The New Youth Movement In California
by Elizabeth Martinez
Z magazine, May 2000
Last February, 42 mostly professional adults-lawyers, teachers,
civil rights leaders, and older activists-were arrested for shutting
down the Oakland jail to demonstrate against a vicious juvenile
crime law. They did this out of a strong belief that it was time
to show adult support for the many youth fighting that new injustice.
In the days that followed, teenagers came up to me and said, "Thank
you." No, I thought, I am thanking you. This article is about
For thousands of Californians, the new millennium brought
years of organizing work to a powerful climax with great promise
for the future. A future that may well witness a massive, multinational
youth force-radicalized, organized, and trained-as not seen in
40 years, if ever in the United States. Students of color have
conducted lengthy struggles elsewhere, like the long, anti-racist
sit-in at the University of Michigan in February-March. On campuses
from Arizona to Ohio, students have held often militant protests
in solidarity with workers in sweatshops or right on campus, while
Columbia is seeing another round of struggle for Latino Studies.
Winds of resistance also blow in Latin America, where the year-long
struggle at the University of Mexico has raged as well as massive
student and teacher movements in at least ten other countries.
Here in the ironically named Golden State, the upsurge was
triggered by a new law called the Juvenile Crime Initiative, put
on the March 7, 2000 ballot by our notoriously right-wing ex-Governor
Pete Wilson. Proposition 21's provisions filled 43 pages with
new measures that would:
* give prosecutors (instead of judges) the option to file
juveniles cases in adult court, and put 14-year-olds into adult
* condemn juveniles to death for certain crimes if gang-related
* define a gang as an informal group of three or more people
wearing certain clothing, as decided by police (gang-profiling,
which has swept from coast to coast like a plague, is probably
the most semi-fascist of all provisions)
* authorize tapping of phones of suspected gang-member households
* require gang members convicted of a crime to register with
police wherever they move, like sex offenders
* abolish confidentiality rules that allow young offenders
to go back to school or find jobs without being labeled criminal
* increase penalties, give longer sentences and extend the
"three strikes" law-for example, up to now damage from
graffiti had to cost $50,000 for it to be a felony, now the amount
would be lowered to $400; three felonies and you're in prison
California would thus join 40 other states that have passed
sweeping legislation to criminalize youth, especially those of
color,( as described by Mara Dodge in Z's March issue) Of all
the racist, repressive new laws, California's Prop. 21 would be
one of the harshest. Forget the fact that, between 1990-1998,
the rate of California's juvenile arrests for felonies dropped
30 percent and its juvenile homicide arrest rate dropped 61 percent.
Forget the fact that Prop. 21 would cost more than $1 billion
in prison construction and $330 million to implement, instead
of more funds for intervention programs. Forget the fact that
the record shows trying juveniles as adults increases the likelihood
of their returning to lockup after release. Forget the fact that
California, once a model, now stands 41st in educational spending
Prop. 21, the latest blow in the ever-expanding war on youth,
might have quietly passed last March. Its ballot description in
most counties led 90 percent of the voters to think the new law
would simply reduce carjackings, home invasions, and drive-bys.
But some young people were not about to let Prop. 21 sneak in-at
least not quietly. Their non-stop campaign against the initiative
carries one message loud and clear: a new movement primarily led
by youth of color has been born in California. A new civil rights
movement, some call it.
That's what the campaign was really about, much more than
an attempt to block yet another rightwing blow. "That's why
you didn't see people sitting around mourning the day after Prop.
21 passed, " said Jay Imani of the Third Eye Movement in
Oakland. "We are in a much stronger position now than 6 months
ago. We were able to organize people not just to defeat Prop 21
but for bigger goals, to educate youth to see the idea of building
a larger, long-term movement for changing the political and economic
realities of California." Favianna Rodriguez, artist and
campaign web-master, was even more definite. "The campaign
focus was always on training-training politically conscious youth
for a new movement-and it's been happening for thousands of young
people. When I think that 6 years ago I was in the 10th grade
and I have learned so much since then!"
Adam Gold of Concord-and Beyond (C-Beyond), based in conservative,
mostly white Contra Costa County north of San Francisco, also
emphasized the development of new activists. "Prop. 21 radicalized
a lot of young people through disillusionment with electoral politics.
They said, 'How come it passed (by 62-38) when we and so many
people were all against it?"' (In fact, the only place where
it did not pass was the four-county Bay Area, which defeated it
resoundingly, confirming the powerful youth campaign.)
