Not Down with the Lockdown: Youth Speak Out Against SuperJail

Mary Rubach is wincing.

"There's no need for this noise," she says in a clipped British accent. She appears to be in her early seventies, though I don't dare ask her exact age. "Shouldn't someone go up there and tell them to turn the speakers down?"

by Samantha Liapes and Mei-ying Ho (Bold verses by Mei-ying Ho)

They locked up tracy
cuz her baby got scabies
from the s.r.o mattress and she
said fuck this and
put down the want ads
delivered a dime bag
to get money for a crib
a clean bed for her kid
and she got caught
and gota
mandatory minimum
in a central valley prison
now her kids are in the system
same system that refused
to assist them financially
readily rips apart their family see
tracey couldn't get a job
on the outside
seemed only white folks hirin
and only their kind
and when employers realized where she resided
eyes became wideand
applications denied and
none of the wages advertised
could pay
rent and childcare
no not anywhere
in this city
forget it she
had no choice but to do what she did
and now she has no choice
but to work for the
pennies they payher
what they sayher
labor is worth
like her great great grandmothers worth
based on her capacity to birth
more cotton pickin machines
this system don't see Tracy as a human been
but as potential profit
--This poem was read by Samantha Liapes at the rally. Samantha is an organizer for Bay Area PoliceWatch.

I shrug in sympathy. After three hours of blasting protest and lyrical celebration, my own ears have certainly been ringing.

But try telling that to this crowd -- the hundreds of folks who've come to Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, protesting the construction of what may become one of the largest juvenile detention centers in the nation. Organized by Books Not Bars and the Youth Force Coalition, this "Summer Jam to Stop the SuperJail" is the biggest public gathering for the campaign thus far.

Alameda County officials have been pushing for two years to build a massive "Juvenile Complex" to replace its present 330-bed juvenile hall. The proposed structure would be the largest per-capita juvenile detention center in the country and may house 450 beds. It would be larger than the juvenile halls in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas, the largest of which has only 112 beds.

Officials argue that the old juvenile detention center is overcrowded and structurally dangerous, as it was built on an earthquake fault line. While activists agree that a new detention center needs to be built, the proposed scale seems like a wasteful way to spend money and social resources. It also has people worried that more beds will mean more arrests.

In the last decade, the juvenile crime rates have dropped consistently in the Bay Area. In a region desperate for more spending on education and social services, one might question using $131 million of public funds on a huge detention center.

"Everyone knows that we shouldn't be spending millions of dollars to put more kids in jail," said Rory Caygill, 23, of the Youth Force Coalition. "We should be spending millions of dollars to keep kids out of jail."

The clamorous hip-hop activists -- or "raptivists," as some journalists have dubbed them -- have stepped down from the stage. The volume comes down, to a less ear-blasting level, as Julia "Butterfly" Hill steps up to the mic. She wants to tell us how her two-year stint in a redwood tree is directly connected to the burgeoning prison-industrial complex. "The same forces that are making nature into a monoculture," she says, "are making humanity into a monoculture." The volume of the rally swells up again.

I look around at the swarm of faces, bodies, and t-shirts around me. Playaz. Babies. Wheelchairs. Mumia. Che. Farrakhan. Bikini tops. Hooters shirts. Big gold chains. B-Boys. Skater chicks. Unionists. Crunchy Berkeleyites. Generation Queer. El Teatro Campasino de Atlatn. Black-booted militants with gaunt faces. Grandmothers with melting ice-cream cones.

There's hardly a segment of the East Bay community that seems absent -- except those on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. In fact, any and all supporters of the SuperJail are noticeably absent.

On the bright side, the coalition against the SuperJail has scored some significant upsets, led by local youth activists and supported by over 50 local organizations. In July, nine youth activists were arrested during a sit-in after the Board voted against a federally-recommended study to determine the size and viability of the proposed facility. Initially, the Board of Supervisors was unanimously in favor of the construction project. Since May, protests and direct actions by activists have managed to split the board, 3-2 in favor of the jail, block $2.3 million in funding from the California Board of Corrections, and downsize the project from 540 to 450 beds.

