Protesters outside Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill on Monday morning. (Francesca Segre/KQED)
Protesters outside Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill on Monday morning. (Francesca Segre/KQED)

Update, 8:55 a.m.: Several dozen protesters have appeared as promised outside Live Oak High School to display the American flag — part of a continuing Cinco de Mayo debate over free speech issues at the campus.

Most of those in the rather somber gathering say they’re from Morgan Hill, although some report coming from Monterey or from Southern California. School officials put up a temporary fence around the school to make sure protesters stayed off campus, and there’s been a beefed-up police presence on the streets.

The rally, organized by a South Bay tea party group, grows out of a 2010 incident in which several students showed up at Live Oak High on Cinco de Mayo wearing American flag T-shirts. School administrators, fearing a repeat of a Cinco de Mayo altercation that had broken out in 2009, told the students to turn their shirts inside out or leave school. The incident led to a First Amendment lawsuit in which federal courts found that school officials concerned about safety on campus were justified in taking action. Today’s protest was called in response to the latest court ruling, a February opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Original post: A group of South Bay tea party activists has scheduled an American flag rally outside a Morgan Hill high school Monday morning, the latest episode in a Cinco de Mayo controversy stretching back to 2010.

Georgine Scott-Codiga, organizer of the Gilroy Morgan Hill Patriots, said members will gather near Live Oak High School before school Monday.

“We can wave our flags and show our patriotism every day of the year!” Scott-Codiga said over the weekend.

Worries about possible trouble have prompted some Latino parents to say they’re keeping their kids home from school Monday. In an attempt to reassure parents, the Morgan Hill Unified School District has said it’s working with local police to make sure the Live Oak campus will be safe Monday.

To get to the reason for the show of U.S. patriotism on Cinco de Mayo, a day that commemorates a Mexican military victory against French invaders, you need to go back a few years.

On Cinco de Mayo 2010, a a small group of students showed up wearing American flag T-shirts. Fearing a repeat of a Cinco de Mayo altercation that broke out between Mexican and Caucasian students the previous year, administrators told them to turn their shirts inside out or leave school. That incident led to a federal court case charging that officials had violated the students’ rights under the U.S. and California constitutions — to free expression, due process and equal protection.

The most recent development in the case came a couple months ago, when a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court order dismissing the students’ lawsuit.

“We don’t agree with the court’s decision to silence the American flag,” said Scott-Codiga. She said her group will not carry signs, will be respectful of students and won’t disrupt the school day.

But what concerns some people in Morgan Hill is the tenor of comments from outside the community.

For instance, right-wing radio talk show host Jimmy Z has been highlighting the controversy on his broadcast, calling on listeners to join the Morgan Hill rally. A brief sample from a recent broadcast:

I’m not saying ‘Cinco de Mayo’ … I’m not using that term for the 5th of May any more, I’m done, because it means now, it invokes too much anti-Americanism, anti-American flag. You can’t fly the American flag on the 5th of May? Get out of here! And a kid going to high school on the 5th of May cannot wear a T-shirt that celebrates the United States of America, where all these kids live? All the kids celebrating the 5th of May? Kiss my ass.

A group of Latino parents, concerned about threatening and racist comments posted online, formed a group of its own, called “We the People Morgan Hill,” and also planned a rally for today. But the group has backed down from its original plan to have a rally at the same time and place as the Gilroy Morgan Hill Patriots, and instead is planning an event this evening at the Morgan Hill sports complex showcasing multicultural dancers, drummers and speakers for peace.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations are everywhere. So why the tension in Morgan Hill?

Armando Benavides, a longtime advocate for Latino students in Morgan Hill, thinks part of the tension stems from what he calls a “de facto segregation of the elementary schools”

The way he sees it, because of the No Child Left Behind Act, students in the worst-performing schools had the option to transfer into higher-performing schools.

“Many Caucasian parents moved their kids to better schools,” he say, “but most of the Latino parents either didn’t know about transferring or didn’t have the resources to drive their kids across town.” At high school, all the kids come back together. “That’s what’s been feeding the racial tension,” he says.

Kendall Jones, stepfather of one of the boys who sued the school district, blames Live Oak High administrators. Jones says because the school chose to have a special day for a certain group, “it fomented an us-versus-them mentality.”

A third explanation points to rapid changes in the city’s demographic makeup over the past decade that could be responsible for tensions. The Latino population of Morgan Hill has grown from 27.5 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2010, while the city’s white population has fallen from 61.3 percent to 50.3 percent.

Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center, says, “Morgan Hill is starting to see the same demographic change the state has seen over the last 40 years occurring over the last 10.”

Jones says he’s ready to take his First Amendment case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he said Sunday night he’ll make his own statement to the community on Monday.

“Soon after the rally, I’m going to show up myself and I’m going to stand holding a Mexican flag and an American flag in an effort and a prayer of unity,” Jones said. He added: “This has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with nationality — it’s everything to do with the fact that we live in a wonderful country and we need to respect it and be proud of it.”

Officials at Live Oak High and with the Morgan Hill school district are trying to put out a message of unity and tolerance. The school is encouraging students to wear the school colors, forest green and harvest gold, instead of national flag colors on Cinco de Mayo. And on Sunday, the district put out a very slick video — embedded below — in which a series of students say, essentially, that they’re dealing with the controversy in a responsible way and wish the adults around them would do the same.

  • Jim Charlotte

    If you have to wave a flag to prove your patriotism you’re doing it wrong.

  • Randy L

    See what the racists had to say:

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