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How the system fails poor and minority communities
"It's a set-up for failure"

December 16, 2005 | Page 8

NO ONE knows how many lives Stan Tookie Williams has saved. With his children's books aimed at explaining the reality of gangs and prisons and his efforts to promote truces between rival gangs, Stan has had an impact on people across the country, and even around the world.

As Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam has put it, Stan has done more from behind bars to provide hope and inspiration to urban youth than most people who are free.

The struggle to save Stan has helped highlight one of the ugliest secrets of American society--the suffering inflicted on the poor and overwhelmingly minority populations in inner cities. The truth is that the system places no value on their lives--and consigns them to a world of violence and repression.

Socialist Worker asked two people who organized for Tookie on opposite ends of the continent to talk about these wider issues.

-- CASSANDRA GONZALEZ is a community organizer in Los Angeles who works with the Youth Justice Coalition and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes.

-- KEVIN TATE is the cofounder of Saving Ourselves (SOS) in Newark, N.J. He helped negotiate a truce--based on Stan's "Protocol for Peace"--between rival gangs in Newark.

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Cassandra
I'M A community organizer who has been organizing around reforming the system for four years now. So I know that the system is a failure.

The system failed me. There was nothing at all that the system did to rehabilitate me and expose me to alternatives to incarceration or gang-banging. All I saw past the age of 16 was a grave. At 15 years old, I gave my mom my funeral arrangements, because I didn't think I was going to make it past that age.

But somebody came to me one day in Central Juvenile Hall and said, "If you're going to beat the system, Cassandra, you can't do it from the inside out. You have to do it from the outside in." It was almost like the sky opened up, and I knew what needed to be done.

The criminal justice system is not rehabilitative; it's punitive. America's solution to crime is incarceration. To me, this is about population control and gentrification. They're making these ridiculous no-tolerance laws that do absolutely nothing to get these young people back on the streets, living productive lives and contributing to society. It's a set-up for failure.

When you get out, there are no jobs, because nobody will hire ex-offenders. The only way I made it was that somebody was helping me with money--for schoolbooks for this year, or for money for gas for this month.

A lot of what people need is resources. They need education inside--and I'm not talking about one plus two equals three. I'm talking real history. We need people to start gaining an understanding of their culture and the significance of their heritage, so they start getting a self-respect deeper than anybody can ever take from them--so they won't ever come out and feel like they have to commit a crime again.

The system is broken. We know it's broken. It's been broken for years. This isn't something that just happened. My uncle had a nervous breakdown in California youth authority because it was so messed up.

It's the system that's criminalizing these people. When I went to jail, I didn't know how to steal a car. And I learned how to steal a car. I've seen young people going in there as young as 12, and being recruited to become prostitutes--and then you see them back on a prostitution charge. I've seen girls go in there not even knowing the difference between Crips and Bloods, and they become gang members.

They're criminalizing our young people, and then they're sending them off into an adult system that's nothing but despair and pain, where they have nothing to live for.

I'm a strong believer that you're a product of your environment. The people who are poor, living in the inner cities and exposed to all of this gang violence--they're living in a war zone. You can't cross the street without worrying about being killed. You grow up in a neighborhood, and you don't want to be in a gang, but if you won't be in that gang, they're going to kill you, so you have to get out of your neighborhood, but you can't get out of your neighborhood because you're poor.

It's a constant battle for survival, and when any human goes into survival mode, they do anything necessary to survive.

A lot of times, young people join gangs because either they have no choice--they're forced into it--or they're bored, and there's nothing else to do. If you want young people to get involved in community programs and see something else other than gang-banging, then stop cutting the community organizations' budgets. Start giving more money. And I'm talking about giving at the grassroots. I'm not talking about the Boys and Girls Clubs, which are well funded.

We have to think with an open mind when we're thinking about a gangster. I'm not saying that they do nice things, but considering all the trauma that they're subject to growing up, all these are contributing factors to people wanting to be from a gang--wanting that comfort, wanting that love, that acceptance, that encouragement.

It doesn't have anything to do with people waking up and saying, "Okay, I want to kill today, or I want to rob somebody, I want to hurt somebody."

And if you want to go a little deeper, the largest number of gangs in the United States are white supremacy gangs. When people say we have a gang proplem in LA, then we have a Nazi/KKK/white supremacy problem across the U.S. And as far as I'm concerned, the biggest gang in California is the LAPD.

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Kevin
WE NEED a lot of psychological help--especially for the juveniles. Some guys were born into a gang, and that's all they know. You have guys who are dealing with parents who get high, or guys who don't have parents. When they go to the street, and you show love and unity, they look at it like, "I'm going to put my life on the line for that, because that's all I have. I never had that at home."

So we need that psychological help. We need more recreation, and we need more jobs for the older guys like myself--so we can take care of our families, and we don't have to go to the streets and look to a fellow gang member as somebody I know I can turn to who I know will make sure my family's alright.

If I have other options and other avenues, I won't have to turn that way. It's about surviving. Gangs are an organization that's doing something. Whether it be right or wrong, they're doing something to unify people, and they have a structure. That's why a lot of guys join. For some guys, it's just for protection in their neighborhoods, so we need more avenues as far as recreation and jobs.

Some of the education here is fine, but we need more compassion. We need to say, "Here's a kid, let's find out what his problem really is. He's not just acting out. Let's find out why he's acting that way. What's going on at home?" There are a lot of guys who have nobody to turn to and talk to but these other young guys who they're running with, who have the same issues they have.

A lot of people who are book-smart and aren't really from the streets--they're looking at things from a different perspective. They do a lot of talking, and they don't do enough listening. How are you going to know what my problem is if you don't listen to me and let me tell you what it is? Because a lot of these young cats will tell you what they're dealing with. But if you're not going to be sincere about helping them, why should they even talk to you. All you know is how to lock me up.

If I've done wrong, okay, I suffer the consequences. But by the same token, help me rehabilitate myself--it that's what you really want to do.

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