Luis Rodriguez. Social Justice. Volume 32, Issue 3. 2005.
In the Fall of 2004, major articles on gangs appeared in various Southern California publications-including the Los Angeles Daily News, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Most decried the growing violence, drug sales, and seemingly unworkable responses to gang violence.
Early in 2005, an alleged gang youth, a Marine recently AWOL from Iraq, made the headlines when he killed a police officer and then himself at a convenience store near Modesto. His family denied any gang ties, but most of the media reported this allegation.
In fact, the country’s most notorious “supergangs” originated in California: the Crips, Bloods, Hell’s Angels, Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street, SurTrece, the Aryan Brotherhood, and others. Most would think relatively warm weather as well as breathtaking mountain and shoreline regions could temper any such developments. But something fishy must be going on here-and I don’t mean tuna. Not only does this state lead all other states in the nation in terms of the number of people incarcerated, it also has the worst prisons in a country in which any prison is a living hell.
What gives? Why does California lead the country in the “worst” categories-worst in the arts, worst in education, worst in violence-despite being the sixth-largest economy in the world and home to the wealthiest communities in the history of humanity? There are no simple answers, but I will examine a few issues to help shed light on the “trouble in paradise” this state seems to embody.
A Quick Overview
California is the country’s most populated, most agriculturally rich, and most industrialized state. It has the largest number of foreign immigrants in the United States. Most immigrants are poor Mexicans. But there are also large numbers of refugees-especially during the last two to three decades-from Central America, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, Armenia, Iran, and Russia. Every major poverty center in the world ends up sending tens of thousands to our shore, especially from the Pacific Rim countries.
The economic structure in the state consists of several layers. They range from the poorest in the migrant-magnet of agriculture, with the Central Valley taking in the bulk of them, to professionally trained, computer-literate foreign students and workers, to the extremely wealthy, who are tied to the media, entertainment, energy, and technology industries.
Despite its marvels, and some wonderfully cohesive and livable communities, California is particularly strained along racial and class lines. Although I grew up in Los Angeles, I lived in Chicago for 15 years (1985 to 2000). Even though Chicago is highly segregated and is known for a particularly virulent legacy of entrenched racism, the discord I felt when I returned to California was far more pronounced. In fact, four times after my return, I was told to “go back to where I came from.” Three of these incidents involved whites (including a family I encountered in a Chico, California, grocery store), and one was a black woman in the barrio of Pacoima in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
The animosity between citizens and the undocumented is intense. Groups such as Save our State and the Minutemen have staged anti-immigrant vigils. Governor Schwarzenegger even praised these vigilantes and invited them to patrol the state’s border with Mexico. There are also conflicts between African Americans and Mexicans/Central Americans in the bigger cities, and between middle-class, upwardly mobile whites (and others, including Asians, some Mexicans, and a few blacks) and poorer, increasingly neglected people. This last group continues to be mostly black and brown, although a significant proportion of the poor in this state is white.
California also pioneered anti-bilingualism referendums, although there are up to 250 languages in our schools (not counting the many indigenous tongues from tribes scattered throughout the state). It pioneered “three strikes and you’re out” initiatives, Proposition 13-type tax revolts, and the denial of school and health services (except in emergencies) to undocumented people. Even our “moonbeam” ex-governor, Jerry Brown (now mayor of Oakland), has taken a strident stance against crime (mostly against poor black and brown residents), and “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica” has approved city ordinances against the homeless. Caring and sharing seem in short supply in the Golden State.
A History of Strife
None of this should come as a big surprise. California has one of the most tumultuous histories of the continental 48 states. It had the largest native population in the country before the Spanish, Mexicans, and later the Anglo-Americans came here in droves. Millions of indigenous people were believed to be living in relatively tranquil states before the arrival of the Europeans. The natives here were also some of the most resourceful and peaceful.
However, the building of the Spanish mission system and ranches resulted in the massive slaughter, enslavement, and forced assimilation of native peoples. Then the U.S., bent on “Manifest Destiny,” conquered Mexico and annexed California, Texas, and several other southwestern states. A year later, the discovery of gold brought miners, speculators, builders, and thieves (as well as new bounty laws that paid good prices for the scalps of native men, women, and children). Lynchings and other attacks on Chinese laborers who came to work the mines and railroads were not long in coming. Then various insidious tax laws and other “legalities” stripped former Californios of their land holdings, opening up the West to some of the country’s most rapacious interests over the past 150 years: railroads, mine owners, agribusinesses, banking, aerospace, entertainment (movies, music, and TV), manufacturing, high tech, oil and other energy companies, and service industries.
