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From the August 2005 Issue
When First Lady Laura Bush visited Homeboy Industries in the Los Angeles barrio of Boyle Heights on April 27, eyebrows went up among some people who have worked with hardened gang youth: What was a Republican, former librarian, and President Bush’s much better half doing among tattooed, brown-skinned men who had been shot, had done some shootings, and were often portrayed in the media as “the worst of the worst”?
Laura Bush was ostensibly on a mission, fueled by $150 million, called “Helping America’s Youth,” which President Bush had announced in his February 6 State of the Union address.
Mrs. Bush listened as Homeboy Industries founder Father Gregory Boyle showed her around while former gang members greeted her. She had one question for thirty-one-year-old Alex Zamudio, a baker in Homeboy’s Bakery, who lost an eye at age thirteen after being shot: “When you were a child and you went and chose the path to go to a gang, do you think there was anything you could have done at that point in your life that would have directed you another way?”
“Everywhere we grew up was gang infested,” Alex answered. “You grow up into that—either family members or people you go to school with. Everybody you are involved with is in gangs, so you end up being a gang member.”
I know Alex. He’s a formidable, large-framed man with close-cropped hair. He has seen the barrio gang life from the inside out. For him, joining a gang wasn’t a choice. He lived in neighborhoods where gangs have been around for several generations—grandfather to father to son—where gangs proved to be the best organized means to get attention, respect, and even money.
In late May, Alex played a mentoring role for around fifty teens from Watts, South Central, Boyle Heights/East L.A., the San Fernando Valley, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago during a “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” youth conference I helped facilitate in the Malibu Hills. Despite many difficulties, including having youngsters who didn’t know how to write, Alex worked hard to get most of these young men and women to write their lives. They came up with some harrowing stories that they later read to an audience of 200 people at Mount Saint Mary’s College, near downtown L.A. Alex also read a piece about his former existence he called “My Wicked Past.”
I give Laura Bush credit—for giving gang youth credence and respect.
But at the very time the First Lady was visiting Homeboy Industries, the White House was pushing the “Gangbusters” bill. Two weeks later, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives had approved it. Among other things, it turns gang-related violent offenses into federal crimes punishable by mandatory sentences from ten years to life, adds the death penalty to sentencing guidelines, and authorizes the prosecution of youth from age sixteen as adults in federal courts.
Already the Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill’s cost to reach $62 million in the first four years, primarily with the increased growth of the federal prison population—from 100 prisoners the first year to around 900 a year by 2010. I think it will be far worse.
In the same budget package that funded “Helping America’s Youth,” President Bush proposed cutting $4.2 billion from youth and crime-prevention programs: That’s twenty-eight times what he offered the First Lady. The cuts include $34.7 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program and close to a 20 percent reduction for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, one of the groups Laura Bush has touted as a viable “community-based center” for youth.
While Mrs. Bush may be genuine in her efforts, her husband’s anti-gang policies have a clear and linked purpose. The overall objective is to shrink the federal government’s role in society to primarily military operations and complicated domestic security measures (including against street gangs, now labeled “domestic terrorists”). Billions of dollars have already poured into Afghanistan, Iraq, and other international hot spots; billions are also pouring into Homeland Security and local law enforcement.
Socially relevant programs, on the other hand, that provide treatment, jobs, education, arts, and after school recreation will fall more and more into private hands.
And that’s where Laura Bush comes in. She is trying to steer youth away from gangs, drugs, and crime by getting volunteers, churches, corporations, foundations, and others to pony up their own resources.
Mrs. Bush began her crusade by visiting gang reduction programs and literacy initiatives in various communities around the country, including Boyle Heights, where I once lived and worked.
In early June, she also met with organizers from CeaseFire Chicago, a group that helped reduce violence in Logan Square, which in one recent year had more murders than any other Chicago community. (I also lived there, working from 1994 to 2000 with gang youth through an organization I helped found called Youth Struggling for Survival.)
She even lauded Native American efforts that utilize traditions and rituals, such as purification sweat lodges, to bring youth around. I’ve been involved with these for more than ten years, and they work.
But all these efforts need more federal support, not less. And they cannot succeed when the government’s emphasis is on locking up more gang members.
The White House and Congress are waging all-out war against street gangs (although anyone seriously working these streets knows you can’t stop gang warfare with more warfare). Last May, the FBI outlined its anti-gang strategy on the agency’s website, courtesy of their top criminal investigative executive, Chris Swecker.
“Gangs and other criminal enterprises, operating in the U.S. and throughout the world, pose increasing concerns for the international law enforcement and intelligence communities,” Swecker declared. “Today gangs are more violent, more organized, and more widespread than ever before. They pose one of the greatest threats to the safety and security of all Americans. The Department of Justice estimates there are approximately 30,000 gangs, with 800,000 members, impacting 2,500 communities in the U.S.”
In the FBI’s crosshairs is the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a street gang that began in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and then spread throughout the United States and Canada, but most notably to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
“Gangs from California, particularly in the Los Angeles area, have a major influence on Mexican American and Central American gangs in this country and in Latin America,” added Swecker.
Also on the FBI’s list of the most dangerous street gangs are Norteños (Northern California Latino gangs allied to the Nuestra Familia prison organization), Sureños (Southern California gangs allied to the Mexican Mafia prison organization), Latin Kings (mostly in Chicago, New York City, and other Midwest and East Coast communities), and street organizations in Texas, Arizona, and Puerto Rico.
Part of the FBI’s strategy, Swecker pointed out, is to create a National Gang Intelligence Center and to establish the MS-13 National Gang Task Force.
But I fear these policies will adversely affect people like Alex Zamudio. Many of the youth I’ve worked with have now left the gang life. They have families, jobs, and careers. Still they can become police targets just for having been a gang member, living around gang members, or having tattoos.
I fear for Jose, one of the gang youth who took part in the “Voices of Youth.” After he returned from Malibu, he got jumped. But he decided to choose life over death by refusing to take part in retaliation. (His mentors have been watching over him, since this act in itself can endanger his life.)
And I fear for the many MS members who’ve become active in Homies Unidos, a peace and justice organization made up of former gang youth in Central America and L.A., but who have also been harassed by police and immigration authorities nationwide.
If more jail terms and police presence doesn’t work, what does?
Fortunately, this is no mystery.
Talk to Father Greg Boyle.
Talk to Silvia Beltran of Homies Unidos.
Talk to Freddy Calixto of Chicago’s BUILD.
Talk to Aqeela Sherrills, a leader in the Crips-Bloods truce of Watts.
There are hundreds more like them in the poorest, most neglected neighborhoods, working diligently with scarce resources—and for far longer than Laura Bush—in bringing peace to our streets.
It will take caring, active, trusting, and respectful adults in the lives of all our youth—although most adults are overworked, tired, and often just plain poor.
It will take creative engagement through words, art, song, dance, story, and paint—although most arts and creative programs are the first to be cut during a financial crisis.
It will take jobs that won’t demean or degrade a person’s spirit—although jobs are leaving this country at monumental rates, particularly for young people.
It will take schools that are small enough for the adults to care for each child, yet resourceful enough to provide the skills, creativity, and knowledge to help students become competent and confident in any field of life they choose to do—although schools are being shortchanged by most states and Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” is leaving children in the poorest neighborhoods far behind.
The fact is we don’t need mixed messages. We don’t need the “carrot and the stick” (which in this case is mostly stick and not much carrot). We don’t need suppression, sprinkled with prevention.
An all-out effort—as much as it took to topple two governments and send many of our young people to their deaths—would help.
Real well-funded and long-range prevention—and real genuine and healthy intervention would help.
More funds into already proven programs like Head Start would help, but I’m also talking about sustained attention and resources into imaginative, holistic, natural, and community-derived urban peace plans embracing all members of the community, including gang members themselves. Peace without the gangs won’t last. Incorporate them in the peace we all need; don’t push them out. And, yes, include the schools, churches, businesses, families, law enforcement, community centers, treatment centers, and more—as part of a whole package, not just piecemeal, band-aid responses.
A month after Laura Bush’s visit to Homeboy’s Bakery, I caught up with Alex Zamudio. “We need more ‘Voices of Youth,’ where I can talk to kids about my past experiences and we can listen to them about what they’re going through,” he told me. “It’s about reaching out to the youngsters. I’ve lived that life, involved in crime, a life that leads to death or jail. I let this life go. Now I want to talk to them so they won’t have to go through this.”
I vote for that.
Luis J. Rodríguez is author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” and “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times,” among other books. He has worked with troubled youth for thirty years, including in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and Europe. He is also co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Café & Centro Cultural, a bookstore/café/art gallery/performance space/workshop center in the San Fernando Valley section of L.A. His latest book is a novel, “Music of the Mill.”