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 why.

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 prisons

* 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 for life

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 nationally.

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.

Lessons Learned

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 could happen."

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.

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