Cecilia Brennan, of Youth Organizing Communities (YOC), saw
the explosion of youth activism in the Pico Union area of Los
Angeles, home to the current LAPD Ramparts scandal, as a major
victory. "It was a wake-up call-like when you get slapped
in the face and you're galvanized into action. Young people were
so directly affected by 21. They could see the economic realities
of having jails instead of schools, of the prison industrial complex,
which say youth are expendable and money is all that counts. They
could see how the whole educational system was failing. They became
so angry-and that energy is so contagious." "Often,"
added Lali Sosa-Riddell of YOC at UC San Diego, "college
students who had been inactive were really pushed to get involved
by the energy of the high school and middle school students. "
Different regions sometimes had different victories. "Unlike
the Bay Area, Los Angeles didn't have a strong tradition of direct
action in recent years," said Luis Sanchez of YOC. "And
it didn't have the training. But that changed with 21. Out of
all this action will come a network of people in southern California
who know how to do things."
With the Cry of "Schools Not Jails"
The story of anti-21 activism includes creative new tactics,
the key role of culture in organizing for social justice, the
need to deal with internal divisions, important lessons learned,
and deciding where to go from here.
This new movement took years to develop. Some San Francisco
youth had been energized and politicized during the 1991 Gulf
War. In 1993 primarily Latino youth were training and demonstrating
all over northern California against racist policies and programs
in schools, demanding La Raza Studies at the high school level,
and other educational rights. The organization first known as
Fund Our Youth, then StEP (Student Empowerment Project), VOS (Voices
of Struggle), and currently OLIN (the name means Movement in Nahuatl,
a language of pre-Columbian Mexico) organized massive school walkouts
involving 20,000 people over time in 1993-94. Mentored for years
by labor organizer Gabriel Hernandez, StEP played a seminal role
in building the current movement and devised the "Schools
Not Jails" slogan.
Major forces in developing the movement were the campaigns
against rightwing propositions 184 (3 Strikes and You're Out),
187 (No health and education rights for the undocumented), 209
(No Affirmative Action), and 227 (No bilingual education). The
Bay Area's Californians for Justice trained hundreds of young
people in electoral work. Some youth fought to block a new curfew.
Many worked in the campaign to free Mumia Abu Jamal and still
more were energized by the big Critical Resistance conference
exposing the prison industrial complex at UC Berkeley.
By 1997, Raquel Jimenez of VOS could say "The high school
students are running things now. They needed college students
as mentors in the beginning but now they can run their own meetings."
VOS's biggest effort drew over 4,000 youth to the new police station
in Concord for a dramatic protest demanding schools not jails.
Young groups with several years of activist experience like Standing
Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM) attracted
youth of color with their radical politics and street style, and
set up study programs that included revolutionary theory. All
this work and more laid a foundation of sophisticated and experienced
young people ready to help a new generation develop. "Veterans"
of 1990's activism, now in their mid-to-late 20s, played a key
role. They included many dynamic young women, whose leadership
was not to be challenged by sexism. This paid off during the whole
anti-21 campaign, when you could see the great leap in skills
and know-how made by female teenagers. Third Eye Movement in San
Francisco was not unique in having its liaison with the police
conducted by a 15-year old (mentored by a young Chicana) and media
relations handled by a 17-year old. In Los Angeles it was 14-year-old
Sommer Garza of YOC who handled media for a major demonstration.
When Prop. 21 appeared, then, youth were ready to launch what
many have called a new civil rights movement.
From Hip-Hop To Hilton
From the beginning, hip-hop-youth's resistance culture-played
a major, mobilizing role. An early example was the August 27 educational
event organized by Oakland-based Youth Against Community Injustice-Nia
(YACI), based at a high school notorious for its neglect by the
state. With hip hop and speakers YACI educated the audience about
Prop 21, Mumia's case, and the prison industrial complex. In September,
Third Eye Movement staged "Undersiege," with hip-hop,
poetry and politics. Black Folks Against Prop. 21, an Oakland
coalition formed by hip-hop artist Boots of The Coup and Marcel
Diallo of the Black Dot Artist Collective, organized a series
of "Guerrilla Hip Hop Concerts in December as well as voter
registration campaigns to attract new voters 18-35. The Malcolm
X Grassroots Movement also worked on voter registration.
As Jay Imani of Third Eye said, hip-hop's popularity and the
role of culture in general was key to the whole campaign. "On
a march, if the chants have a hip-hop flavor, young people will
join. It's also been crucial for drawing together youth of all
colors-because hip-hop is multi-ethnic from the get." Creativity
also showed in one of the most campaign strategies, launched by
Youth Force (formerly Critical Resistance Youth Task Force), a
northern California coalition of over 30 organizations. The strategy
was developed by the Data Center's Impact Research Team in Oakland
and targeted corporate funders of Prop. 21 with the message of
"fund schools, not jails."
