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Federal gang bill is ‘open warfare,’ says activist
By Nisa Islam Muhammad
and Saeed Shabazz
Staff Writers
Updated Sep 10, 2004 - 1:13:00 AM

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(FinalCall.com) - Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is offering the “Criminal Street Gang Abatement Act of 2004” as the answer to gang violence. This bill would make it a federal crime to participate in a “criminal street gang”—defined as three or more people who cooperate to commit two or more “gang crimes.”

“Local, state and federal officials here have been fighting hard to take gang members down and break gangs up, but they could use more help on the federal level. This law gives them tough new options to throw the book at gang members. It even makes it easier for them to pursue the death penalty when that’s the right thing to do,” explained Sen. Schumer during a June 21 press conference in Rochester, N.Y.

But activists working to transform gang members disagree.

“This is not the answer,” said Aquella Sherrills, executive director of the Center for Self Determination Institute, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles dedicated to sustaining the peace process that started with the Bloods and Crips gang truce in 1992.

“Statistics prove that draconian laws don’t solve this problem. They don’t address the root problem of mental, physical and spiritual abuse. Gang members didn’t title themselves. They came together as a result of the effects of poverty that destroyed their nuclear families,” he told The Final Call.

One of the most controversial components of the bill, S-1735, deals with prosecutors being able to treat 16-year-olds as adults if they commit murder, manslaughter, carjacking or armed robbery. Currently, only a federal judge may decide whether a juvenile should be treated as an adult in federal court.

Backers of the bill say that, while the law would allow U.S. attorneys to make that decision, a judge would still have the final say.

If S-1735 becomes law, gang recruitment may be punishable up to 10 years in jail; two gang street crimes may be punishable up to 30 years in prison; gang members who commit murder may be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison; and gang members may be given separate consecutive sentences any time they are convicted of both being in a gang and committing violence as part of a gang.

Critics of the bill say that it won’t have any positive impact on deterring youth gang violence or point young people in the right direction.

“Obviously, this is open warfare on our children,” charged Sgt. DeLacy Davis, founder of East Orange, N.J.-based Black Cops Against Police Brutality, and the only police officer privy to “gang” meetings in Newark leading up to the peace protocols by the Bloods and Crips signed there in May this year.

“Yes, we have a problem in our communities with young people who have organized themselves into so-called gangs, but this bill is not the solution,” he continued. “What is happening is that the mindset that built these private prisons has decided that our children shall guarantee the success of the prison industrial complex, which is a multi-million-dollar industry. This mandatory sentencing does not work; it causes a negative impact on city and state budgets.”

Rodney Dailey, founder of Boston’s Gang Peace, a non-profit grassroots organization that works with street gangs specializing in intervention, told The Final Callthat the bill will force the gangs to reinvent themselves.

“People will get hurt if gang members think they are being ratted on—in order to protect themselves from the onslaught that will come if this bill is passed—the streets will get more dangerous,” he said. “The murder rate will surely go up. This bill, S-1735, is a federal ‘dirty bomb’ that will explode on our streets.”

However, Sen. Schumer feels the new bill would give law enforcement more power and authority to prevent gang violence and punish it. The bill’s sponsors are calling for $663 million in federal funding over five years, from 2005 to 2009, mostly for the Department of Justice, with $250 million for grants to state and local governments to “combat” gang activity through community-based programs.

Dr. Malcolm Klein, Ph.D., a street gang expert at the University of Southern California-based Social Science Research Center, said that his major concern about S-1735 is that the bill shows no understanding of street gangs.

“This bill is inappropriate,” Dr. Klein explained to The Final Call, adding that courts tend to be influenced by prosecutors who push beyond what is necessary.

Analysts call it “gang culpability.” Yet, they believe that, if a gang member commits a crime that has nothing to do with his participation in the gang, then his gang affiliation should not be introduced at the trial.

The history of gangs

Gangs are a part of America’s history. They can be traced back to the 1700s and early 1800s, when gangs were usually comprised of members of the same race and ethnic background. According to www.knowgangs.com, they banded together for protection, recreation and financial gain. Those are many of the reasons youth come together today.

“This country was started by gangs—the Italians, Jews and Irish,” explained Mr. Sherrills. “It was documented in the movie Gangs of New York. There was a war between them, and when it was over the Irish took over law enforcement, the Italians organized crime and the Jews entertainment and everything else.”

Gang activity continued into the 1900s, with the Roaring Twenties, producing what many believe to be “the most notorious” gang leaders: Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and John Dillinger.

In the 1970s, Tookie Williams and Raymond Lee founded the infamous group called the Crips. In 1972, the Bloods were started as a rival to the Crips. By 1979, membership had spread all across the state of California. Today, members can be found in cities throughout the U.S.

A better solution

While law enforcement officials are reporting a spike in street gang violence, law enforcement activists are lamenting funding cuts for gang programs in fiscal year 2005.

According to Fight Crime Invest In Kids, a Washington-based non-profit think tank, the federal budget for anti-gang programs dropped 67 percent over three years. In a June story in The Washington Post, the think tank said that FY 2003 anti-gang funding was $547 million; dropped to $307 million in 2004, and is slated to drop to $180 million in 2005.

“Instead of bills from the Senate, we need programs for intervention and prevention that gang members can trust, not more jail cells or laws that add another layer of criminality. These young people need skills training. I have had to shut down my office because they say there is no more for organizations, such as ours, that work in the streets,” said Mr. Dailey. 

A successful example of gang reformation was celebrated last April, on the 10th anniversary of the historic signing of the gang truce initiated among four of L.A.’s most infamous housing projects.

In 1992, when the city was on fire with riots and racial tensions, gang warfare had reached an unprecedented high, claiming approximately 1,900 lives. While a large faction of the city took to the streets rioting in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, former gang members were marching for peace through the volatile housing projects.

“We used the peace treaty designed by Ralph Bunche between Egypt and Israel in 1949 as a model,” said Mr. Sherrills.

Former gang members and chosen representatives from each housing project began to redraft the language of that peace agreement to fit the terms of their gang truce. It partly included the “United Black Community Code”—a list of do’s and don’ts for gang members with the stated purpose of “taking the necessary steps towards the renewal of peace in Watts and Los Angeles as a whole.”

The code explains that, “No conflict of the land, that is, drive-by shootings and random slaying or any community representative organizations shall commit any warlike or hostile act against the other parties or against innocent civilians in the neighborhoods under the influence of that community representative (gang).”

It took two years to broker the peace, which led to a significant decrease in violence among Black gangs in that area. According to statistics released by the LAPD every year, there was 502 gang-related deaths in 2003, over half the amount at the onset of the truce.

“We know what works. Gangs are surrogate families. We have to preserve their integrity and instill morals and values in them. We must redefine the unwritten rules of the street, said Mr. Sherrills. “Gangs are at a crossroads. They will either become slave labor or legitimate entities.”


 


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