April 25, 2008


Special Order 40 Not the Problem, Just Another Distraction

If this is really a movement to end gang violence, then why is it limited to Latinos?

By Jasmyne A. Cannick

In case you weren’t aware, sound bytes from politicians and well meaning street corner activists on the evening news don’t end gang violence. Neither do rallies, candlelight vigils or press conferences on the steps of City Hall. And despite what some are trying to feed us, not even the proposed modifications to Special Order 40, a Los Angeles Police Department rule that defines when officers can inquire about the immigration status of suspects, can do anything to put an end to L.A.’s gang infestation.

The only people who can end L.A.’s gang problem are you and me, and until we’re ready to do so, the drive-bys and murders will continue, and we’ll continue to be in a constant state of misdirected rage.

What happened to Jamiel Shaw II is sad and tragic. No person should be gunned down in the street like that. However, foisting our frustrations with increased gang violence onto immigrants is not the answer either. Before Jamiel was gunned down, how many brothers and sisters were gunned down by other brothers and sisters? The truth of the matter is, whether we admit it or not, when it comes to gang violence, black-on-black crimes out number Latino-on-black crimes considerably.

While it’s generally a good thing in my book when any of us care enough to raise our voices about the injustices faced in our communities, when we do so, we need to do it from a place of intelligence, honesty and responsibility.

It’s easy to blame Mexican immigrants for Los Angeles’ gang problems and, to be honest, this time last year I’d have probably been out there with some of you on the corner doing the same. As much as I’d like to point the finger of blame in another direction, common sense dictates that I don’t.

While it’s true that Mexican gangs have and continue to target black people, gang violence was long an issue before the recent surge in Latino-on-black violence. The Stop the Violence Movement of the 1990s wasn’t targeted toward Latino gang members; it was targeted towards black gang members.

So if this is really a movement to end gang violence, then why are we limiting our scope to Latinos? We could modify Special Order 40 tomorrow, mandating that officers report gang members here “illegally” to federal authorities. What real difference is that going to make in the streets of Los Angeles? Absolutely none. And if those same gang members are then deported back to their home country, do you honestly believe that L.A.’s gang violence would lessen, let alone disappear altogether?

There are more law-abiding citizens in Los Angeles than there are gang members, and yet we continue to allow these gangs to terrorize our communities and take lives day after day and then want to scream and holler when someone like Jamiel is caught in the crossfire.

Riddle me this.

How is it that the American government has no problem going into foreign countries, legally or otherwise, and spending billions of dollars in the process, to seek out those that it believes have plotted, or are in the midst of plotting, acts of terrorism against us. But at the same time, the American government can’t manage to demonstrate the same take-no-prisoners attitude here at home with our own domestic gang problem?

Here’s an idea: why don’t we take the same energy we’re putting into pushing changes into Special Order 40 into demanding that our congressional representatives fund the war here at home? Maybe then our police chief won’t come to us with the excuse that there isn’t enough funding for our gang taskforce.

If that doesn’t work, maybe the threat of losing their next election will. And that goes for our elected officials at all levels of government. If the city with one of the worst gang problems in the country can’t get the appropriate funding to put even a dent in the violence that plagues our neighborhoods, what good is it to us?

At the same time, we the voters can’t scream out of one side of our mouths that we want our neighborhoods free from gang violence and then vote down a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to add more officers to help carry out that mission. We cannot stiffen the penalties for crimes committed by gang members, and then turn around and scream bloody hell when black men are sent upstate for 25 to life. We cannot stand by and allow the funding for anti-gang programs in our schools to be cut and then protest the arrest of a 16-year-old for murder. We have to get tough about a tough problem if we want to see a change.

Understand that we the voters, either through our elected representatives or through our individual votes, created a system in which gang members today have more protections under the law than we do as their victims.

I fully understand the role that America’s institutional racism has, and continues to play, in the underdevelopment of black America. I know that it’s profitable for us to be locked up, so much so that our government has taken to investing more in building prisons than in building schools. And while I am not advocating that we build more prisons over schools, I am telling you that if we’re serious about getting rid of gang violence, we’ve got to accept the fact that there are going to be some casualties of war. And that those casualties in the long run will save lives, maybe yours, maybe mine. But if we’re serious about putting an end to gang violence that’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.

We should never accept from our police chief, mayor, city council, or district attorney’s office the excuse that there is not enough money to fund fighting Los Angeles’ gang problems. Just like we find the money to bury our sons and daughters, they need to find the money.

I am willing to bet that if it came down to finding the funding or the risk of not being reelected, Los Angeles would have a new and improved gang taskforce that produced results quick and fast.

But as long as we continue to let others pull our strings and divert our attention, the streets of Los Angeles will continue to run red with brown and black blood. Special Order 40 won’t change that. Well-meaning street corner activists blaming Mexican immigrants won’t change that. It will change when the law abiding residents of Los Angeles are ready for it to change, push for it to change and don’t stand in the way of that change. And not a moment sooner.

Jasmyne Cannick, 30, is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as they relate to the African-American community.

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