SHOREWOOD, Wisc. – About 250 students, community leaders and supporters gathered around the knapsack-strewn lawn at Shorewood High School on May 24 to protest the presentation of an “excellence award” to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a graduate of the school.
Had they been alone, the hundred or so students might have been seen as just the normal confluence of youth that appears here at the end of each school day.
But they were not alone. Here and there, the lights of police and sheriffs’ vehicles flashed, and other students held protest signs. Many wore T-shirts bearing slogans. Along with them were adults. Among them were John Goldstein, president of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Jennifer Olenchek, head of the Milwaukee chapter of the National Organization for Women, Henry Hamilton III from the NAACP and attorney Art Heitzer, who brought a small army of fellow attorneys from the National Lawyers’ Guild. “It’s my duty to be here,” said Green Party congressional candidate Brian Verdin.
The occasion was the arrival of Rehnquist, whom the protesters call Shorewood’s “most notorious student,” to receive the award. Word spread that he had scurried into a nearly empty auditorium through a side entrance. High school administrators had planned for Rehnquist to speak to a student assembly, but that was canceled. Although the school went ahead with presentation of the “excellence award,” the protesting students said they do not believe in his excellence. “He achieved something, but he didn’t do anything ‘excellent,’” said Drew Ruble, one of the students who organized the protest.
At the protest rally, Hamilton took the lead in denouncing Rehnquist’s record, calling the Chief Justice’s values “very strange.” He pointed out that Rehnquist owned multiple properties with restrictive deeds forbidding their sale to Jews and minorities, and “lied about it under oath and said he didn’t know.” Rehnquist also wrote a memo advocating that segregation be found constitutional, which he later denied writing, Hamilton said. “There’s evidence that Rehnquist perjured himself before the U.S. Congress, and don’t forget that he sat over the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Hypocrite!” The crowd erupted in chants of “Hypocrite!”
Though the high school decided not to have Rehnquist address the students, the students learned much about him and his record through meetings and leaflets since plans for his visit were first announced last summer.
They learned that Rehnquist opposes abortion rights and favors the death penalty, and that he was one of the five justices who called a halt to the 2000 election, putting Bush into the presidency. A popular chant among the Shorewood students was, “Count the votes! All the votes!”
Before the protest, Shorewood students spoke out at school board meetings to oppose the Rehnquist award, and had fliers ripped from their hands and were threatened by high school officials. At the demonstration, one of the student leaders, Zoë Cohen, expressed elation at receiving so much public support.
“We couldn’t get any announcement over the intercom, or pass any leaflets in class,” Cohen said. “This is so amazing, this is so awesome.”
Activists noted that the students had learned some valuable lessons about struggle, how power responds when threatened, and how working collectively, they have power.
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