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Photo by James BunoanLuis Sarmiento was snoozing during his midday religion class at Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School on April 1 when classmates suddenly erupted in whoops.
A dean at the parochial school had announced over the public-address system that there would be no classes the following day. Based on information relayed by the Santa Ana Police Department, more than 5,000 "violent anarchists" were expected to stage an anti-war protest outside the campus on April 2—a demonstration that might endanger students, according to the administrator.
"We know today is April Fool's Day," the dean's voice crackled through the speakers. "But this is not a joke. This is a serious announcement."
The message woke Sarmiento from his stupor. The 17-year-old was one of the organizers of the planned rally at the corner the busy Bristol Street and Edinger Avenue intersection, but the apocalyptic forecast was news to him.
"I was expecting maybe 30 people, but 5,000?" Sarmiento later recalled with bemusement. "Where did they get that number? We could only wish! And anarchists?! I couldn't stop laughing."
The junior serves on the Santa Ana Youth Commission and comes from a clan in which social activism beats fútbol as the preferred family pastime. His mother works for the Mexican consulate, his father is a judge, and big sis Carolina runs the downtown Santa Ana community space Centro Cultural de México. Luis remembers as a kid accompanying his elders to protests in solidarity with Justice for Janitors, against Proposition 187 and, most recently, opposing the Iraq war.
But the senior Sarmientos, while supportive, had nothing to do with the Mater Dei rally. Luis and other Mater Dei students (who requested anonymity, fearing administrative retaliation) organized the protest as a reaction to what they say is a lack of school dialogue regarding the war.
"We have a daily prayer session, and it invariably gravitates toward 'supporting the troops' and hoping for a quick finish to the war," Sarmiento explained. "That's fine in and of itself. But such an approach promotes peace like President [George] Bush promotes peace. Mater Dei prays for peace through war."
In addition to such backhanded support for the war, Sarmiento claims the Mater Dei administration actively suppresses opposing views.
"One time a dean came up to me and my friends after we passed out fliers against the war and said we couldn't do that because someone could get offended," Sarmiento claimed. "And another time we passed out black arm bands to teachers, but most of them told us that they'd get in trouble if they wore it."
His characterization of Mater Dei's stance is surprising given the Catholic Church's high-profile anti-war position. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops late last year wrote a letter to Bush questioning "the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq." Locally, Bishop Jaime Soto—who sits on Mater Dei's advisory board—has used his sermons to underscore the dangers of American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. More significantly, Pope John Paul II warned on March 18 that "whoever decides that all peaceful means available under international law are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his own conscience and history."
So when Sarmiento and his friends decided to protest outside Mater Dei, a main goal was to provide students what the school had denied them: the teachings of their own religion.
"This wasn't about Mater Dei's pro-war view," Sarmiento stressed. "Even if the administration is pro-war, at least they should allow people to hear an opposing view. But their attitude toward critical thought was exposed by their cancellation of classes."
Asked to comment, Mater Dei President Patrick Murphy flatly denied all of Sarmiento's assertions, explaining that Mater Dei's position mirrors that of the Diocese of Orange. "There has been no directive from the school toward the teachers and students regarding their views," he said.
Murphy also contends that Sarmiento is perhaps tooting his horn too much. "I believe that he is overstating their involvement in the organization of the rally," Murphy said. "The Santa Ana PD told us that it was planned by groups that have organized rallies across the county. This particular student happened to be involved in one of the groups."
Sarmiento smiles at Murphy's allegation. "He'd like to think that," he said.
As administrators promised, there were no classes on April 2. The protest, however, fell short of the 5,000 people Mater Dei officials feared; maybe 80 enthusiastic activists showed. A phalanx of Santa Ana police officers observed on foot, motorcycle, even horseback. More intrusive were Mater Dei's security staff, some stationed along the school's roof, videotaping everyone involved.
"They videotaped my friend taking his seven-year-old nephew to his uncle," Sarmiento said, expressing a rare moment of annoyance. "Now, what threat could a seven-year-old possibly pose?"
Because of such overreaction, Mater Dei officials may have unwittingly invigorated the schools's nascent anti-war movement. Sarmiento says many rally-goers were students who weren't even aware of the protest until the cancellation announcement. Now there's talk of more outreach and more actions, as well as vows of protesting in front of Mater Dei every Wednesday until the war's conclusion.
"We didn't mean to close down the school," Sarmiento swears. "We just wanted to give students a different perspective. Well, now they're going to get a lot of it."