Bay Area youth are doing their part to push the envelope. Those most likely to fill these new beds -- working class and low-income youth of color are actually the ones stepping up to the mike and the steps of the City Council. The coalition has already begun to incorporate the stage show with the sit-in, using hip-hop on the fly to announce their presence at various stuffy bureaucratic meetings.

"Bay Area youth are doing their part to push the envelope. Those most likely to fill these new beds -- working class and low-income youth of color -- are actually the ones stepping up to the mike and the steps of the City Council."
"We're showing how much positivity we have in our communities," said Van Jones, director of the San Francisco's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights before the rally. "Our opponents arent going to want to see these young people locked up," he continued, optimistically. "Even the people who think that youth are sh-t are going to be shaking their booties."

For youth, there is an immediacy to the fear behind the fun. Just the term "SuperJail" has a frightening right to it. In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, the effects of police harassment and over-incarceration are felt on a daily basis. "Some of the first interactions people have with the system are [the result of] racial profiling or harassment by officers in thei neighborhoods," says Nicole Lee, 25, from the Oakland-based organization, Let's Get Free (Formerly Third Eye Movement).

"Our communities are under attack," says Omana Imani, 24, of the Youth Force Coalition. "If you look at all the proposition that have been passed in California -- from Prop 184 to Prop 21 -- all of them have been blatant attacks against youth." Even in a socially and politically progressive region like the Bay Area, the criminalization of youth, particularly low-income youth of color, has been on the rise.

According to a study by the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, while juvenile arrest rates in San Francisco declined 46% since 1996, juvenile detention bookings increased 22%. African-American youth have experienced historically sharp rises in bookings; Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander girls, while accounting for fewer than 4% of the city's arrests, comprised nearly half of the increase in bookings. These regional statistics correspond with media hype that has demonized youth as "super predators."

"Everyone knows that we shouldn’t be spending millions of dollars to put more kids in jail," said Rory Caygill, 23, of the Youth Force Coalition. "We should be spending millions of dollars to keep kids out of jail."
Youth Force's first campaign, in fact, was against California's Proposition 21, the initiative that started what many in this state still refer to as "The War on Youth." Ironically, the backlash against the passing of Prop 21 may have prompted officials to push for expanding juvenile detention centers, as a way to assure local citizens that younger offenders wouldn't be sent off to adult facilities. Clearly, this next move hasn't had a very warm reception, either.

Among local youth themselves, the sense of indignation is immediate. Fourteen-year-old Nathan Reyes joined the prison campaign through his involvement with Asian & Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (APAL). But there is nothing abstract about his involvement in today's protest. "I get followed by the police," he says. "I've never personally been taken in, but me and my friends get harassed by the police just because of the way we look." Reyes life experiences so far have made him acutely aware of how youth like him are treated by larger societal structures.

Books Not Bars and the Youth Force Coalition have drawn kids as young as thirteen to the support their efforts, some of whom are already becoming seasoned activists. Local organizations, have given youth the support, knowledge, and resources they need to keep themselves informed and aware of their rights. Let's Get Free, for example, distributes a pocket-sized pamphlet explaining what to do if you are arrested, stopped by police, or if you witness or experience police brutality. Local numbers for PoliceWatch, CopWatch, and San Francisco Public Defender are listed on the back. "APAL kept me alive," Reyes says, adding that learning about his legal rights, and concrete tactics for dealing with police, have kept him out of "juvie."

In contrast to the popular image of apathetic youth, Reyes believes that many of his friends have become immediately incensed and engaged within the SuperJail struggle. Even regarding the kids who are reluctant to engage in social activism. "You just have to give them something to relate to," he adds. "Ask whats going on in their community that you don't like, and then say, well how do you want to fix that?"

