California's Prop 21:
A Violent Crime Against Youth

by Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #1041, February 6, 2000

California's Proposition 21, the so-called "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention" initiative is a new and vicious attack on the people. On March 7, this 48-page list of new laws aimed at locking up and attacking our youth will go to California voters.

The Initiative, if passed, will further criminalizes a whole generation of youth. It will throw kids as young as 14 years old into the adult "justice" system and adult jails. It will expand the already police-state powers of cops to brand youth, especially youth from oppressed nationalities, as "criminal gang members."

The "juvenile justice" system in California is already a gross injustice. Youth camps, crammed to 150% of their capacity, provide little in education, and dehumanize and brutalize people.

A December 1999 L.A. Times article reported how inmates in youth camps are punished--forced to kneel on hardwood floors for hours, sometimes in their own excrement. Suicidal inmates in Youth Authority are locked down in cells 23 hours a day. At a youth prison in Stockton, kids have been locked in solitary for months at a time. A 130 pound, 20-year-old inmate at the youth prison in Chino, called "The Rock," was pepper-sprayed and shot at close range with rubber bullets. The youth was then forcibly injected with drugs because he covered the window of his cell.

The youth sentenced to do time are already being brutally treated. But the authors of Proposition 21 think all this too lenient, and they want to crack down even more. In their official introduction to the law they say, "The rehabilitative/treatment juvenile court philosophy was adopted at a time when most juvenile crime consisted of petty offenses. The juvenile justice system is not well-equipped to adequately protect the public from violent and repeat serious juvenile offenders."

What exactly would it mean if this proposition is made law? Proposition 21 would:

  • Transfer the authority to decide to try youth as adults away from judges to prosecutors--in cases of youth as young as 16, accused of dozens of different offenses, and for youth as young as 14, for a smaller list of offenses.
  • Greatly restrict the current practice of sealing juvenile offense records for youth 12 or older, and expand conditions where police and courts release the name of juvenile suspects. (In Denver, Colorado, 8 of every 10 youth of color were in the gang database in 1992. Employers could call the police before hiring a youth to see if they were on the list.)
  • Require that youth "admit guilt" before they can be allowed into drug rehab programs.
  • Require that "gang members" convicted of crimes have up to three additional years added to their jail sentences--and register with the police for five years, and provide them with fingerprints, and their new address whenever they move.
  • Change graffiti laws so that the amount of "damage" done by a graffiti writer that is considered a felony would be reduced from the current value of $50,000 to $400--making almost any youth who tags a wall into a felon.
  • Extend the government's authority to wiretap youth, including where someone is suspected of possession of a controlled substance.
  • Targeting the Youth

    Prop 21 would add years of jail time to the sentences of youth whose criminal offenses involve what the system has determined is "gang activity." And Prop 21 would make it a crime to even know that someone in a gang you belong to has committed a crime.

    Meanwhile the police are building massive "gang databases"--which indiscriminately label all kinds of youth as "gang members." For example, the rules used by the Oakland PD to add a youth to the statewide gang database (named CalGang) include criteria like: "When the individual resides in or frequents a particular gang's area, affects their style of dress, use of hand signs, symbols, or tattoos, or maintains ongoing relationships with known gang members and where the law enforcement officer documents reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in gang related criminal activity or enterprise."

    Prop 21 attacks the youth with a broad brush, and has aroused widespread anger, including among many middle class white kids in the suburbs who see it as a fascistic-type attack that criminalizes kids for all kinds of normal hanging-out activity, dressing in popular styles of clothing, carrying beepers and so on. And Prop 21 will have a much more brutal impact on youth of color.

    The two-part article, "Jailing of a Generation" by Michael Slate, painted an overall picture of how fiercely the national wave of criminalizing youth has devastated communities of oppressed nationalities. For example, he points out that in 1991 in Los Angeles, one-third of all young Black men spent some time in jail. The incarceration rate for Black women increased an incredible 828% between 1986 and 1991. (See RW #1039 and #1040)

    The magazine Color Lines, in a special issue on "The Wars At Home," reported that 63% of all youth in detention facilities in the U.S. are youth of color. In California, 86% of the youth remanded to the California Youth Authority are youth from oppressed nationalities.

    John Crew of the California ACLU put it, "The `gang label' has everything to do with race."

    What Are We Up Against?

    Prop 21 was authored by the reactionary ex-governor Republican Pete Wilson. But this proposition is not just a product of Wilson, the Republicans, or "right wing" forces. These new attacks on the people are widely supported in the ruling class, including Democrats. In fact, a slightly watered- down version of Prop 21 was passed last year by the Democrat-controlled California legislature, and signed by Wilson's Democratic Party successor, Gray Davis. That law, SB 334, already lowered the age for which many youth can be prosecuted as adults to 16 for many new offenses.

    In his recent State of the Union message, President Clinton reiterated his plan to put 100,000 more police in the streets--in addition to 50,000 more cops concentrated in "high crime areas." And Clinton's "anti-gang strategy" includes prosecuting juveniles as adults for drug and violent crimes, expanding computerized gang databases, and building additional jails for children convicted of "violent crimes."

