Ryan Pintado-Vertner

From Sweatshop to Hip-Hop

India Arie is smiling down at you from a Gap billboard. A half-mile later, it is progressive hip-hop crew Black Eyed Peas looking fresh in Levi's Silver Tab jeans. Rewind two years, and it was Mos Def and Talib Kweli, then De La Soul.

Rewind 10 years, and hip-hop was absent in the mainstream fashion industry. The billboards would have featured thin, slightly curved white female models who refused to smile.

Ten years ago, when Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss & Company gazed into the future of their clothing empires, youth of color were an irrelevant demographic. The fashion powerhouses believed that hip-hop was an annoyingly violent fad that would pass through like a bullet. They gambled against hip-hop. And so far, they have lost millions.

Today their futures look very different. Both companies have become lightning rods for bad news. Gap stock, once flying high and helping its Republican founder Don Fisher buy political clout in San Francisco, was degraded to junk status by Moody's in February after 21 months of non-stop losses. In the same month, CARMA, a media analysis firm, announced that among U.S. retailers, Gap had received the second-worst media coverage in the world, second only to bankrupt K-Mart.

Meanwhile, Levi Strauss & Company has been losing profits and laying off workers in what seems to be an irreversible downhill slide in U.S. sales. It has recycled executives like tin cans, dumped marketing agencies left and right, gone IPO and then reversed course back to private stockholdings -- all in an effort to stop losing money.

When announcing their bad news to investors, both companies focus on business details like profitability per square footage of retail real estate, or they talk generally about the need for more competitive fashion designs, or, like everyone, they blame September 11.

Neither Gap nor Levi's confesses to the deeper irony of their situation. Both companies are suffering from a loss of cool, the fashion industry's equivalent of cardiac arrest. Where did cool go? It shifted to the very people who were dismissed by fashion insiders as "sociopaths" in the 1980s and early 1990s. They are the kids shooting hoops in concrete jungles, the break-dancers taking over high school hallways, the American-born children of exploited garment workers. The kind of people who rarely made it into fashion billboards. Today, coolness lives among youth of color and their beloved hip-hop. And now, if they are to survive the new millennium, Gap and Levi's must take that coolness back.

Garment Exploits

The difference between this reality and what the companies anticipated is enormous. Levi's predicted a cheaper, globalized workforce, and began closing U.S. factories and relocating those jobs to countries like Costa Rica and China. In the 1980s alone Levi's closed 58 plants, putting 10,400 people out of work and moving about half of its production overseas. Gap did the same thing, subcontracting with 3,600 factories in 50 countries by 2001.

As a result, Gap and Levi's, like others in the industry, are the focus of dozens of anti-sweatshop campaigns internationally, which have revealed terrible labor conditions in the garment factories sewing their clothing. Both companies have been sued by garment workers in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. The suit alleges that the factories, sewing clothes for a who's-who of fashion companies, including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Target and the Limited, practiced indentured servitude. Witness, a human rights organization, says that in Saipan, "14 hour shifts, payless paydays and lock-downs are routine."

In 1990, Levi Strauss & Company closed a factory in San Antonio, laid off more than thousand workers, gave them horrible severance packages, and then moved the jobs to Costa Rica.

Jason Morteo understands all of this. He is a 17-year-old Chicano lyricist, beat junkie, and grafitti writer in San Antonio. On Wednesday nights, he can be found at Bruno's, a local restaurant, battling other mcees in the freestyle competition. ("I would have won first place, except the other dude started beat-boxing on me.") He has a front row seat for what Levi's and other clothing companies are trying to do with hip-hop and garment workers.

"For me, I find it so ironic that Levi's, of all companies, is going to try to make a profit off of hip-hop culture, on top of that Latin hip-hop culture, when there's so many people here they exploit so much," he says. "And the companies do their best to keep that out of the media."

Defining Cool

To bury this negative publicity, both Gap and Levi's spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, showering us with images of cool. For years, those images, alternately flashy and sexy and subdued, were, above all, white.