"It’s important for me to have people I know trust me. They can tell me when I’m doing something wrong so that I can correct my actions." Sara Kugler, 11
Even the youngest activists today have firm answers to those questions. Sara Kugler, 11, of Baltimore is already a seasoned protest-goer; her conscientious older sister has brought her out to more than a few events like Saturdays rally in Oakland. "Kids need education, and they need somebody to care from them," said Kugler, who was looking at a display on police brutality victims when I spoke to her. "It's important for me to have people I know trust me. They can tell me when Im doing something wrong so that I can correct my actions."

Katie Tobler, a San Francisco schoolteacher who was in the crowd that day, echoed her words. "Ask kids what they want," she said, "and they'll tell you what they need to make their lives rich."

But leading a "rich" life may be easier said than done in a state that is first in the nation in prison spending and forty-seventh in education spending. California has built twenty new prisons since 1984, while adding only one new campus to the state university system here.

Moreover, the alternatives to detention have proven to be successful. In Chicago and Portland, the detention rates have been reduced through alternative service and outreach programs, with no increase in re-arrest rates. [See Less Cost More Safety by Mikhaila Richards for more about a recent study on alternatives to incarcerating youth.]

The foundation that funded and supported these programs -- the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- is offering a similar technical assistance package on detention alternatives to Oakland.

But the county turned the foundation down. Not only is it politically useful to appear to be "tough on crime," it is also profitable for the corporations whose products and services are used within the jails. "We are talking about an industrial complex. That means its a for-profit industry," said Isaiah, 20, an Oakland-based activist who was in attendance on Saturday.

While many speak of building solidarity between the local and global protests, the slant of corporatization may be the clearest concrete link between the two. "A lot of times, anti-globalization activists will talk about working with local communities, but they're just waiting for these communities to come to them , or else pick up their issues," said Shawn OHearn of an Anti-Globalization Network in Richmond, Virginia. "Some of them don't see grassroots as radical enough, and don't see how going to city hall meetings makes a difference. But locally-based activists are standing up and directly changing their own relationship to the system, and it's the same system were all fighting."

Van Jones adds: "I feel connected to what's going on in L.A., Philly, Cincinnati, abroad -- it's the same situation. They're hiring more militarized police, making corporate profits -- there's no difference except that were all on different places on the conveyor belt, and we're all going to the same garbage dump together."

By the end of Saturday's rally, my back is completely sunburned and my pockets are overflowing with pamphlets from every social justice organization you can imagine. The gigantic puppet that APAL made has been taken down, and the crowds are slowly beginning to thin out.

Where to go from here? I found myself asking. Tim Roust, a young man who attending the rally with the East Bay Food Not Bombs had similar questions. "We've come together, but what are we going to do with this energy, and how we are going to channel it?"

It is true that there are only so many times you can hear "f--k the police" before the words lose all their vehemence and meaning. As Van Jones put it, the rally did emphasis "the power of youth culture, the power of the word and the power of a good time when you're whoopin some ass." But it's unclear how many who turned out today will turn their awareness into action.

For now, Books Not Bars and the Coalition against the SuperJail is already gearing up for the next step. The Board must vote publicly to approve an environmental impact report, award a construction contract, and approve a multi-million dollar public bond. As their press release reads, "We will be marching, rallying, holding poetry slams, doing sit-ins, writing letters, jamming phone/fax lines, and generally raising hell -- at every step and stage."

Rachel Jackson, an organizer from Books Not Bars may have said it best with her concluding speech: "If those fools think we have been too rude, or too rowdy, all we have to say is that they have no idea what is about to hit them."

Suzy Khimm, 20, is a freelance writer, activist, and poet currently roaming around the Bay Area. Soon enough, she will have to leave her West Coast Wonderland for her chilly home in New Haven, but she vows to return soon. Check out her other articles on Alternet and her first chapbook of poetry, available at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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