    Activists and others who oppose Prop 21 and the government's "war on youth," have exposed that nationwide, and in California, crime statistics are dropping--not "out of control" as backers of Proposition 21 claim. Nationally, the homicide arrest rates in the U.S. dropped by 40% between 1993 and 1997. And the rate of juvenile felony arrests in California fell by almost 33% from 1991 to 1998, while arrests for homicide in California fell by 50% during this same period.

    The "war on gangs," "war on crime," and "war on drugs," are not about stopping crime. The job of police really isn't to stop crime in the first place. Their job is to preserve order, which means the property relations in society. The cops `serve and protect' the rich and the super-rich against any threat to their property, whether it be criminal or people resisting their oppression. In regard to crime, the police keep some crimes away from the better-off areas, and use other crimes as a way of controlling the poorer, more proletarian areas.

    As Michael Slate summed up the situation in Jailing of a Generation, Part 2:

    "It is the capitalist system, with white supremacy built into its very core, that has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Black, Latino and other youth from oppressed nationalities. On the one hand, people are forced into ghettos and barrios where there is high unemployment, inadequate education, and all-round lack of opportunity. It is a situation of grinding poverty, hopelessness, and of a desperate struggle for survival--conditions that push many into crime. On the other hand, the same system that denies opportunity also practices unequal enforcement of laws and racial profiling and unleashes police terror that systematically targets those youth whom this system has no future for. And intensifying national oppression has meant higher unemployment, deeper poverty, and more cutbacks in social services. So there is a deadly combination here of the `normal workings' of capitalist money-making and deliberate moves to apply and enforce discrimination and segregation that victimizes Black, Latino and other oppressed nationalities."

    At a time of economic expansion in much of the U.S., when capitalists like Bill Gates are making billions in a year, those on the bottom are kept in place by the armed enforcers of the state. Prop 21 is another link in the chain locking down and beating down our youth--keeping them in line, and threatening them if they dare to rebel.

    The Ugly History of California Initiatives

    The California "Initiative" process has played a special, ugly role in implementing a whole range of repressive attacks. (see sidebar, "California's Bad Props"). And these Initiatives have promoted the illusion that voting is the way the people can change the system--or at least affect the way the system treats the people.

    But the reality is voting is not what decides the system's agenda for people. As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian says in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?:

    "To state it in a single sentence, elections: are controlled by the bourgeoisie; are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case; and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a `popular mandate,' and of channeling, confining, and controlling the political activity of the masses of people."

    The vote on Proposition 21 is taking place in the primary election, when there is a smaller voter turn-out. In California, over 80% of the people who can and do vote are white, most of them property owners--even though white people are now a minority in California. And opponents of Prop 21 have exposed that big corporate criminals have funded this attack--major corporations and associations of police and prosecutors spent over a million dollars to get Prop 21 on the ballot.

    Even more fundamentally, the terms for this election have been fixed by the everyday functioning of the system and its mass media. They have been promoting a message for years that the biggest threat to the security of the middle class is the "criminal youth," to the point that not just racists and reactionaries but even many sections of the oppressed have been convinced that there needs to be more jails, more police, longer sentences, and so on.

    And if the rulers don't like some of the results of the initiative process, they can deal with that too. Check out what happened to the initiative on the ballot in 1998 that was supposed to legalize medical use of marijuana in California. No sooner was it passed than state and federal law enforcement agencies raided and shut down what had been openly functioning cannabis buyers clubs in San Francisco and San Jose. Similarly, an initiative many years ago that would have lowered car insurance rates was halted within minutes of its passage by a California Supreme Court ruling.

    It Is Up to the People

    A new generation of activists in California has grown up fighting a string of reactionary California Initiatives. It's time to sum up that the Initiative process is a fixed game. They got the rules, the referees, the home court and the ball. This process, and trying to get folks to participate in it, is not how we're gonna knock back this shit.

    But there IS a court where we can play our game--and that is organizing the people to struggle in all kinds of ways, including mass demonstrations in the street against Prop 21 and the whole war on youth. We need to take this struggle out of the ballot box and into the streets. In many schools, youth organizations are already exposing Prop 21 and many of them don't want to restrict their activities to just telling people to vote against it. Some youth organizations want to do a week of mass protest at the end of February, and some students are talking about organizing walkouts.

    In the Bay Area, youth led by the 3rd Eye organization have confronted corporate backers of Prop 21, even getting PG&E to promise to stop funding Prop 21 and to give 3rd Eye some money to expose it. Hundreds of high school students and others marched in an anti-Prop 21 contingent at the Martin Luther King Day celebration in San Francisco.

    In 1994, mass protests against the anti-immigrant Prop 187 were a big part of why the courts threw out sections of that law. And last year we saw another crack in the system when the University of California at Berkeley had to fund and revive the Ethnic Studies department after months of struggle by students and their supporters.

    Now it is up to the people to defeat Prop 21 and all the vicious attempts by the system to intensify its criminalization of a generation.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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