The formula seemed unbeatable: white models + brown workers = mega-profits. Gap became the largest clothing company in the world. Levi's held its own, struggling at times, but still flexing its iconic muscle. Youth of color continued to be invisible, except in so far as they worked at garment factories abroad. (Levi's code of conduct allows 15-year-old laborers to work 60 hours per week in its factories.) In its marketing, Gap focused on selling khakis to the predominately white professional class and their children, and Levi's left the power of its name on auto-pilot, selling denim to teenagers in department stores.

Then, after hip-hop awoke in the 1990s, reality slapped them right in the face.

They finally got the hint, and the shift is evident on television commercials and billboards across the country. Since 1997, Gap ads have featured L.L. Cool J, Missy Elliot, and RUN DMC. Last season, Gap's commercials featured deejaying, one of the least celebrated elements of hip-hop. DJs Shortkut and Rob Swift cut it up with Shannyn Sossamon, an up and coming L.A. deejay. More recently, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Shaggy sang in the "Give A Little" television ads, along with India Arie and Macy Gray.

Levi's focused its attention on progressive artists. It sponsored a Lauryn Hill concert tour. It promoted Mos Def and Talib Kweli before Mos Def's career sky-rocketed. Most recently it has scooped up Black Eyed Peas.

But, like most of the fashion industry, Gap and Levi's were more than a decade late on hip-hop.

"Within a few years, well before 'Yo! MTV Raps', it was clear that this was a massive movement that would influence everything from fashion to automobiles to lifestyle," says Irma Zandl of Zandl Group, a New York-based marketing and trend consultant whose clients include Gap. "Hip-hop culture has gradually enveloped mainstream youth culture not only in the suburbs but also throughout the world."

Why the lag? It certainly was not for lack of opportunity. Hip-hop has long been one of the most fashion-conscious cultural phenomena in America. In the 1980s, its most popular artists defined themselves with signature products. RUN DMC wrote a hit song called "My Adidas" that transformed the shoe into a cult classic. To this day, people rock the Adidas that RUN DMC made famous. L.L. Cool J did the same thing with Kangol hats. The list of fashion breakthroughs stretched on through the years: biker shorts, Daisy Dukes, huge clock necklaces, African medallions, fat gold chains, sportswear.

The brand consciousness reflects one basic truth about hip-hop: It emerged from despair. Black and brown youth, trapped in fire-blown ghettos across the United States, used rap lyrics to imagine an antidote to their desperation. They watched as the so-called free market created two very different worlds. In one, their own, emptiness reigned: empty pockets, empty blocks, empty promises. In the other, every edifice, every healthy child, every manicured lawn was a testament to the euphoric, distracting power of capitalism.

Presented with this dual world, some rap musicians became activists. Others simply proclaimed that the clear antidote to poverty was wealth. These artists came to define popular rap culture. They wore thick gold chains, leather outfits, fur coats and eventually Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Donna Karan's symbols of their success. In the rap culture they created, wealth and fame could erase any stigma, even the oldest, most basic manifestation of American racism: the idea that blackness is ugly. Murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G., who grew up poor in Brooklyn, once rapped about himself:

Heart throb, never/ Black and ugly as ever/ However/ I stay COOGI down to the socks

COOGI, a luxury Australian knitwear label, sells clothes for more money than most poor people make in a week. The company, which never capitalized on its hip-hop potential, is now teetering on the financial edge.

Crashing the Party

Still, despite the clear evidence, it took the mostly white fashion world another decade to notice that hip-hop, perhaps more than any other cultural phenomenon in contemporary America, is a gold mine of mind-boggling proportions. Two things seemed to block its vision.

One was racism. Rap triggered virtually every racial stereotype possible in the white imagination. The race-fueled controversy surrounding hip-hop in its first decade was phenomenal. Unable to move beyond this visceral disgust, and still enamored of America's basic whiteness, the fashion industry stayed away.

Its second blindspot was mass marketing. Companies like Levi's and Gap marketed to enormous young audiences -- from 10-year-olds to young professionals. To cover such territory, companies would shoot for the most common denominators in their marketing strategies. They chose themes and images that attracted the largest proportion of their audience: middle-income white Americans.