In the first such action, C-Beyond youth picketed the offices
of Chevron and the Hilton Hotels Corp., demanding that they denounce
the initiative and' cease funding it. Chevron publicly pledged
to give no additional support. Because Hilton did not respond,
Third Eye members and others occupied the San Francisco Hilton
Hotel's lobby on October 27. Later, youth groups around the state
tied up the corporation's phone lines, demanding that chairman
W.B. Hilton denounce the initiative and cease funding it. In Los
Angeles, YOC organized an action against Hilton; in Oakland, youth
from a conference called Upset the Setup arrived at the Hilton
there to demand that the night manager deliver a letter to the
big boss with their demand.
The gas and electric companies also had their turn as Prop.
21 funders. Hundreds of youth picketed and occupied PG & E
buildings in San Francisco and San Jose (where Youth United for
Community Action, YUCA worked) and later visited a PG & E
brown-bag luncheon with the company's CEO. In Concord, C-Beyond
delivered a brick to the local PG & E manager, symbolizing
the prisons that the company's funding of Prop. 21 would build.
Youth clogged its phone lines for a week. Under this coordinated
assault, the company met their demands. The San Diego Gas &
Electric Co. also heard loudly from youth in that area called
Educate Don't Incarcerate. Above all, the anti-funder strategy
helped youth understand the economic roots of their problems.
Coordinating the Power
By late 1999 the level of organizing that had developed in
the Bay Area was being reached among southern California youth
too. They had held a meeting on Oct. 30 of high school and college
youth from 8 cities as well as formations including the Asian
Left Forum and the New Raza Left. Together they were building
a strong base in high schools where none had existed before.
Coordination between different geographic areas increased
in 2000 and more conferences took place than can be listed here.
Statewide banner drops organized by Olin and YOC occurred simultaneously
in Oakland, San Francisco, Daly City, Richmond, South City/San
Bruno, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. "We don't have
the money to buy billboards and air commercials to inform the
public about this repressive measure. So we're combating Prop.
21 with our art skills," said Olin.
With the March 7 election drawing near, 600 youth and others
attended a statewide conference in Los Angeles on January 29,
organized by YOC, Olin, and the New Raza Left, to plan the final
push, coordinate actions, and train activists in outreach, media,
web-page building and other skills. It was agreed to cap the campaign
with two "Weeks of Rage" just before the election. To
encourage the spirit of unity, the sponsor would be identified
as "Weeks of Rage" rather than any single organization.
The first Week of Rage began on Monday, February 21. In Oakland,
a hip-hop event called It's Not a Battle, It's a War stirred hundreds
of youth Then they marched over and blocked the street at the
City Jail, demanding that the adults arrested there be released.
They created such a ruckus that police soon freed three, hoping
to defuse the crowd.
The next day, in San Diego, 700 students organized by YOC
core groups in 15 schools walked out and marched down the city's
major artery. On Wednesday, students in six cities in the Los
Angeles area participated in coordinated strikes. Some 300 marched
6 miles through downtown Whittier (Nixon's hometown, poor Tricky
Dick) and rallied in front of our old friend, a Hilton hotel.
Youth actions exploded from Eureka, way up in northern California,
to Santa Cruz and even Stockton (hardly a bastion of protest).
On February 24 came a march of 500 sponsored by the New Raza Left
that went from the Aliso-Pico Projects in East LA to the LA county
jail in downtown LA, where they blockaded the intersection.
City jails continued to be a focus. In Oakland on February
24, hundreds of youth held "Get on the Bus I-the Siege,"
an event organized by Gettin' Down. Buses picked up middle and
high school students and then they marched through downtown Oakland
for protests at the city jail and county courthouse. Candlelight
vigils also took place that day at city halls in over 12 cities,
to remember imprisoned youth and for those who might be imprisoned
under Prop. 21. There were non-stop meetings to plan local actions,
precinct walking by Californians for Justice, movies, videos,
exhibits and even a dance against 21 hosted by Asian Pacific Islander
Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership in Oakland.
In the last big pre-election action in northern California,
youth and supporters-newly angered by news that Amadou Diallo's
police killers had been acquitted in New York-marched to a dilapidated
building in the Mission District where youth were often transferred
from juvenile detention. That night its dreary portable classrooms
were transformed into a "Liberation School" with bright
art and colorful signs naming the buildings for historical revolutionaries.
Hundreds of youth and adults gathered in the courtyard for an
all-nighter of militant celebration.
Inspired by Week-of-Rage energy, schools all over Los Angeles
were ready to walk out. To prepare for police attacks, intensive
training followed a mass meeting. March 5 brought 300 to 400 youth
out in Santa Monica, 300 in Los Angeles who marched to Belmont
High School, and candlelight vigils all over. On Election Day,
1,500 students from LA schools marched to the Sheriffs Station,
shutting down the city's major arteries. Police harassment soon
increased; officers would wait outside classrooms at Santa Monica
High to quiz students. No students were arrested but some did
get "Saturday School" as punishment. It was striking
to note the respect youth have won from parents and even sometimes
from the media.
