walter Johnson High School. "We are going to go back into our schools and organize our fellow students in spite of what that memo said!"

The students then returned to the parking lot. They played "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at the base of the American flag. There was more chanting and singing. But after an hour of this, their throats were parched. They rested and then let it rip one more time. Channel 7 (WJLA) was doing a live remote for the 5 o'clock news. The students wanted to let other young people all over the DC area know what was up.

"I'm so inspired," said Kim, an activist from northern California who is in town for the mobilization. "These kids know what they are talking about. I think it's great that they're fighting back."

Bob Hellmuth

Standing in the background, Bob Hellmuth calmly watched the proceedings. He has been the director of the school district's Department of School Safety and Security for five years. And, he is the author of the memo.

"I maintain that we still have the right to edit anything that goes up," Hellmuth said. "Schools are a place for education not politics."

I asked Hellmuth if students might take more interest in school if authorities would allow (or better yet, promote) a more boisterous debate of important issues of the day.

"Where would you draw the line?" He asked. "At some point the adults have to tell the kids that enough is enough."

Hellmuth said the issue was simply one of consistantly adhering to established school district policy. Unauthorized posters cannot be posted. "Our school district is no different than any other school district in the country," he concluded.

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