But economists and marketers noticed that the middle was shrinking. Economic policy during the 1970s and 1980s created more wealth and more poverty, while reducing the size of the middle class. Race demographics also shifted dramatically, especially in certain geographic regions, as people of color make up an increased percentage of the total population.

Suddenly, the old marketing strategy -- aiming for the all-purpose middle -- no longer worked. In 1997 a market research firm called Roper Starch released a report suggesting ways to market to the "Two Americas." The new approach was known as two-tier marketing. Many companies, from banks to fashion labels, created multiple marketing strategies for the same products: One strategy targeted the wealthy, the other targeted the poor. For Gap, this meant adding the high-priced Banana Republic label and the discount Old Navy brand -- three versions of essentially the same product.

Once companies learned to divide their enormous markets into smaller pieces, it became easier for them to recognize the value of hip-hop. Marketers learned to use hip-hop strategically, while using other approaches for other niches -- often all in the same marketing campaign.

But beyond two-tier marketing strategies, trend-spotters like Zandl Group and Teenage Research Unlimited pointed to the real bottomline with hip-hop and marketing: White kids with "purchasing power" were listening to it. They warned that if apparel companies like Levi's and Gap underestimated the impact of hip-hop on young consumers -- not just on youth of color, but all youth -- they would "suffer dearly," as Irma Zandl put it. "Even today, as rock reasserts itself, hip hop beats and hip hop flava are dominant."

Tommy Hilfiger listened to the oracles. Tommy, one of the companies trying to settle with the Saipan workers, was among the first mainstream fashion icons to cash in on the hip-hop strategy. Its traditional marketing strategy relied on heavy doses of American patriotism, sharp-jawed white men, and New England atmosphere to compete with companies like Polo and Calvin Klein for the men's apparel market.

But then one day hip-hop headz discovered the brand, and Tommy was suddenly, almost effortlessly, the epitome of cool. Without fully abandoning its traditional marketing approach, the company cultivated its hip-hop audience on the down-low with strategies like giving rappers free shopping sprees -- and even clothing a hip-hop Santa ornament for the White House Christmas tree. Snoop Doggy Dogg performed on "Saturday Night Live" in 1994 wearing all Tommy gear, and Tommy sales increased $90 million that year, according to industry estimates. On the strength of hip-hop listeners, the company's sales shot past a billion dollars a year, making it the blockbuster label of the 1990s. Tommy got so phat that it even tried to buy its competitor Calvin Klein -- the gangster rapper challenging the preppy white model to a fight.

Rumor swirled around Tommy's rise to power, as some communities of color were suspicious of the company's real interest in them. For years, urban legend reported various versions of the same story: that Tommy Hilfiger, the man himself, told the press (or, as I heard the rumor years ago, told Oprah Winfrey) that he was disgusted by all these hip-hoppers wearing his clothes, because he was not designing clothes with such people in mind.

Regardless of whether the rumor was true, it spoke to the basic irony of hip-hop and fashion marketing. In a white-dominated industry obsessed by coolness, the underdog has become the undisputed champion of cool.

And Gap and Levi's are suffering for it.

Though no one believes they will collapse into bankruptcy like K-Mart, many think Gap and Levi's waited too long to join the hip-hop parade. Gap itself refuses to acknowledge that hip-hop has played any role in its current doldrums. Likewise, it denies any strategic reason for using hip hop artists in its marketing, and claims no direct interest in youth of color. Gap spokeswoman Rebeccah Weiss puts it this way:

"We chose DJs Shortkut and Rob Swift, as well as India Arie, because they are talented, we like their music, and most importantly, they express unique personal style. We cast them along with many other types of musicians in order to reach out to many different audiences."

Levi Strauss & Company, on the other hand, has been more blunt. "Many white teens identify with black culture, which they find powerful and attractive," Marian Salzman, founding director of TBWA Chiat/Day, Levi's former marketing agency, told a journalist in 1996. "A typical gangsta rap listener is a 14-year-old white boy from the suburbs. An in-your-face attitude is a marketing hook that screams authentic."