In San Francisco, the day after Prop. 21 passed, 300 people
gathered at San Francisco's Hilton Hotel-where else? Ladies in
mink coats looked startled as youth filled the gilt-chandeliered
lobby, and stayed there. Police moved into that opulent setting
and began arresting a total of 175 people, marching them off to
paddy wagons in the night. Their young faces took on a luminosity
that combined defiance with dignity and said: ain't gonna let
no jailhouse turn me around, turn me around.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Everywhere youth were soon discussing: where do we go from
here? Students from seven areas of southern California met on
April 2 to plan future directions. Although the emphasis on specific
issues varies, the basic goal is similar everywhere: to build
a movement that could reverse the current trend of neglecting
schools in favor of prison construction. Many see this as an important
move toward basic social change.
Some organizations want to focus on the longtime struggle
for educational reform, especially in curriculum and specifically
Ethnic Studies. Before the election, youth in the Los Angeles
area sometimes made this demand along with their anti-21 campaign
work. For example, 300-400 students at Roosevelt High School,
which has one of the best-organized and most diverse core groups,
demonstrated and then met with the school district superintendent.
They won Ethnic Studies as a unit. Also, at one time their history
teachers always skipped the textbook chapter on pre-Columbian
societies of the Americas-like Mexico, where many of the youth's
families originated. "We want Chapter 12," the call
went out. By late February, they had won it. Roosevelt High students
also campaigned against Prop. 22, the anti-gay and lesbian initiative
on the same ballot as 21.
San Diego youth presented a whole program of demands reflecting
particular conditions in that area. As Lali of YOC pointed out,
a lot of high school students come from nearby Tijuana, Mexico
and often do not speak English. So one of their demands was "to
co-exist with others without fear of intimidation, coercion, or
harassment by any government agencies, such as the police, Border
Patrol, and school security." For 12- and 13-year-olds who
had been put in detention for speaking Spanish, that probably
seemed a more immediate threat than the prison industrial complex-although
they were coming to see the linkage.
In Los Angeles, YOC was preparing to send some people to the
April protests against the World Bank and IMF, and to focus on
the Democratic National Convention in August. Locally, they were
energetically constructing a more effective network and building
relations with other, well established community organizations
like the Bus Riders Union.
In northern California, many youth see breaking down the prison
industrial complex as a priority in the general struggle against
racist, capitalist oppression and exploitation. For Third Eye
Movement, building a labor sector and a teachers' sector in the
movement are important. At least one organizer is talking about
developing a youth/labor united front. Everyone wants ongoing
training and political education this summer, a process pioneered
by the School of Unity and Liberation in Oakland (SOUL) over the
last few years. Revolutionary Sunday School, as one program is
called, sounds like a good idea for lots of us.
Left forces played an important role in the anti-21 youth
campaign. In northern California, several of the most admired
youth organizations consider themselves Marxist or pro-socialist
and have been studying Marxist theory for some time. Others, especially
among Latinos/as combine anti-capitalist, anti-racist beliefs
with indigenous values and spirituality.
Important lessons for the future emerged from talking with
youth organizers in different places. Jasmin De La Rosa, director
of Third Eye Movement in San Francisco mentioned several. First:
"We need to learn how to negotiate with corporations, people
in power. With PG & E, I think we were surprised and a little
scared to be in the same room with them. It was hard to define
exactly what our power was and how to use it-it had been grown
in the street. We learned that we have to do things like tape
the discussions and get promises in writing."
Another lesson was learning how to work with other groups
that have different points of unity. "We need to step carefully
so we don't increase the risks of division," Jasmin believed.
"Who gets credit- that's one issue. We must always credit
a coalition before an individual. We mustn't be so possessive-ultimately,
it's the movement. Also, don't assume people have bad motives-assume
they have good ones, to start." Other organizers also emphasized
the importance of resolving internal conflicts.
Finally Jasmin mentioned the importance of documenting one's
work, so other people can pick it up how to do a demonstration
or civil disobedience. "Many people don't want to bother,
but we have to-we want to spread the word."
In San Diego, Lali talked about lessons learned that were
especially important for her area. "We college students didn't
always know what we were doing. We didn't realize the effects
of this area's conservatism and racism, and the police harassment.
Kids were upset to see fear on the faces of their parents, especially
if they were immigrants. We learned to be more real about what
California's movement by a new generation of young radicals
doesn't look like a burst of energy that will burn out quickly;
too solid a foundation has been built over the last decade.
Here is one more thought. Speaking with Diana, who is soon
graduating from a high school that she has made very nervous by
her non-stop Chicana activism, I asked, "But what will happen
there after you, a key organizer, is gone?" "Oh,"
Diana smiled, "my younger sister starts there next fall.
And I have two more sisters after that. Don't worry."
I don't think I will.