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Q and A: Lauren Smith, student activist

Posted on November 26, 2016 by Sonoma Valley Sun

On November 10, about 500 Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS) students walked out of sixth period and marched up Broadway to the Plaza, chanting and carrying flags and banners to show support for people of all ethnicities, genders, and orientations in the wake of the presidential election. The Sun’s Sarah Ford recently sat down with student Lauren Smith, the main organizer of the demonstration.

img_1393heard the march was organized in less than 24 hours. Can you tell me how it got started?

The night before the march, I went to a candlelight demonstration at the Plaza with friends. When we walked up some classmates who were there said, “Hey we’re thinking of organizing a walk-out for tomorrow.” That was basically how it started. We sang some songs with the vigil and I kept thinking about the walk-out because it was something I was really interested in. I approached the other students and said, “Hey, let’s do the walk-out. As soon as the second bell rings for sixth period tomorrow, everybody will walk out. Meet in the center of the school, and walk to the Plaza.” They all agreed, and we sat down in the grass and drafted a paragraph about what we wanted this to be. We stressed that it was a demonstration of love, not a protest of hate. Then I made a group chat and we posted it on our social medias, but kept it as private and small as possible. But it spread so incredibly quickly that we didn’t know what to do. I woke up the next morning nervous because it had reached people who were not the demographic that we were trying to reach.

Which demographic was that?

People who might look at it as a protest against Trump, which really wasn’t what we were doing, or people who might want to turn it into something violent, or people who would just use it to skip class. Then in second period I got a text from somebody saying, hey, the administration knows.

Didn’t you think with the way it went viral that they would find out?

Oh yeah, definitely, and I’m actually glad they did. They helped so much. But I didn’t realize how big it had gotten, so I didn’t expect that. I was picturing 50 of my friends in the center of the school, and it turned out to be 500 people. In my next class, a campus supervisor walked in to collect me. Everybody was quiet, everybody knew what was happening. The campus cop was there too, so I collected my things and left class.

Were you nervous?

I was so scared. I had no clue what was going to happen. Soon I was in an empty classroom with a Vice Principal and the campus cop, and they basically said, hey, we know this is going down, we are not going to try and stop you. We want to try to make this as safe as possible. It was the biggest sigh of relief for me, because I knew if they had tried to stop it, the student body would not take it well. So I talked to them about safety precautions, warnings to say to the crowd, and we exchanged phone numbers. I went back to class and my teacher gave me his American flag to take in the protest that he has had his whole life, so that was really special to me.

I heard you had a last-minute change of plans. What happened?

An hour before the march happened, the administration told us, “Everyone knows it’s happening, even people who may try and stop you.” People had showed up with water balloons and Trump stickers and posters. So the administration suggested we change the location. I sent out a mass text and social media push and said our location had changed from the center to the front of the school. Then I was worried that people weren’t going to show up. As soon as lunch ended I marched out front and stood on top of the concrete ledge and watched. Hundreds of students poured out.

img_1380Were you amazed?

I was shaking. People had made posters and nothing was negative. Everybody was standing around, so I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Can I have everybody’s attention!” And I said something like, “This is not a protest of hate, this is a demonstration of love. If you have negative intentions, please go back to class.” And I said we were going to march to the Plaza, to please stay off the street, and stay on the sidewalk. A key participant, Ernest Moore, said, “If you cause trouble we’ll call the Sheriff’s Department.” We were adamant about that from the beginning. Ten minutes after the bell rang, we marched to the Plaza. I was in front with the American flag, and there were so many people that periodically we had to stop and regroup. The only negative incident involved a woman filming our protest; she started chanting “Trump” and yelling at us, and so some of the students yelled back at her. In a group of 500 high school students, that was the worst thing that happened and that’s kind of amazing, especially because there was no adult supervision. We ended up circling the Plaza chanting. Before we even got to the front of the Plaza my voice was gone. Everybody gathered there and people would drive by and honk in support. Then somebody came up and said, “Let’s go to the amphitheater and hold a rally.” That was not planned at all, because I didn’t think 500 students were going to skip class and show up, so we spread the word and people sprinted. Before I got on stage a friend pulled me aside and said, “You can do this.” It was so nerve-wracking and my voice was gone.

How was it decided who would be on stage?

People who wanted to be on stage were on stage. It was a lot of my friends, which was really good, to have that support with me.

Tell me about the two Latino boys on stage with a Mexican flag who said, “We are not rapists and murderers.”

I was so glad they brought that, because I didn’t think to include it. I’m so involved with the LGBTQ community, and had the pride flags, but hadn’t really focused on some of the other minorities being affected by the election. I went up and thanked them. They asked me if they could speak and I said, “Yes, please!” Anybody who wanted to say something at the rally just asked me and I said yes, please speak your mind. So many people were able to speak and that was one of the best parts, especially because it was so improvised. I had no clue what I was saying; I barely remember it because it was such a whirlwind.

How did you come up with the chants?

It was spontaneous. There were people marching in the front with me, and we decided to chant to unify the group. “Love trumps hate” came from that. And some cheers started in the back and came to the front. Ernest came up with “This is what democracy looks like.” Guys were chanting “Her body her choice” and girls were chanting “My body my choice.” I think that was one of the most powerful moments, I was crying.

Could they make whatever signs they wanted?

Yeah. We said in the original paragraph, if you make signs make them about love and no negativity. I didn’t have to confiscate any signs. People’s signs were powerful because it was so personal to them, and I thought that was one of the best parts. It was a great day so everything was a best part.

What effect do you think the march had on the morale of students who were feeling upset or unsafe after the election?

It was a huge mental support, but also a visual support. People were able to look around or look at the pictures and see, hey, look how many people at the school are going to support me no matter my race, sexuality, religion, gender.The day of the rally, before it happened, the administration went on the intercom and gave a little speech and said “You are all Dragons, not your ethnicity” and things like that. While I was preparing for the demonstration, to hear this spoken to every single student was really powerful.

What was the gist of the speech?

You are protected and loved at Sonoma Valley High School.

Photos of Lauren Smith by Aliya Blinman, SVHS senior

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