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Peace in the Streets

The war on gangs has resulted in a body count of 25,000 people nationwide in the past two decades. We need to drastically change our approach to inner-city youth and gangs; we need a peace movement against the war on gangs and the war on drugs.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Tom Hayden presented this speech to a panel at the LA Times Book Festival on Sunday, April 25 2004. On Thursday, Hayden will be honored by the Los Angeles community foundation Liberty Hill.

12,000 young people, nearly all black, brown and male, have died in LA's gang wars since 1980. Across the nation, the numbers are hard to get, but it's safe to estimate a body count of 25,000.

But few people seem to care, as if these young people were incorrigible and their deaths somehow deserved. For example, I was checking the decline of gang numbers in LA with a law enforcement data specialist the other day, and I said "why don't you just declare victory and declare that the threat has declined?" and he laughed and replied, "Why don't the gang members announce the progress they're making in killing each other?" That's the attitude.

But if 25,000 white people were killing each other in the streets, you would hear calls for a peace process, for jobs, for loan packages, for bringing the factions to the table.

Our attitude seems to be good riddance.

When the hundred-year Hatfields and McCoys gang feud was settled in 2003, Kentucky and West Virginia announced official Hatfield-McCoy Reconciliation Days.

When the Crips and Bloods achieved a truce in 1992, there was no official recognition. After the riots that same year, 57,000 jobs were promised within five years. Instead, over 50,000 jobs vanished from South Central in the Nineties.

The paramilitary and extra-legal approach to fighting gangs have led to costly scandals like that at the LAPD Rampart Division in many cities around the country -- Detroit, Cincinnati, New York, and Miami, to name a few, but no new jobs programs have been announced for the inner city.

Instead, the US Marines are actually consulting the LAPD on how to pacify neighborhoods in Baghdad.

And instead, police scandals have morphed into prison scandals. State and federal courts have condemned the CYA and the prison system for cruel and systemic abuses that echo the Rampart police charges. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young people have been imprisoned on fabricated charges according to Rampart testimony. California taxpayers have spent $175 billion and we now employ 200,000 personnel on the so-called criminal justice apparatus in the past decade. Over two million admissions to California prisons have occurred in the past two decades, two-thirds of them parolees. In LA County we have spent $35 billion on police and sheriffs since the early nineties, and $50 billion overall on a revolving door system. By comparison, the budget for City of LA's after-school program known as LA Bridges is just one million dollars, two thousand times less than the police budget.

The deepening quagmire is global. Harvard professors like David Ignatieff warn of the new "menace of the barbarians." Gangs are emerging in South Africa, Barcelona, Honduras, Brazil, everywhere in the interstices of chaotic poverty left by the process of corporate globalization. For Ignatieff, "nobody likes empires but there are some problems for which there are only imperial solutions."

I wrote my book Street Wars because I came to believe that those who had experienced the madness could offer insights and solutions. I spent time with those who had evolved from gang bangers to peacemakers. Like Alex Sanchez of Homies Unidos, the writer Luis Rodriguez, Aqueela Sherrells over in the Watts Projects, Blinky Rodriguez in the San Fernando Valley, and their counterparts among college-educated Latin Kings in New York City, and young street people in Chicago who claimed that hip-hop saved them from violence.

I came to these conclusions:

Modern street gangs exploded noticeably and dramatically in the vacuum left in ghettos and barrios when America abandoned the war on poverty for the war in Vietnam.

Gang members are traumatized young veterans of war, with no outlets for counseling or treatment. We need a massive rehab program in the inner cities that includes surviving veterans of these wars as role models. Gang members are necessary scapegoats in the rise of law-and-order politics and vast expansions of police and prison budgets. Most Republicans can't do without them. Most Democrats have retreated from liberalism because they don't want to be stigmatized as soft on gangs.

The policies of public and private disinvestment from inner cities are leaving a redundant class of tens of millions of frustrated and humiliated young men whose only choices are sweatshops or the drug economy.

The war on drugs has militarized and worsened a problem that is social, psychological and economic.

We need a global New Deal targeted towards the youth of inner cities here and abroad, not a global WTO nor a blank check for an indiscriminate war on terrorism. The US now spends less than one tenth of one percent of its economic resources on UN programs for food, clean water, and literacy, less than half that of the Kennedy Administration 40 years ago.

We need a peace movement against the war on gangs and the war on drugs.

There are alternatives from the history of white ethnic gangs -- the Irish, the Jews and the Italians -- who became middle class through the first New Deal.

The late Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, for example, was an Irish gangbanger who took part in the 1919 race riots in Chicago, the riots that set in motion the formation of the first African American gangs in that city. When he was elected Mayor, Daley handed out jobs and contracts to mob-connected cronies, saying that "I've been criticized for doing this, but I'll make no apologies. I'll always stand alongside the man with a criminal record when I think he deserves another chance."

Instead, Mayor Daley declared a war on black gangs that were becoming a political threat in 1969. We need the same approach towards today's black, Latino and immigrant gangs that lifted the earlier white ethnic generations into the middle class.

Tom Hayden teaches at Occidental College. Information for this presentation is available through law enforcement websites, or in his forthcoming book 'Street Wars' (New Press).