Los Angeles is often referred to as “the Gang Capital of America.” According to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the city is home to over forty five thousand gang members, organized into 450 gangs. “Gangs are a symptom of society”, a representative from an organization that deals with justice in the prison system told us.
Besides incarceration, another way to deal with gangs is to deport them. “In regards to a deportation case, you are your worst enemy,’ an ex gang member told us. Your presence in this country is the evidence that you’re breaking the law. And the natural thing to do, seemingly, in these cases, is to deport the person who is illegally here. The thing is, that many of the people who live illegally in Los Angeles moved here with their families when they were very young. They grew up here and spent their whole lives here, and so when they are deported back to “their home country”, which is often El Salvador, they are complete strangers there. El Salvador is also incredibly dangerous, so that is a horrible place to go, and naturally they do whatever they can to come back. Los Angeles is often called the “land of second chances”. But what do you do with the new generation of gang members, who were born in the states and cannot be deported? Los Angeles tried to incarcerate its way out of the problem.
And so this is where we heard of the “school to prison pipeline.” Where you are born, and where you go to school, can dictate your chances of survival and success in the system. Because of their schools’ proximity to shady neighborhoods and gang activities, the youth are highly likely to become involved in them. “These age group is under siege,” we were told. Furthermore, because misdemeanors in these areas are treated as serious offenses, and because the youth of these areas are likely to be tried as adults, including incarceration without parole, these kids are at a serious risk of ending up in prison – and here we see the school to prison pipeline. These are the hopeless kids, with lives that have no hope. When they join a gang, they give up their problems, and in return they get a network or support, and they are ready to die for that. “Now they have something to do,” an NGO worker told us, “Before they were just children sniffing glue. Now, all they have to do is put a number or a letter on and everyone is terrified of them.”
So what can you do?
We were offered lot of ideas, from ex gang embers themselves, to people that work in NGOs that deal with gangs:
*notice how a lot of these can and do apply to the question of homelessness as well*
- Define the problem, define the solution.
- The work is about changing the culture.
- “Nuestra Lucha, Nuestra Voz” (Nothing about us without us)
- Focus on development without displacement.
- Be against gentrification, but for investment, and pay close attention to the difference.
- Leverage the media, change the words used. For example, instead of saying “offender”, say “incarcerated person”. This brings back the human element.
- Narrow the gap between policy and implementation, policy makers are so far removed, they have no idea how their work affects other people.
- If you drop 6 felonies to misdemeanors, you will reduce the prison population by a third (from 20k)
- Remove the police from first contact.
- Most of the homeless people and gang members are not your family, but they could be, and so treat them like they are.
- Validating minorities by giving them a voice and representation.
And last, but not least: