|Photo: Stephanie Monte|
By Sikivu Hutchinson
At the corner of Central Avenue and 120th Street in South Central Los Angeles an abandoned Boys and Girls club trailer sits across from a fast food place and a liquor store. The trailer is a few blocks from high achieving King-Drew Magnet of Medicine and Science, a predominantly African American and Latino school and unsung model of culturally competent instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In neighboring Compton, children navigate vacant lots, brown fields and abandoned buildings to get to school. Several miles away at Gardena High School, students are handcuffed for the “crime” of truancy. By contrast, their white South Bay and Westside counterparts a few freeway exits away have an array of extracurricular and recreational resources to choose from, largely free from the yoke of police state suppression.
The recent murder of 18 year-old Carnell Snell by the LAPD in the Westmont community near Washington Prep High School in South L.A. highlights how the constant threat of state violence fatally undermines the learning environments of students of color. Drive down the stretch of Western Avenue near where Snell was gunned down and the most prominent public spaces are fast food joints, storefront churches, 99 cent stores and beauty salons. On the corner of Manchester and Western, Jesse Owens Park is one of the few in an area that has been branded “park poor” (a term that that accurately describes the need but still carries a deficit laden stigma). On a daily basis our youth contend with unsafe conditions that white teens in middle class and affluent areas of the city either don’t have to deal with or have a social safety net to shield them from. From high rates of gun violence to sexual violence, sex trafficking, police abuse and school pushout, youth of color in L.A. must navigate criminalization on multiple fronts.
It’s been well-documented that simply having a massive police presence in the community increases the risk that youth of color will be stopped, harassed, frisked, arrested, or, tragically, murdered by law enforcement. This threat, coupled with the dearth of community centers, afterschool programs and recreational spaces, further institutionalizes violence as a norm in working class neighborhoods of color. The psychic and emotional trauma of living in this state of siege often goes unrecognized and untreated.
With the largest juvenile jail system and probation populations in the U.S., Los Angeles and California are world leaders in incarceration. L.A. has the distinction of being the poorest city in the nation while having one of the country’s most expensive housing markets, just behind New York City and San Francisco. Over the past year, L.A. has also made global headlines as the homeless capital of the nation, with 50% of youth and adult homeless folk being African American. In the midst of these crises, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) community activist organization and member of the nationwide Dignity in Schools Campaign has presented a groundbreaking plan for a Youth Development department that would give youth of color a real shot at educational and employment equity. YJC is calling on Los Angeles City and County government to redirect at least 5% of its police suppression and mass incarceration budgets to youth programming, recreation and job resources. The organization estimates that redirecting suppression funds would allow for the hiring of 1000 peace-builders (offering counseling, mentoring and restorative justice assistance) as well as the creation of 50,000 youth jobs and 100 youth centers. The initiative has been championed by L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
YJC’s proposal is based on tons of data that unfavorably compare Los Angeles’ expenditures on suppression and incarceration with that of youth education and culturally responsive social services. For example, even highly-gentrified, segregated cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco have youth development departments. By contrast, Los Angeles only spends $2 million on youth services, while the Los Angeles Animal Control Service spends $13 million to retrieve stray animals. Making a substantial investment in youth services would appear to be a win-win for a city whose poverty and homeless rates have skyrocketed, but the LAPD recently announced that it is purchasing more paramilitary equipment on the public dime. According to YJC’s report “Building a Positive Future for L.A.’s Youth”, the “proposed Los Angeles city budget for 2016-2017 includes a $180 million increase for the LAPD”. Across the nation, police departments have long exploited the fear of mass shootings, drug busts and terrorist attacks to justify multi-million dollar weapons’ expenditures. In Los Angeles, recent increases in violent crime, thefts and property crime—which some have attributed to an increase in the homeless population and employment disparities—have further stoked public fears about rampant lawlessness. If the LAPD were to be believed, more spending on tanks, rocket grenades, body armor and high tech electric motorcycles is the antidote to crime spikes.
Yet, by failing to invest in youth and youth spaces, City and County government aid and abet crime, systematically looting communities of color which bear the burden of anemic to nonexistent recreational, therapeutic and job resources. YJC’s initiative is timely and radical for a city that has a long, pernicious legacy of being a pioneer in state violence for the poor and corporate welfare for the rich.
For more info, or to join the L.A. 4 Youth Campaign: http://www.laforyouth.org/join-campaign/