By the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles became an open shop, nonunion town, propelled by the powerful National Association of Manufacturers (while San Francisco, with its many Eastern-bred residents, became highly organized along the waterfront and other related industries). Poor whites came in droves during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Known as Okies and Arkies, they formed the main characters in many of John Steinbeck’s novels, most notably The Grapes of Wrath. Japanese farmers and workers also came the state; highly skilled and hard working, they suffered through the terrible injustice of concentration camps during World War II that resulted in the wholesale takeover of lands and businesses owned by Japanese Americans.
Mexicans came in large numbers during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1921, when a million people were killed and another million became refugees (at a time when Mexico had only 15 million people). Although California once belonged to Mexico, the number of Mexicans dwindled significantly as internal U.S. migration from the East to California accelerated during the 1849 Gold Rush and beyond.
With the Mexican Revolution, however, the state’s first major barrios were formed, including the largest in the country, East Los Angeles. In the 1920s and 1930s, the sons and daughters of Mexican refugees created street organizations and a hybrid culture of youth known aspachucos that were the precursors to 1950s rebel youth, 1960s outlaw bikers, 1970s punk rockers and Crips and Bloods, and the pervasive cholo gang style that influenced the original Dogtown skaters, SaIvadoran immigrants, and subsequent generations of street people.
Unfortunately, in the 1940s, while the U.S. was involved in World War II, pachucos became the target of racist white soldiers, sailors, and police in various incidents in L.A., culminating in the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943. Many more Mexicans came to the state during the war, when jobs became plentiful, as well as in the 1950s to work in the labor-intensive, low-paid farm labor camps, which resulted in major organizing efforts and strikes led by labor leaders such as César Chávez in the 1960s. They also suffered through a number of repatriations-when tens of thousands of Mexicans were deported, including those born on U.S. soil.
African Americans also came to L.A., San Francisco, and other industrialized centers, mostly from the 1940s through the 1960s. They came to work. South Central Los Angeles, once white and cozy, became a magnet for Southern blacks who labored in the auto, tire, steel, meatpacking, and other industries along the massive Alameda corridor from downtown L. A. to the Harbor (which, next to Chicago, was the most industrialized area in the country).
Restrictive covenants during those years forced blacks and Mexicans into the ghetto-barrios of South Central L. A., East L. A. (with about a dozen federally subsidized housing projects in both areas), and outlying communities like Pacoima in the northeast San Fernando Valley. The massive General Motors (GM) auto plant and other factories in Pacoima created jobs for black and Mexican laborers, leading to the construction of another housing project.
By the 1960s, the ghetto communities along this corridor and similar areas became overly poor, overly policed, and extremely resentful. This tension between a racist and repressive police force (under police chiefs such as Ed Davis) led to the worst civil disturbance in the United States since the Civil War-the 1965 Watts Rebellion -after police tried to arrest a black man. California also gave birth to the Black Panthers in Oakland, the Black Berets (Chicano) in San Jose, and the Brown Berets in Los Angeles. Native American issues took center stage during the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, which ended in 1971 with government removal of the occupiers.
It was in California that the Soledad Brothers, led by George Jackson, came into being. So, too, did the San Quentin Six, Los Siete de la Raza, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Catolicos por Ia Raza. The wayward but important Symbionese Liberation Army (who made headlines for murdering Oakland school superintendent Marcus Fosterand kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst) originated there, as did an anomaly like the Manson Family.
The University of California, Berkeley, became the symbol of the Free Speech Movement; and Isla Vista, with U.C. Santa Barbara nearby, represented the expression of student rage when the Bank of America and other buildings were burned. In East L.A., the 1968 “Blowouts”-the largest walkout of students in U.S. history-brought attention to the deteriorating educational conditions in the urban core communities.
