Wanted: All Cruisers

It’s 6 p.m. School has been out for awhile now. You’re done with most of your homework and your new car keeps staring at you from your bedroom window. Temptation finally gets the best of you. It’s time for a study break! You vow to your mother that it won’t take too long – thankfully, she’s used to your evening ritual by now. You call your two closest friends as you head out the door.

Before you know it, you’re on your way to another evening of chatting, venting, and laughing while cruising around downtown. Bonding. Then your car clock blinks 8 p.m. It’s time to head back home. The thought of cruising again with your pals tomorrow brings a smile to your face, and makes the homework bearable.

That’s what life was life for 17-year-old Joshua Schmidt, of Sioux Falls, S.D. before anti-cruising ordinances were instated last summer. Now 6 p.m. is just 6 p.m.

“I honestly don’t think cruising was a problem,” said Schmidt. “I kind of understand where they were coming from. But I think we can be spending a lot more time focusing on other things, like the burglaries that have gone on the rise here.”

In Sioux Falls, cruising is defined as passing the same point on the Loop (a road around Sioux Falls) more than twice in a two-hour period. Contrary to Schmidt’s beliefs, the anti-cruising ordinance was instated because of the reported increase in crime in Sioux Falls.

“They said along the Loop that there was supposedly a lot of violence,” said Schmidt. “I’ve never heard of any actual crimes [there]. I think the demographics of many of the cruisers, many being youth of color, had something to do with cruising being seen as a threat.”

According to Schmidt, the stereotypes of what youth do once they get behind the wheel did not happen in Sioux Falls during cruising hours. There was no blaring music, and it wasn’t done really late at night to disturb residents, just between 6 and 8 p.m.

“No one really thought about [cruising]. It was just what people did around here at night,” said Schmidt.

Anti-cruising ordinances, like the one Schmidt faces every day, are no longer uncommon in most parts of the country. But this hasn’t always been the case. At one point, according to Jeff Chang in his new book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, cruising was acknowledged as a cornerstone of youth culture.

“Cruising bans came after a decade of street scenes, boulevards and neighborhoods where young people’s cruising and partying overtook local traffic on Friday and Saturday nights,” writes Chang. “In Los Angeles, cruising bans ended the scenes in East Los Angeles, Westwood, downtown and Crenshaw Boulevard. In Atlanta, outcries from white homeowners over the city’s annual Freaknik event in 1996 resulted in a cruising ban that ended one of the nation’s biggest black collegiate gatherings.”

Later in 1996, Boots Riley of the hip-hop group, The Coup, led a group calling itself the Young Comrades, in a "Take Back the Lake" rally to protest alleged misconduct by police officers in Oakland, Calif. and to attack the city's anti-cruising ordinance around the city’s Lake Merritt. Not long after the Comrades convinced a crowd of young people to appear at a local City Council meeting, the ordinance was repealed.

Anti-cruising laws aren’t new, but they do continue to crop up, all over the country. And, as Reggie Moore, executive director and co-founder of the Urban Underground in Milwaukee, Wis., points out, they tend to target youth of color, and make youth feel criminalized by adults and society.

About two years ago, some Milwaukee neighborhoods saw the appearance of anti-cruising signs alerting people to the $500 fines. These neighborhoods, he says often make it easy for police officers to practice racial profiling. “One of the areas where there are anti-cruising laws, it’s about 75-80 percent black.” He says. “So if there are more than three young people in the car, they are more than likely to be pulled over for cruising.”

Nicole L. Yunk, director of the Youth & Civil Liberties Council of the ACLU of Milwaukee agrees. She says that young adults, who have already frequently had their rights compromised, are often much more vulnerable to anti-cruising legislation.

According to Yunk, the anti-cruising laws of Milwaukee, as well as many across the country, use “the term ‘status [offense]’ to describe an offense that would not be an offense if committed by an older person, such as underage drinking, truancy and curfew violation.”

“The ACLU [of Milwaukee] receives inquiries from youth and parents alike whose activity or activity of their child is monitored and/or cited while driving and in parking lots in cases when the same behavior by adults is permitted,” said Yunk. “In short, young people ought to be free from suspicion unless there is reasonable cause for suspicion.”