This was a startling shift for a company that was an icon of white American culture. The century-old denim pants were the blue jean of choice for the Industrial Age and the Wild West. By the 1970s, Levi's had been marketed by James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.

Basking in all of this white nostalgia, Levi Strauss & Company was looking the wrong way when black and brown youth turned the fashion world on its head.

"It has suffered dearly," says Zandl. "Its popularity amongst teen boys has gone from 28 percent in '94 to 4 percent in 2001 -- a whopping 86 percent decline."

In 1996, Levi's began its hunt for black culture by launching a television advertising campaign featuring young black kids scaring the shit out of Wall Street professionals, asking in the tag line, "Do you fear me?" The controversial campaign flopped, but has been followed by many others, including the most recent Black Eyed Peas billboard.

This trend infuriates Esperanza Garza, an organizer with Fuerza Unida, which works with women and youth affected by Levi's plant closures in San Antonio. But she really hit the roof when she saw Levi's mega-popular Super Bowl commercial this year: a young Latino, wearing Levi's and a tank top, was break-dancing down the street in Mexico City, listening to Spanish-language hip-hop group Control Machete (of "Amores Perros" fame). The featured break-dancer was 21-year-old Johnny Cervin, a Mexican-American hip-hopper from Los Angeles.

"They are trying to sell to us now. We are the new market. They can't fool us. We know who they are," Garza says. While the company courts black and brown youth, she says, it continues to exploit their parents here and abroad. Levi Strauss is closing its two remaining factories in San Antonio in April and "negotiating contracts that are worse than severance agreements in 1999."

Jason Morteo puts it this way.

"It's disappointing as a hip-hop artist, and as a Latin American, that I know something so wrong is done to my people, but people are starting to go out and buy these clothes," he says. "People are so deceived, they don't know the full truth about what this company has done."

Ryan Pintado-Vertner is co-director of DataCenter, a national research organization based in Oakland, Calif.