In addition, the August 29, 1970, Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War became the largest anti-war protest by a community of color up to that time. Later, this became the East L. A. “Riot,” when sheriff’s deputies attacked the mostly peaceful crowd, leading to hundreds of arrests, buildings burned, and a number of deaths, including that of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar.
The Roots of Current Gang Warfare
This history is vitally important loan understanding of the root of current gang warfare, particularly in the poorest black and brown communities. In an effort to divert or destroy growing movements for social change, the government infiltrated most civil rights and community activist groups, precipitating their demise or diminishing their influence, including the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the SDS, and others. This was done largely through Cointelpro, a coordinated, clandestine law enforcement effort that penetrated most activist organizations of the 1960s.
In the 1970s, massive cuts in social programs also contributed to the rise of street gangs. Examples are the infamous Nixon cuts in the early 1970s, as well as movements such as California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978, which cut back the property taxes used for many socially funded endeavors. It also involved then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s massive elimination of funds dedicated to poor and struggling communities. Community centers and teen posts in places such as South Central L.A., East L.A., East Oakland, San Francisco’s Mission District and Bayview-Hunters Point-wherever the poor lived and worked-were closed right and left. Youth were left with little or nothing to do. Community leaders who were paid by social program funds found themselves without jobs, and, in some cases, blacklisted.
In addition, there was the matter that most people fail to discuss: the large numbers of Vietnam vets who were returning to the poorest communities. Many were unemployed, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and/or hooked on drugs. Some three million returned from the war during the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the soldiers were poor white, black, or brown. Although most returning vets survived, raised families, found work, and made do, many were left with vestiges of Agent Orange illnesses, addictions, mental ailments, and terrible wounds. Some young gang members viewed them as people to respect and emulate.
My barrio gang traveled with gang leaders to the San Gabriel Mountains to learn how to shoot with the aid of homecoming vets. I recall heists of guns and other weapons from armories and stores. Guns and drugs always played a role in L.A. gang life, but they were mostly at the periphery. In the 1970s, however, I saw guns and drugs become integral, and in some cases, central to street gang activity.
In East L.A., an extraordinary number of prisoners were being released, many of whom were former pachucos targeted by police during the 1940s and 1950s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were reentering our communities, now with sophisticated criminal knowledge and organization. The intricate ties between prison gangs and street gangs were made during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Meanwhile, the vast industrial complexes in and around cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Fresno, and San Francisco were being shuttered.
In L.A., I worked in foundries, factories, refineries, and a steel mill from 1972 to 1979. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, L.A.’s major industries (the GM auto plant in South Gate and Van Nuys, Ford Motors in Pico Rivera, tire companies such as Firestone, Bridgeport, Michelin, and others, American Bridge, Todd Shipyards, American Can, National Can, among others) were being dismantled. This process unfolded before my eyes as job after job left communities in South Central L. A., East L.A., Southeast L.A., and the Harbor. By 1981, the Bethlehem Steel Mill, then the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi, was gone. Whole communities were devastated.
In response, the Bethlehem steelworkers union created the largest food bank in the country, feeding 6,000 to 10,000 families each week. The same process that destroyed major industry in the Midwest-creating the “Rust Belt” around cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and others-was taking place in California. Technology, particularly tied to the microchip, became concentrated in corridors such as Silicon Valley. Butforthe poorest neighborhoods, the new technology could not adequately make up for traditional, vanishing job markets.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan assumed the U.S. presidency, pushing more jobs out, helping the wealthy become more wealthy (remember the debacle of “trickle down economics”), and instituting a devastating War on Drugs that brought more drugs into the United States than ever before. Similarly, during Nixon’s War on Drugs in the early 1970s, drugs such as LSD, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine became popular.
Before Reagan, “crack,” “crystal meth,” and “ecstasy” did not exist. Those drugs soon began to fuel the economies of devastated communities. Reagan’s drugs-for-guns program, which provided arms to the contras in Honduras against Nicaragua, and later for the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, meant a great influx of cocaine-related street drugs that helped local gangs become better organized, better armed, and more deadly.
The greatest rise in gang violence in the history of the country centered in Los Angeles-by now the gang capital of the world -during the 1980s and 1990s. Crips, Bloods, long-entrenched Chicano gangs, and later Salvadoran, Armenian, Cambodian, Russian, and white gangs all vied for control and sales of deadly drugs. According to one statistic, in the two decades between 1980 and 2000, approximately 12,000 young people were killed in the streets of Los Angeles due to gang and drug violence.
