Skip to main content

‘We Just Want Equality’: Inside a High School’s Anti-Trump Rally

As protests erupt around California, a group of teenagers stand up for equality.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Students protesting Donald Trump in Santa Barbara, California, on November 9th, 2016.

Students protesting Donald Trump in Santa Barbara, California, on November 9th, 2016.

The chants echoed out across the street as the teenagers marched calmly and steadily toward the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. “Love trumps hate,” they shouted. The students, 200 or so of them, gathered from different public schools around the city—a city that identifies as 75 percent white and 38 percent Hispanic or Latino, and hosts the sole daily newspaper in California to have endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Though that endorsement was mocked by many at the time, it has proven, of course, shockingly prescient, as Trump was declared the 45th president of the United States last night.

Since then, protests have broken out around the state. In Berkeley, about 1,500 students walked out of class after the first period began; 2,000 marched together at the University of California–Los Angeles; another 500 stood together in San Diego. This is a notoriously welcoming state; the country has just elected a notoriously unwelcoming man to its highest office.

This protest in downtown Santa Barbara is confined mostly to high school students, few of whom could vote. This was not, in some sense, their election. But it will impact their lives, whether it is through economics, immigration, the environment, or any number of ways. Many of them feel angry, if not helpless.

The march funneled into the County Courthouse, a Spanish Colonial Revival building so grand architect Charles Willard Moore once deemed it the “grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built.” Passersby looked surprised to see a protest taking place; this is normally a site of lavish weddings and community movie nights, not political demonstration.

The weather is hot here, almost apocalyptic, and the teenagers are fidgeting and sweating. The crowd gathers at the foot of a stairwell in the Courthouse lawn; a smaller group—the organizers—take turns addressing their peers. An initial “Fuck Donald Trump” chant (the chaperoning teachers can’t quite clamp down on their grins at that one) quiets down. A young woman picks up the megaphone.

“My name is Arial/Angelic Pagano. I am a trans student at Santa Barbara High School,” she says, her voice cracking and full of passion, “and I am affected because I will not go back to conversion therapy. … I don’t care if they’ll drag me by my feet.” The throng of students erupts in applause. A nearby teacher wipes away something under his sunglasses.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I ask this teacher, who preferred not to be named.

“No,” he tells me flatly. This uninspiring back-and-forth carries on for several minutes, but, eventually, his aloof nature cracks: “These guys are all going to vote in four years. I think they’ll vote with an informed position, and they won’t just be…”

His voice trails off here. He swallows hard, but never finishes the sentence.

This will no doubt be a difficult time for both students and teachers. The classrooms have been muted, the hallways tense. “I have students who are directly affected by this,” says James Claffey, a “50-ish-year-old” English teacher at Santa Barbara High School. “They’re scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen to their family.”

“Does this change your role as an educator?” I ask him. It’s a loaded question, yes, but how do you teach a student body with a large Hispanic population when the president once called those very people “rapists” and “criminals”?

“I think my role is to teach them to think critically about what’s happening in the world around them,” James answers. “Their voices deserve to be heard. They shouldn’t be silenced. At the same time they need to be respectful of supporters of both sides, and to be tolerant human beings and be kind to each other.”

As James speaks, someone has singled out a boy wearing a Trump T-shirt. The boy is blond; he looks tailor-made for a beach volleyball match. There are shouts; the teachers’ jaws clench a bit.

“Peaceful, guys,” warns another teacher.

In an annual report, the Pew Research Center describes a “vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.” Love may trump hate, but polarization—and the populist anger that stems from it—knows no side.

About 15 minutes later, most of the marchers have returned to their respective schools. (The Trump supporter appears to have escaped unscathed.) The organizing group has hung around for a bit, though.


If only Millennials—that is, 18-to-29-year-olds—voted, Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide. The map to the left, courtesy of Mother Jones, using data from YouGov, shows as much. Further, while 42 percent of young Americans support capitalism, 33 percent say they support socialism, according to a recent Harvard University poll, which also recorded 61 percent of young voters as being in favor of Clinton, versus 25 percent for Trump. And the younger generations, those who cannot yet vote, appear to be getting only more liberal.

But that shift is slow, and the younger generations did not win yesterday. As a result, we have what’s happening at this courthouse. The students turned to this grassroots movement.

Like any good modern grassroots movement, this one was driven through text message exchanges. As news of Clinton’s defeat spread last night, members of Ethnic Studies in Our School, a student coalition that campaigns for the inclusion of ethnic studies as a graduation requirement, started to organize.

“Much of the population of the high school is going to be directly affected by the prevalent racism that [Trump] puts into his campaign,” says Casmali Lopez, a clear-eyed 15-year-old who studies economic theory in his spare time.

As the last of the student protestors amble away, I find Arial/Angelic, the 17-year-old trans woman who had spoken to the crowd earlier. I ask her, as I ask everyone today, what she thinks she and her peers can accomplish.

“We wanted people to come out as a coalition and say Trump does not represent the minority,” she says. “We don’t want different people of different backgrounds to be harmed or excluded. We just want equality.”

Later in the day, as I sit here writing this, a reporter for the Guardian, quoting Trans Life Line, has just tweeted that at least eight trans youth have taken their own lives in the wake of Trump’s victory.