How far would you go for respect? How about a 50-mile march starting Sunday morning, December 13, at Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and ending Wednesday night with a candlelight vigil outside the lockup in Norwalk?
How much does respect cost? Just 1%– according to the Youth Justice Coalition. Take 1% of the city and county budget dedicated to law enforcement and that’s $100 million a year that could be redirected to youth centers, jobs (especially for young people coming out of juvenile detention), gang intervention, and youth development programs that would do more to reduce crime than the endless war on gangs–which too often equals a war on kids.
The YJC, one of the most truly grassroots of all grassroots organizations in LA, has a membership and leadership exclusively of young people who’ve been locked up or have been directly affected by the incarceration of a family member. The group has lobbied for change: stop trying kids as adults; end the imposition of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles–a draconian sentence imposed nowhere in the world except for the US and which has now stolen all hope from 250 young people in California.
The YJC succeeded in ending the practice of low-income families being billed for room and board when their children were incarcerated. They won a gang injunction exit process so that people leaving gangs or incorrectly identified could have restrictions lifted. The organization has even hired teachers and created its own charter school for young people ages 16-24 who didn’t — couldn’t — graduate from LA’s public high schools.
“We have a State charter,” says Maritza Galvez as she stands outside the County Hall of Administration in downtown LA on Tuesday morning, at the midpoint of the March for Respect. The school, which is located in the same Inglewood building as the YJC office, offers an accelerated program, she explains, “half traditional subjects and half a social justice curriculum, including vocational ed and social movement history, and community organizing.”
All along the route, YJC members have been conducting surveys and providing information. Now a young woman named Crystal hands out information sheets to passersby, including a thoughtful and thoroughly prepared 6-page document of policy recommendations (also available by requesting it via email at email@example.com). Crystal never finished high school. She says she was expelled after suspensions for truancy: “The Dean said we gave you too many chances.”
“We call that being pushed out,” explains attorney Ruth S. Cusick of the nationwide Dignity in Schools campaign, which seeks to reframe school discipline within a human rights perspective. She has stopped by to give support. “Kids believe they’ve been expelled,” she says. In fact, they’ve merely been suspended but when the principal lets them know they’re no longer welcome in school, they don’t return. It’s a way of getting rid of the unwanted, Cusick says, “Kids give up.”
The YJC wants to end the criminalization of kids for such minor offenses as truancy and curfew violations. The organization wants people to know what happens to kids once they are detained. They can wait days, weeks, or months for placement, all the time locked up in limbo. They can be sent more than 60 miles from home with their families often denied visiting rights. No efforts are made post-release to see they have access to an education.
Instead, kids who’ve been in trouble often find themselves blocked from enrolling in specific schools or even entire school districts. The YJC wants Angelenos to ask themselves what they know about gang and racial violence actually fomented by law enforcement personnel. And what’s likely to happen to kids who find themselves stigmatized as gang members and paying the price just because of the neighborhood they live in, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, and their race.
“We’re here to show we care about our communities,” says Galvez, “and we care about how money is allocated.”
Then it’s time to hoist banners and signs and get ready for the next leg of the march, this time to the Governor’s LA office. Kim McGill, who has spearheaded the movement since its founding in 2002, stops to explain that the YJC needs a better website and hosting that gives them the ability to post their own updates. “Do you know anyone?” she asks. give young people RESPECT,
Galvez asks the question on everyone’s mind: “If we are the future, what is the future going to be if you keep throwing away the key?” Inside the Hall of Administration, the Board of Supervisors is meeting. And, she hopes, listening.
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. It will be published in the spring by Lantern Books.