At the time of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising-which, with its 54 fatalities and millions of dollars in property destroyed, overshadowed the 1965 Watts Rebellion in intensity-the outrage against poverty and police brutality in the black community quickly spread to the Mexican and Central American community, and even to some Asians and whites. Latinos figured most prominently among the dead and arrested at the end of the uprising. It was the country’s first major multi-ethnic civil disturbance. Principally involved in the burning and looting were gangs, particularly the Crips and Bloods, 18th Street (the city’s largest gang, composed of Chicanos/Central Americans), and others. But the movement went from gangs to regular community folk.
These factors combined to give California more gang and drug-related violence than was the case in any other state in the country, and made it the home to some of the 20th century’s most significant cultural developments. Gangs have undoubtedly grown around the country, as have drug use and sales, particularly since the late 1960s. But California takes the cake. This is due to what I call the “end of the line” syndrome. People from all over the United States, Latin America, and Asia come here. For many, it is the end of the line-there is nowhere else to go. The train tracks and bus lines end here. Most of these people cannot return to their homelands. They make it here or they don’t make it anywhere. This is particularly true for poor whites and African Americans, who came from the South or Midwestern and Eastern cities, and cannot return to the cold, unemployment, and poverty they left behind.
It is also the end of the line in terms of the psyche of the general population. The vast Pacific Ocean forms the western border; you cannot go any further. People become homeless in California; it has more homeless people than any other state. They may appear to be beach homeless or “sunny-day” homeless, but they also suffer, get hungry, and are attacked and despised. It is not good to be homeless in California, no matter how anyone may wish to depict it. Yes, it is colder to be homeless in Chicago or New York City, but these cities have extensive homeless shelters and settlement houses, in contrast to Los Angeles, which has hardly any. In Hollywood, tens of thousands of youth are homeless; streaming in from all over the country, they come seeking careers in the movies or TV, but usually end up selling themselves on the streets or begging to feed themselves or a drug habit.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Presently, California is several billion dollars in debt. More cuts in social services, the arts, and education are being orchestrated by the state to find a way out of the fiscal crisis. The arts, sports, and education are usually the first to get creamed when such constraints on state and municipal finances surface.
The energy companies, including now-discredited Enron, took billions from state coffers during the years of the energy crisis, from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. They even resorted to orchestrating “black outs” and “brown outs” to hold the state hostage, although in effect these funds were only used to fatten the wallets of energy company CEOs, administrators, lobbyists, and corporate friends.
With a bloated prison system, Governor Schwarzenegger is forced to demand massive reforms to keep the revolving-door policies and draconian criminal laws from adding even more prisoners to institutions that are now doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling the number of cells. Strikingly, in the early 1970s, California had 15,000 prisoners in 13 institutions, compared to 165,000 prisoners in close to 35 institutions today. Things must change or we will have most of our poor men, and a significant number of women, behind bars. In contrast, during that period fewer than six state-run colleges were built. I believe we must consider entirely new ways of looking for solutions, since the old ways of doing things have only made things worse.
In early 1994, I taught at my first Mosaic Multicultural Foundation Men’s Conference in L.A.’s Malibu Mountains. Michael Meade, a renowned mythologist and storyteller, had founded Mosaic a few years earlier to involve men who had experienced and/or perpetuated great violence. Most were professionals, therapists, and mentors. Others were gang members, ex-prisoners, domestic abusers, and Vietnam War veterans.
That group expanded over the years to include people whose hips had been removed after being shot by AK-47s. People with 40 years or more behind bars attended. One young man had come home to the dead bodies of his parents, each stabbed 26 times, allegedly by his best friend. Another had been a Chicano gang youth who at age 13 helped his homeboys kidnap and torture 18th Street gang members. (He recalled slicing one dude from his neck to his groin with a machete.) We had youth in wheelchairs, some with hideous knife scars, and others whose bullet wounds to the head were causing blackouts. Taking part in the Mosaic events were members of L.A.’s Crips and Bloods, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street, California Norteno and Sureno gangs, as well as Puerto Rican, African American, and Mexican gangs from Chicago.