The War on Youth

I was as deep as you can get in a gang," says Carlos*, a 26-year-old Chicano from the Los Angeles area. Because Carlos lived on the border of rival gang turfs, simply crossing the street meant venturing into enemy territory.Carlos was smart. He had ambition. But in Carlos' barrio, there were "no community events, no activities," he recalls. "Every time I tried to do something [positive], it was stopped. And the gang was conducive to doing something, not necessarily good, but something."Three blocks away from his house, at a sunny fourth of July picnic, one of his friends was murdered by the rival gang, his body torn apart by bullets from an AK-47. Carlos began thinking about protecting himself, about what his affiliation really meant.Soon after, Carlos was arrested for carrying a concealed knife. Tried as an adult, he served six months in county jail. It was his first bid, and it taught him something -- something that prosecutors and politicians don't talk about."When you're from southern California in a Chicano gang, you could choose to disassociate yourself with your Sure�o friends and fend for yourself," he says. But fending for yourself means trying to survive the most dangerous place in the United States alone, with a sell-out reputation. "It ends up being better in the end to join up."Carlos was stuck. "I remember being told by people in school, 'You are a bright kid, you could do anything you want.' So if I go to prison, I'll be the best that I can be. I'll be in the Syndicate [Mexican Mafia], and be what's called a carnal, a shot-caller," he says.In California, Carlos' dilemma could be faced by many more young offenders if voters approve the so-called Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. The Act proposes to, among other things, unseal confidential juvenile records, make it easier to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults or to send them to adult prisons, and severely increase punishment for a number of juvenile crimes. Youths could face three years for just $400 of vandalism, or the death penalty for a "gang-related" homicide. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color are public enemy number one. Supporters argue the Initiative will discourage youths from joining gangs and committing crime. But opponents say that, like Propositions 184, 187, 209, and 227, this "Juvenile Injustice Initiative" is a frontal attack on communities of color, reflecting the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away.The Initiative is the latest battle in a nationwide, decade-long contraction of youth services and expansion of aggressive policies that have combined to criminalize young persons of color. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color have become public enemy number one.The Sky is Falling During the early 1980s, the government declared a War on Drugs, and a host of repressive new laws took hold in communities of color. Many now question the effects of these laws. Prison expansion and racial profiling have started to come under sustained attack in recent years. Even General Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, recently criticized discriminatory drug sentencing, saying, "It is clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime."Yet one core aspect of the War on Drugs remains unchallenged -- the targeting of urban youth of color as superpredatory, ultraviolent, drug-infested gangbangers. Here, public opinion has been herded in quite the opposite direction -- towards increasing fear.As so-called Generation Y comes of age some seventy million strong -- a cohort projected to swell the under-18 population by as much as 24 percent -- criminologists like Northeastern's James Alan Fox, Princeton's John DiIulio, and conservative congressmen like Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) have predicted a juvenile crime wave of tsunami proportions."America is a ticking violent crime bomb," warns a widely influential 1996 report, "The State of Violent Crime in America," by the Council on Crime in America (co-chaired by former President Reagan's Secretary of Education, William Bennett). "(R)ates of violent juvenile crime and weapons offenses have been increasing dramatically and by the year 2000 could spiral out of control." In the wake of Columbine, the chorus for punishing juvenile offenders has grown more urgent.In fact, violent juvenile crime rates have plunged during the 1990s. National homicide arrest rates dropped by forty percent between 1993 and 1997. Last year, California reported its lowest juvenile felony arrest rate since 1966. And nationally, juveniles account for just 17 percent of all violent crime arrests. The Juvenile Injustice Initiative reflects the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away. But the facts don't matter to race-baiting proponents of the War on Youth. The number of young blacks and other people of color is growing much faster than the number of young whites. Fox points to these numbers as an ominous sign. Does he have the sickening hope that racist stereotypes will prove his juvenile crime wave theory or is he just living, as Public Enemy once put it, in fear of a black planet?No Better Tomorrow Fear of youth and demographic change is not limited to rightwingers. Despite steeply dropping crime rates, most opinion polls find that adults are pessimistic about today's young people. A recent study by Public Agenda and the Ad Council found that three-quarters polled viewed children, especially teenagers, in negative terms.That pessimism is reflected in a major shift in juvenile justice priorities. "We all know that it's a cool thing [for politicians] to be tough on crime. What that translates into for us is being tough on kids," says Lateefah Simon, 22-year-old executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco.In 1899, Progressive reformers sought to reverse the horrible conditions and violence that children faced in adult courts and prisons by establishing a separate juvenile justice system. One hundred years later, tough-on-crime politicians seem to have abandoned the idea that youths deserve rehabilitation and concern. Instead, they seem to be embracing the notion that offenders are only worthy of restraint and containment. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. This notion is being implemented in state legislatures across the nation. Since 1992, 48 states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Forty-one states made it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles as young as twelve as adults. The number of young adults sentenced under mandatory minimums or jailed in adult prisons has grown dramatically. Forty states have been moving to make it easier to unseal confidential juvenile records.Across the country, the war has turned against young people. "In Florida, the same number of kids (have been) sent to adult prison on the whim of prosecutors than by the decisions of judges in all the other states combined," says Jason Ziedenburg, policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "And Florida still has one of the highest crime rates in the nation."Not surprisingly, youths of color are the overwhelming majority of the War on Youth's casualties. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. In California, 86 percent of wards in the California Youth Authority are of color."The stark reality is that racism is alive and well in the juvenile justice system," says Mimi Ho, an organizer for Californians for Justice. "They are saying, `Youth are our future -- but not kids of color.'"Code Word: Gangs The War on Youth's buildup began in the late 1980s, as jurisdictions increasingly fretted about rising juvenile crime rates and the "out-of-control" youths behind the numbers. In that decade, these "out-of-control" youths were labeled within a single racialized code word: gangs.But even the Department of Justice finds gang membership difficult to pin down. Gangs are often informal, with unstable memberships. Add the inconsistent data collection criteria in police agencies, and you have Department of Justice estimates of the number of gangs in the U.S. that vary from 4,800 to 23,338.If the numbers are elusive, the political opportunism is real. In 1988, then-California Governor George Deukmejian signed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988 (STEP), a model effort that the U.S. Department of Justice called "the most extensive statutory scheme to criminalize gang acts."The law gave gang-related offenses enhanced punishments, and created new crimes specific to gang activity. Under STEP, gang membership is punishable by up to three years in state prison. Most importantly, STEP wrote into law a process of determining who was a gang member. Today, most major cities and at least 19 states have laws similar to STEP and anti-gang units to enforce them.In 1987, the Law Enforcement Communication Network and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department began developing a large database -- the Gang Reporting, Evaluation, and Tracking System (GREAT) -- to collect, store, and analyze personal information about suspected gang members. Now simply known as CalGang, the database contains more than 300,000 names and is used by departments across the country. The Justice Department and the FBI also fund national databases.Databases indiscriminately criminalize youths, identifying "suspects" before any crime has been committed. Indeed, the definition of a "gang member" is hotly debated. In several cities, the ACLU has filed suits challenging local authorities' definitions of gang membership. Abuses are rampant. Racial profiling, it seems, is most virulent when it comes to youth of color.In at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the "gang member" definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas are sufficient. With so many of the crucial details left up to prejudice, the results are not surprising.In 1992, Actions for a Better Community (ABC) in Denver began protesting to local police that the city's gang database was criminalizing thousands of innocent youths of color. "Employers could call the gang list to see if a young person was on the list," says Gloria Yellowhorse, an organizer with ABC. A year later, investigations revealed that eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city were listed. Police met with ABC and quietly changed their database protocols.But minutes away from downtown Denver in suburban Aurora, any two of the following may still constitute gang membership to the local police: "slang," "clothing of a particular color," "pagers," "hairstyles," or "jewelry." Nearly eighty percent of Aurora's list is African American. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, "They might as well call it a black list."But Aurora is no aberration. In Cook County, Illinois, the gang database is two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, where less than half of young people are of color, 92 percent of those listed in the gang database in 1997 were youths of color. "The 'gang label' has everything to do with race," says John Crew of the California ACLU. "Frankly, we do not believe that this tactic would have spread so widely, and come to be accepted within law enforcement generally, if it was not being applied almost exclusively to people of color."To Sweep And Destroy At Coronado Mall in Albuquerque, NM, youths cannot even congregate. Like many shopping centers across the country, Coronado enforces a policy forbidding young people to gather in groups of three or more. Violators are cited for trespassing and banned from the Mall. Their records and photos are then turned over to the police gang unit for possible listing. "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color." Like other War on Youth initiatives, youths of color were the primary targets. "By [one security guard's] count, at least ninety percent of the kids that they brought in were Chicano or Latino," says Robby Rodr�guez, the 24-year-old coordinator of the Southwest Organizing Project's campaign against the Mall. "Ninety percent of the youth [hanging out] in the Mall were not Latino.""