I am frustrated by the way the recent gang-related violence in the Mission is portrayed by most media and too many elected officials. We rarely hear anything about the victims other than their names and how old they were. They become statistics, without a human face. They are, for the most part, young people, people of color, poor people. They were members of our community. They were our family members, our neighbors, our loved ones. We should see their faces on the news every night, as we did Officer Isaac Espinoza’s. We should mourn them as a community, and be reminded that we, as a community, must urgently stop the violence in our neighborhoods.
Even more dangerous is the tendency to reduce the problem of youth violence to a problem of insufficient law enforcement. Immediately after the recent shootings in the Mission, Bayview and Fillmore, public officials began to frantically hold press conferences and to issue statements, calling for higher police presence, an increase of police officer positions in this year’s budget, an examination of the City’s Witness Protection Program, among other things. Rene Quinonez, a respected youth advocate in the Mission, and former gang member, says, “It doesn’t matter how many police officers you put out on the street, youth violence won’t stop until you deal with the root problems: poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunities.” He adds, “Selling drugs should not be the only way that young people think they can get out of poverty.”
I trust the opinion of young people, and of the organizers and activists that work with them in the trenches every day, that the violence will stop or be greatly diminished once we seriously invest in intervention and prevention. But, tangibly, what does this mean? What should San Francisco do to address gang violence?
First, the City must adequately invest in community-based youth programs that have successfully provided support and opportunity services to youth in the poorest neighborhoods. Every single youth advocate to whom I have spoken affirms that cuts in youth services leads to an increase in youth violence. Young people don’t wish to sit inside their homes all day, and they find the parks and buses dangerous due to the presence of rival gangs, so they hang out with friends on the streets. They become, therefore, more prone to inappropriate behavior.
San Francisco must adequately fund youth programs like the Central American Refugee Center’s (CARECEN) Tattoo Removal Program, which has been proven to save young lives; Conscious Youth Media Crew, which provides youth the opportunity to make films and videos; HOMEY, which provides vital support services to gang members; Communities for Harmony Advocating for Kids (CHALK), which conducts employment development for youth; and the Boys and Girls Club, which provides educational and recreational opportunities. These and other educational, mentorship and capacity-building programs are considered successful by the young people who access them because, among other factors, they are staffed by people who come from the same neighborhoods, and they are youth-driven. But HOMEY currently receives no city funding. The Boys and Girls Club has had its resources cut, and its facility on Alabama Street is going to be closed because there is “no money” to retrofit its building. These programs should not only be maintained, but expanded, in order to address the needs of youth facing overwhelming challenges.
Second, youth employment programs and recreational facilities must address the needs of young people who need the most support. Currently, most job opportunities are offered to youth considered “service friendly,” or who are part of a community agency network. Some youth centers are closed to those classified as gang members. Youth employment programs must outreach to, and provide the necessary support mechanisms for, youth who may be unable to collect referral letters or recommendations because they are gang members, habitual offenders or habitual truants. These young people are precisely the ones most in need of on-job training and access to promotional opportunities. Recreational centers must have the necessary support to open their doors to young people most at risk. According to youth service providers, this group of youth has the most potential to influence its peers once they successfully overcome obstacles.
Third, San Francisco must create and promote youth violence prevention programs that are based on principles of public health, not criminalization. Currently, San Francisco receives a grant from the Department of Justice to implement the Gang-free Community Initiative, a collaborative project between local law enforcement and youth service providers, which includes the Community Response Network (CRN). This project intends to reduce youth violence, but it is often perceived simply as an arm of law enforcement. Under funding guidelines, community agencies are required to share information with police, which ultimately leads to young people’s incarceration. It has caused many youth to mistrust the agencies, because these are perceived to “work on the side of the police” to put young people in jail. Community-based organizations should continue to collaborate in order to maximize housing, health, educational and other services to youth and children so that young people have healthy, not destructive, life options. They should not assist in the criminalization of this generation.
Fourth, San Francisco must create Community Police Oversight Committees, and must include youth to sit on these Committees. Community members must be more involved in all aspects of local law enforcement in order to maintain accountability between neighborhood residents and the Police Department. Youth have a disproportionate level of contact with local police and should be represented on these official bodies.This way, young people may provide their voice around issues such as police gang sweeps and police classification of gang members.
Finally, our city must become more youth friendly. Young people should be able to access movie theatres and musical performances without having to pay the exhorbitant prices that adults pay. San Francisco needs bowling alleys, and should not charge for the use of soccer fields in its public parks. Non-alcoholic, youth events should be promoted. All young people in San Francisco, regardless of their economic situation, deserve to have access to activities that stimulate and inspire them.
As a city, we have failed the young people who succumb to violent acts. And we failed those whose lives were taken by the violence. The most dignified tribute we can make to them is to take aggressive action and create healthy, peaceful communities. Young people have the will to work towards this goal, and it’s time that the City find the will to help them.
Renee Saucedo is an organizer with La Raza Centro Legal and the SF Day Labor Program. She is also a candidate for the SF Board of Supervisors, District 9.