My 10-plus years of association with Mosaic healed my own violent impulses and addictions, and allowed me to help in the healing processes of these youth and other men. Many of these experiences, including the work I did in Chicago and Central America, are recounted in my 2001 nonfiction book, Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times. One of our most noteworthy acts of healing took place at the Jordon Downs Housing Projects in Watts. A major gang-ridden community in South Central L.A., it was also home to the longest-lasting gang truce in the 1990s. With members of the community, we walked through the projects to the various spots where young people had been killed and offered prayers, songs, words, and tears for the growing power of truly genuine community-sustained peace.
Peace That Lasts
California has pioneered some of the most innovative and meaningful gang prevention and intervention programs. The most significant is Barrios Unidos, based in Santa Cruz, California. This organization, under the leadership of former gang leader and drug addict, Nane Alejandrez, has been around for close to 30 years. Barrios Unidos began as an outgrowth of the End Barrio Warfare Coalition in the 1970s, which held marches and rallies for peace around the state. It is today its own entity, offering jobs in T-shirt design and production, computer classes, job referrals, and prison and juvenile facilities workshops. The organization has chapters in 25 cities across the country.
In Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Father Greg Boyle has pioneered a job and resource center for gang youth. Called Homeboy Industries, it has received international attention for its bakeries and cafes, tattoo removal and schooling, job referrals and counseling, and Voices of Youth, Voice of Community-a poetry/expression workshop project that collaborates with Seattle’s Mosaic Multicultural Foundation and other organizations.
In the Mexican-Central American community of Pico-Union, west of downtown Los Angeles, Homies Unidos has worked with members of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, among others, for peace and justice. They also have activists in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
In South Central L.A., Crips-Bloods truce leaders Aqeela and Dahoud Sherrills, among other leaders, created the Community Self-Development Institute. It has mentored leaders for peace and community transformation, and collaborated with groups (such as Shade Tree Mentoring) that work with troubled youth in some of the community’s most troubled schools.
In the San Fernando Valley, William “Blinky” Rodriguez and his Community in the Schools organization have helped to lower gang violence and drive-by shootings in the mostly Mexican and Central American northeast side. Even Tia Chucha’s Café and Centra Cultural (an organization I helped to start), with its bookstore, café, art gallery, performance space, cyber café, and arts and media workshop center, has provided young people with viable, meaningful, and comprehensive alternatives to gangs.
This is not to say that politicians and law enforcement have not done their share. The millions of dollars they receive for gang suppression, however, have not achieved the long-term, deeper results that true gang prevention and intervention programs have provided in the most intense gang communities. For the most part, law enforcement responds at the back end of the problem, that is, after crimes have been committed and the damage has been done. We need more at the front end, with schools that are attentive, tolerant, and inclusive; with help for families that need jobs, counseling, and education; with jobs and training for youth that will lead to work they are passionate about; and to spiritually engaging work in churches, sweat lodge circles, Aztec dance, as well as full-blown resources in the arts, music, poetry, theater, and the media.
I have seen the powerful impact of community efforts to fight for youth, especially the youth others prefer to abandon and “throw away.” We need more people who see that every child is valuable and that every child can be saved. That such people are not in abundance is due primarily to a culture that filters out kids, blocking them, putting them down, and not listening to them. It throws them out when they are “troubled,” but aren’t we all supposed to be troubled? Perhaps if we make the concerns of our kids paramount, the interests of the few powerful, embittered adults will not win out, as seems to be happening in most places.
From Chicago to Los Angeles
My book Always Running prompted Michael Meade to invite me to teach and mentor at these conferences and at other ritual-based gatherings. Early on, Meade and the Mosaic organization became guiding hands in the formation of Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS), the Chicago gang and non-gang youth empowerment organization that I helped to create with my son Ramiro’s gang friends from the mostly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. We worked with Patricia Zamora, a pioneer in Chicago peer mediation programs, who at the time counseled youth from the Mexican barrios of Pilsen and Little Village. By August of 1994, some 200 people attended our founding convention on the campus of University of Illinois, Chicago, and at Pilsen’s Casa Aztlán. Among those attending were my son Ramiro, my daughter, Andrea, and their mother, Camila.