[The mall operator's] reasoning was that when young people get together, there's a tendency for them to misbehave and to get into trouble," says Rodr�guez. Such is the logic of the sweep -- whether public space or private, youth of color have been turned into a generation of suspects.In the last decade, sweep laws -- laws against loitering, anti-truancy ordinances, anti-cruising laws, and curfews -- have proliferated across the country. The result? Curfew arrests nationwide doubled between 1988 and 1997. In California, they quadrupled during the same period.But evidence suggests curfew enforcement is not color blind. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Ventura County, CA, arrests Latino and black youths at over seven times the rate of whites. In New Orleans, blacks are arrested at 19 times the rate of whites.The most famous sweep law was passed in Chicago in 1992 -- a gang anti-loitering ordinance that made it illegal to stand on the street with any person whom a cop "reasonably believes" to be in a gang. Under the ordinance, 43,000 young Chicagoans were arrested in just two years, the vast majority of them youth of color. Only a tiny fraction of them were actually charged with a crime."They were arresting lots of innocent people. It takes police away from the real work, and pushes them to simply sweeping youth off the street," says Jeremy Lahoud, a youth organizer with Chicago's Southwest Youth Collaborative. The law was so broadly dismissive of basic liberties that it was declared unconstitutional by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.The sweep mentality now pervades even school safety policy. In Oakland, CA, the school board recently voted to spend $1.13 million a year to maintain its own 24-hour-a-day police force. The only board member to vote against the plan said, "When we have to take money from our core educational function, the children suffer."At Lolita Roibal's high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a modern cavalry of police officers patrols on three-wheelers. "Motorized tricycles," she calls them. Students are searched before they enter the dilapidated buildings. "It just feels more like a jail than like a school," says Roibal, an 18-year-old Chicana.One day, she recalls, two sophomores got into a fight, "so out of nowhere like seven cop cars pull up." As Roibal watched, a cop yelled at a fleeing boy, "Stop, or I'll shoot, you little fucker!"Shocking? "No, I wasn't shocked," Roibal concedes with a sigh.No More Rehabilitation In California, a crucial vote on what opponents call the Juvenile Injustice Initiative will take place in March 2000. Co-sponsored by David LaBahn, deputy director of the California District Attorneys Association, and former Governor Pete Wilson, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act is a 43-page prescription to overhaul the juvenile system. At the heart of the initiative is the idea that offenders are incapable of rehabilitation.Supporters of the initiative want to scare the criminality out of young people. "Just like the Three-Strikes law has been a deterrent to repeat felons, if you realize that these are the consequences of your actions, we believe that most likely you'll decide a different path," says Mitch Zak, spokesperson for Californians to End Gang Violence and an Initiative supporter.These "consequences," say experts, would roll the crime system back to what it was in the 1800s. If the Initiative passes, 14-year-olds will be given adult sentences in adult prisons, including life without parole -- even for property offenses. And yet studies show that juveniles tried in adult courts are twice as likely to recidivate than their counterparts tried in the juvenile justice system.The law would also expand juvenile sentencing under Three-Strikes, and add to the number of crimes punishable as "gang-related." Before being placed in an intervention program, a youth would be forced to admit guilt in court. Cops could wiretap young people they identify as gang members, and those youth would have to register with the police like sex offenders. The law would also allow schools and employers to review juvenile court records by removing confidentiality rules, eliminating the chance that youth can outgrow their mistakes and move on with their lives.The result is a ballot measure -- one that the independent California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates could cost "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" in additional court and prison costs -- that many believe will be a more effective sweep of young people of color than all the gang injunctions, gang databases, anti-loitering ordinances, and curfews have ever been able to muster.The Task of Transformation Why this Initiative now? "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color," believes Lateefah Simon of the Center for Young Women's Development. Her group is organizing against the Initiative as part of the Critical Resistance Youth Force Coalition.The Initiative may prove a turning point in the War on Youth, transforming many youths into activists. "The right wing picked the wrong group to mess with, because a lot of young people have already been politicized by Propositions 187, 209, and 227," says Mimi Ho, an organizer with Californians for Justice, which is also fighting the Initiative. "People are looking at this Initiative as a real youth movement-builder."Carlos' own road toward transformation began when a friend helped him enroll in community college and a Chicano studies class. Hoping to finish his education and develop his activism, he now calls himself a lucky one. Yet he still lives on the edge, always within the grasp of the system or the streets."I think for me I feel like I'm always walking on a tight rope," he says. "I will always forever be in [a gang] because the police have put me down in their records, the courts have put me down in their records, and if things ever get bad for me, it would be really easy for me to jump back into the mold.""The transformation is possible, but it's really, really big," he says. "I'm still going through it, and I don't know if I'll ever finish it." If the Juvenile Injustice Initiative passes, thousands of youths like Carlos may never get the chance.*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.Ryan Pintado-Vertner works with the DataCenter's ImpactResearch Team and is a member of the ColorLines staff. Jeff Chang is managing editor of ColorLines.

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