Los Angeles politicians have recently come together behind a proposed city ordinance that would allow police to arrest loitering street gang members. Mayor James K. Hahn, voiced his support for this new weapon in the battle against gang violence and drug trafficking. "Law abiding citizens shouldn't be afraid to go get a carton of milk at night," he said. "This ordinance will put gang members on notice."
Although the presence of gangs in Los Angeles is a prevalent problem that often leads to criminal activity and may pose a threat to public safety, pre-emptive police practices such as anti-loitering laws only stigmatize and indiscriminately target young men based on racial profiling instead of on criminal conduct. LAPD drug busts and massive raids have proven unsuccessful in establishing accountability and has resulted in police brutality and overly harsh enforcement on petty offences such as minor drug possession.
On the surface this ordinance appears relatively harmless. Gang members in L.A. were responsible for over three hundred homicides in 2002. It is incredibly clear that something needs to be done in order to suppress gang activity. The LAPD claims that there are over one-hundred thousand people associated with gangs in the greater L.A. area. They estimate that there are at least two hundred active gangs throughout the region.
This is not the first time this type of aggressive anti-gang legislature has surfaced. Numerous policies and ordinances have been put in place over the years in order to regulate and eliminate gang-activity. In most cases, the tactics employed simply did not work. In some cases, the tactics were an offense to basic civil rights and American liberties.
During the early to mid-eighties gang violence was on the rise in Southern California. Gangs that sprang from the idealistic Black Panther movement in the late sixties had gone through a metamorphosis. No longer were they counter-revolutionaries. Instead they had become violent drug dealers that were willing to fight to the death for their "turf."
The rise of new wave ultra-violent gangs coincided with the establishment of crack cocaine as the drug of choice in the ghetto. Two "super-gangs" with many smaller sets dominated the urban landscape. These gangs, known as the Crips and the Bloods, began to outfit themselves with automatic weapons and a penchant for gun battles in the streets of Los Angeles. By 1987, there was at least one gang related homicide every day in the greater L.A. vicinity.
Like the Tramp scares in the nineteenth century, or the Red scares in the twentieth, the contemporary Gang scare has become an imaginary class relationship, a terrain of pseudo-knowledge and fantasy projection. But as long as the actual violence was more or less confined to the ghetto, the gang wars were also a voyeuristic titillation to white suburbanites devouring lurid imagery in their newspapers or on television. (City of Quartz, 270)
The preceding statement was true until December of 1987 when a young white woman was gunned down near UCLA. The attack was a mistake, but the press coverage of the incident was not. Newspaper and television jumped at the opportunity to cover a drive-by shooting on a white woman. The result of all this press was twofold. On the one hand, there was fresh demand for police protection and the for prosecution of gang members. On the other, there was an outcry from the African-American community. This has been happening in black neighborhoods for years, but the police just didn't seem to care.
Racial injustice and a lack of restraint on the part of the police was at the heart of the problems to come. Police Chief Daryl Gates developed a number of plans with which he would infiltrate and eliminate the gang problems throughout the city. The major problem with these plans was that they were based on the philosophy that minorities were more likely to be gang members and as such, minorities would be monitored, patrolled and policed through racial profiling tactics.
Gates' master plan was called "Operation HAMMER." The backbone of this program was what seemed to be an all out assault on the ghettos of the city. Hundreds of police would storm the streets in so called "gang neighborhoods" and arrest anyone who appeared to be a member of a gang. Civil rights were thrown out the window as police stormed houses and in some cases demolished walls, furniture, and floors under the pretense that they were looking for drugs or weapons.
Obviously there were complaints from those who lived in the neighborhoods that were supposed to be grateful for this blitzkrieg type action.
The NAACP reported an unprecedented number of complaints, in the hundreds, about unlawful police conduct. Community members also claimed that the police were deliberately fueling gang violence by leaving suspects on enemy turfs, writing over Crip graffiti with Blood colors (or vice versa) and spreading incendiary rumors. (City of Quartz, 274)
Things were way out of control. Then it got worse.
On April 5, 1988, the police shot and killed an unarmed teenager. Supposedly he was a gang member and supposedly he was reaching suspiciously into his clothing. There were a lot of "supposedly's," but no evidence to back them up. Execution had apparently become one of LAPD's tactics in gang suppression.
Shortly after this first incident, an eighty-one-year-old man was also shot and killed by police. One witness stated that this elderly man was shot while his hands were held in the air. Apparently, this happened after officers raided the wrong address. This particular incident was easily covered by a statement from the LAPD saying that gang members were paying off the elderly to hide drugs.
During the HAMMER raids over fifty thousand suspects were picked up. A large percentage of these suspects were Black. At the time, it was estimated that there were approximately 100,000 Black youths in the greater metropolitan area. In other words nearly half of all the young Black men in the city were picked up during the raids. Not only that, but ninety percent of all those picked up were released without being charged.
Certainly a great deal of those who were arrested had done nothing. Racial profiling and perhaps even racism were at the root of the raids. Many African-Americans and Latinos were put into incredibly degrading and uncomfortable situations when they had done nothing wrong.
Curfews, set by politicians and police, soon became a matter of order in gang neighborhoods. The concept of implementing such curfews was a civil rights violation in and of itself. White youth in predominately white neighborhoods were never put under such restraints, while Blacks and Latinos were forced to follow strict rules about when and where they were allowed to be outside.
At one point an African-American police officer named Don Jackson began to compare the curfews and the raids that were being implemented in minority neighborhoods to apartheid. In order to make a point he led some kids into one of the more notorious areas.
They carefully observed the law, yet predictably, they were stopped, forced to kiss concrete, and searched. Jackson, despite police identification, was arrested for 'disturbing the peace.' Afterwards at a press conference, Chief Gates excoriated him for 'provocations' and a 'cheap publicity stunt,' descriptions more aptly applied to the LAPD. (City of Quartz, 284)
Politicians and police worked toward the construction of more prisons. The idea behind incarcerating people was not to rehabilitate or to educate, but to get them off the street for as long as possible. As a result, the laws became tougher and tougher. Teenagers were put away for years at a time for relatively minor charges.
On April 6, 1989, Nancy Regan was on site at a drug bust in South Central L.A.. After police hand-cuffed fourteen potential drug dealers and made them lie face down on the floor. The former first lady and Chief Daryl Gates, surrounded by a throng of secret service men, entered the "crack house." Upon seeing the men lying handcuffed on the floor, Mrs. Reagan purportedly said, "These people are beyond the point of teaching or rehabilitating." In other words, Nancy Regan supported Gates' lack of dedication to civil rights. And she supported the harsh punishments that were being dealt out to anyone who appeared to have any connection whatsoever to gang activity.
It is quite clear that the police involved in the raids during the late eighties were given way too much power. They were given the ability to harass anyone they wanted. The result was that prejudices and bigotry which might have been suppressed in a less tolerant atmosphere were given free reign. Indeed, when Chief Gates was questioned about the unusually high number of Black youths that died in custody as the result of a police choke hold, Gates responded with a remark which revealed his own underlying racism. "We may be finding that in some Blacks when (the carotid chokehold) is applied the veins or arteries do not open up…