Huddled in near-freezing temperatures, nearly 100 people rallied late yesterday afternoon outside of South Philadelphia High School to mark the one-year anniversary of the attacks on Asian students.
But while bodies shivered, the feeling that radiated from the multiracial crowd of students, alumni and other supporters was that of warmth.
Wei Chen, a student leader who became the face and voice of his peers in the aftermath of the attacks, which gained national media attention, tore his coat off, revealing a black T-shirt with an image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his hero, on the front.
"We are youth," he chanted, raising a fist in the air. "We are leaders. We are organizers.
"We have power to make change," he shouted, his voice rising louder and louder, as he and others raised their arms, revealing a sea of powder-blue bracelets on their wrists, symbolizing a sea of peace and unity.
Chen, 19, a native of Changle, in Fujian Province, southeastern China, graduated from Southern, as the school is called, in June.
On Dec. 3 last year, about 30 Asian students at South Philadelphia High were attacked by groups of mostly African-American students inside and outside the school, at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue. The attacks sent 13 students to the hospital and led to an eight-day boycott by about 50 students, according to Xu Lin, now a youth organizer with the group Asian Americans United.
The attacks spurred students to speak out to demand change, and triggered a U.S. Justice Department investigation and public hearings by the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission.
The school district also launched its own probe and beefed up security in and outside the school. It released a statement yesterday saying it hoped "the lessons learned and the tremendous steps" taken by students, teachers, and school administration are remembered.
Students yesterday praised South Philly's new principal, Otis Hackney, who said he was "honored and humbled to be invited" to yesterday's rally.
After the attacks last year, students and community advocates criticized Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and then-principal LaGreta Brown, who resigned in May after news broke that she had an inactive principal certification. Critics contended that school administrators and some staff created an atmosphere that tolerated violence against immigrants.
Chao Fei Zheng, a 10th-grader, recalled being attacked last year. He told the shivering crowd that while there are many positive changes at the school, "there is still tension between students" and dialogue needs to be strengthened among student groups.
Of the positive changes, he said, "we can walk in the hallway without being attacked" and there are more police officers inside and outside school.
Norman Scott, 17, a senior at South Philly who is African-American and a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, one of the groups that helped foster dialogue among students over the past year, urged classmates to attend a meeting on Tuesday where they can "talk about anything you want to change."
Duong-Nghe Ly, 18, also a senior, whose family came from Vietnam in March 2008 and is ethnically Chinese, told the crowd "we'll remember Dec. 3rd because we refuse to be viewed as invisible and helpless."
Ly said a new group, Asian Student Association of Philadelphia, was formed in September with students from other schools. Violence against Asian immigrant students occurs at other schools, too, and the group, he said, will "strengthen Asian students across the city" to fight for safer schools.
Ly's brother, Duong-Thang Ly, 21, who graduated from the high school in June, said after the rally that he used to be silent about the attacks against him - once in a school bathroom, another time in a hallway - before Dec. 3, 2009. He didn't know to whom to report the attacks or how to organize, he said.