Philadelphia students organized a rally and march on Nov. 30, 2021, to protest racially motivated violence on SEPTA after Central High School student Christina Lu was attacked on the Broad Street Line on Nov. 17, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Hundreds of Philadelphians rallied on Tuesday in response to the Nov. 17 attack against four Asian American high school students on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line.
Chanting “stop bullies” and “stop Asian hate,” the energetic crowd marched from City Hall to the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, demanding justice and safety for all Asian Americans in Philadelphia.
The rally was organized in part by the family of Christina Lu, an Asian American Central High School student who was trying to stop a group of other Asian American students from being bullied when she was assaulted by four teenagers.
SEPTA police said the perpetrators can be heard calling the victims racial slurs in a video of the attack. Four teenage girls were charged with ethnic intimidation and aggravated assault.
“Our message is loud and clear,” said Lu. “We must all come together regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic classes, because we all want the same for our community: public safety in the City of Brotherly Love.”
A raft of local leaders also spoke out against the history of violence against the Asian American community, and pointed to parents and students who fear using the public transportation system.
Michael Zhang said his daughter takes the same train as Lu.
“It was the courage of a young girl that refused to remain silent, and stood up against injustice that has brought us here today,” said Zhang.
Zhang noted the record-breaking increase in gun violence in Philadelphia, where more than 500 people have been murdered with a month left in the year.
“There is a dark cloud that hangs over our city right now,” said Zhang, “We demand SEPTA provide safety for all residents, not just students.”
Steven Zhu, co-chairman of the Pennsylvania Chinese Coalition, said he also wants school district leaders to be held accountable for neglecting school bullying and local politicians to hold a public hearing on school safety.
Councilmember Helen Gym, a longtime advocate for school safety, spoke of the larger context of racial bias against Asian Americans locally and across the United States.
“Let’s be honest,” said Gym, “It is what this nation has been doing around anti-Asian violence, rhetoric that has started from the highest levels of elected office, with whole elected parties generating anti-Asian rhetoric. That needs to end now.”
People of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have faced a surge in racist incidents since the start of the pandemic. Nationwide, more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported over the past two years, up more than 75% from before COVID, a figure many experts have said is likely lower than reality.
Many high school students attended the rally, calling for more accountability from school leaders.
Jmila, a junior at Central High School who declined to give her last name, said she was on the SEPTA train during the assault.
“I felt frozen,” said Jmila. “I couldn’t stand up. It was really scary in that moment.”
Jmila said she would like to see more safety on public transportation. “It’s important to have a safe way to get to school and not be worrying about getting hurt like Christina did.”
Alina Tran, a senior at Central High School, said students want more input on the way the school handles incidents of racism.
“Students are fed up and we feel like the administration is not listening to us,” said Tran. “And we just feel like responses to these kinds of things are nonexistent or inadequate.”
Tran added that students want to form a panel so they can have more input on their experiences.
Immediately following the assault on Lu, SEPTA police said it would be installing a police escort service for students at Olney station.
Alix Webb, a lead organizer for Asian Americans United in Philadelphia, said the group wants to see more long-term solutions to the violence, rather than increasing police presence, which she said “perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“We don’t want solutions that are delivered at the expense of others, and that are a tool of white supremacy that perpetuate a cycle of violence and racial injustice,” said Webb.
AAU, which has a student branch, is calling for restorative justice practices in schools across the city, including more mental health resources, counselors, bilingual services, and curriculum changes that will center Asian American ethnic and cultural studies alongside African American and Latinx studies.
“So that students can learn each other’s histories and grow understanding of each other’s culture and differences,” said Webb.
Lu’s family organized a GoFundMe after the attack to help advocate for changes. In ten days, it has raised over $700,000.