As for broadcast journalism student Kamilia Scantlebury, 20, of Hampton University in Virginia, the anti-cruising ordinance enforced in Virginia Beach is just plain inconvenient. The anti-cruising ordinance in Virginia Beach states that between 2 p.m. and 4 a.m. you cannot pass the same point twice within a three-hour period.

“It’s an area where there are a lot of night clubs and fun things to do,” said Scantlebury. “The laws do affect me personally because I may be driving up and down the same street because I’m lost. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you tend to drive up and down to find what you are looking for.”

But many law enforcement officials view Schmidt and Scantlebury’s experiences as exceptions to why many anti-cruising ordinances exist. And contrary to the research of many youth activists, law enforcement and state representatives often feel such ordinances are fair to everyone and do not single out any specific groups. According to Capt. Anna Ruzinski of the Milwaukee police department, cruising was a public-safety problem that affected many residential areas.

“Not only were cars cruising, passing a checkpoint three times within a two-hour period [from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.],” explained Ruzinski. “But traffic would literally be at a standstill as a result, which at that point cruisers would blast loud music, litter the neighborhood and get out of their cars to dance.”

Based on Ruzinski’s three years leading anti-cruising efforts in Milwaukee, cruising generally occurred between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., usually after a club let out, or a concert or rival basketball game ended, and in residential areas of Milwaukee. Generally cruisers were between the ages of 16 and 25, and were mostly from the suburbs of Milwaukee. Whatever the reasons for the cruising, Ruzinski, along with her police force, and many residents of the Sherman Park community where much of the cruising occurred, wanted the cruising to stop.

“Lots of times you hear the argument that the youth need somewhere to go and things to do” said Ruzinski. “But the fact of the matter is, at 2 a.m., you should be in bed. I don’t care what your age is.”

As Moore points out, most youth don’t see it this way. “Unfortunately, the only thing that is open 24 hours is the Denny’s and a 24-hour restaurant. You know, for one reason or another, they’re not ready to go home. It’s not intentionally to annoy a neighborhood or not intentionally to destroy property, it’s more to see and be seen.”

And, Moore, continues, cruising is part of a larger issue surrounding the kinds of space that youth are allowed to occupy.

“I think the way it is addressed is a byproduct of the way society views and treats young people,” says Moore. “I think [cruising] is a way for young people to independently create a space for themselves and it’s the community’s responsibility to support that. For example, the lake front here closes at 10 [p.m.] —this where many young people of many demographics hang out regardless of the time. So I think the community should meet young people halfway.”

Ruzinki says that cruising has decreased in Milwaukee as a result of her education campaign. The Milwaukee police department and the Sherman Park Community Association joined forces to create a public education campaign that reached inside the classrooms of all of Milwaukee’s schools through informational videos and advertisements on buses. A popular DJ at a local radio station was even recruited to speak to youth during cruising hours to spread awareness of the dangers of causing traffic delays and disrupting neighborhoods.

In response, Moore and the others at Urban Underground created a community forum that allowed politicians, law enforcement, parents and youth to share their perspectives.

“From the police’s standpoint, it is their job to protect. But it is clear that they’re not treating the young people as people,” says Moore, adding. “That was the first time they heard why young people cruise, and I don’t think that’s what the adults were expecting. Seventy-five percent of the people cruising in that area lived in that area. And most of them said they did not have anywhere else for to go.”

Moore isn’t convinced that the youth in Milwaukee will ever stop cruising, even if they have to move from neighborhood to neighborhood. “If they just got their driver’s license, or they just got a car, they want the freedom to drive and to hang out. … So every time an area is made a no-cruising area, it just keeps moving, and the problem isn’t solved,” he says. For now, he believes the answer has to come from collaboration between youth and city officials to create a legal space – one where youth feel some ownership and responsibility.

As Moore puts it, “there are certain laws that I don’t think are preparing young people to be responsible adults.” Urban Underground, he adds, is working to “shed light for adults.” The way that laws like anti-cruising laws are put in place and enforced, he says, tend to perpetuate criminalization. “It’s not helping young people to [make] critical decisions on their own.”

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