YSS would later involve African American and white gang youth from the Uptown neighborhood; Mexika/Indigenous youth from Aurora, Illinois; and FiIipino hip-hop heads and break-dancers. We collaborated with many Chicago community organizations in establishing peace, including Increase the Peace Network, B.U.I.L.D., the YMCA’s Street Intervention Program, the Community Renewal Society, Neighbors Against Gang Violence, Alternatives/Youth Net, ASPIRA, Little Village’s Latino Youth, Youth Options Unlimited, the San Lucas Church/Humboldt Park Teen Reach program, and others.
The Chicago gang youth we worked with ran the gamut from the rival Folk Nation and People Nation organizations, and included members of some of the largest Latino gangs: the Latin Kings, Latin Disciples, Insane Dragons, Spanish Cobras, Imperial Gangsters, Orchestra Albany, La Raza, Ambrose, Ashland Vikings, Two-Six Nation, the Satan Disciples, and smaller groups such as the Gangster Party People and Insane Campbell Boys. We eventually involved heavy gang communities like Aurora, where YSS is now headquartered. Entire families took part in our work: the Blázquez family, the two Hernández families, the Rodriguez family, the Arrellano family, the Vásquez family, the Restrepo family, the Arguello family, among others.
This work has guided my cultural and community work at Tia Chucha’s Café and Centra Cultural in Los Angeles, which I created in the summer of 2000 with my wife Trini and brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez, one year after I moved from Chicago to the northeast San Fernando Valley. Tia Chucha’s uses the media, visual, and expressive arts-dance, story, music, poetry, theater, dialogue, film, the indigenous healing arts, rites of passage, radio, and intellectual development-to address issues that go to the roots of the creation of gangs. People who read, paint, sing, and dance, in combination with a community that supports, sees, and guides them, don’t tend to join gangs. Developing the natural gifts that every child brings to this world prevents them from turning those gifts into destructive forces that divide the community. Simply put, the arts are the best path to peace.
No Time to Lose
In May 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a “Gangbusters” bill that will turn many gang-related violent offenses into federal crimes, impose mandatory sentences of 10 years to life, expand the death penalty, and allow the prosecution of 16 and 17-year-old gang members as adults forfederal crimes. The FBI launched a National Gang Strategy in April, which will target California-based gangs that are now proliferating across the country, in particular the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. In congressional testimony on April 20, 2005, Chris Swecker, the assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, stated: “Gangs from California, especially in the Los Angeles area, have a major influence on Mexican-American and Central American gangs in this country and in Latin America.”
The government is going to war against street gangs, particularly those from California. The problem with this is that you cannot stop gang warfare with more warfare. Instead, community-based groups that have been working with these youth for decades know that we need consistent and ongoing caring, as well as respectful relationships with adults and viable resources. We do not need suppression sprinkled with prevention. We need a comprehensive effort that will involve schools, families, businesses, gang youth, law enforcement, churches, and others.
First Lady Laura Bush recently traveled the country advocating for such programs. She is heading a $150-million initiative, “Helping America’s Youth,” which President Bush announced in his February 6,2005, State of the Union address. The initiative sounds great and in many ways seems to embody much of what I have been discussing. Yet its real purpose is to bring treatment, jobs, the arts, education, and the social recreation that youth need into the domain of private sources, volunteers, churches, corporations, foundations, and the like. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. However, this approach absolves government of its obligation as the main provider of such programs and activities.
Government’s role now seems to focus primarily on military defense abroad and police suppression at home. Meanwhile, the message being sent around the country is “let the most badly needed youth programs and peace efforts make do with the private sector.” We can do better. We are the most resourceful and wealthiest power on earth. Why must we also be the world’s top jailer and its biggest beggar?
California can lead the way to truly healing, redemptive, comprehensive, and community-based efforts to turn street gangs and street violence (including domestic violence) around. It will require great imagination, intense dialogue, effective strategies, and truly liberating and inspiring arts and creative endeavors that will encompass entire communities. It must not be piecemeal, isolated, fractured, or an afterthought.
When it comes to real peace and justice in our streets and in the world, the U.S. has long been poised at a crossroads. Having missed the fork in the road a long time back, it will take an immense overhaul before we can get back on the right track. There is no doubt in my mind that we must do so.