I was recently asked questions from one of my many connections in schools. Here are my answers -- it's about a new way of seeing work with gangs, incarcerated youth, and the loss of meaning in our time.
What do you believe is/are the main cause/s of youth violence?
There are historical, social and personal traumas in the lives of our youth. Also our culture is becoming devoid of meaning. Presently everything is in crisis -- including politics, the economy, and even spiritual matters. The disconnections are deep. Many youth feel numb, but others lash out (both are aspects of enragement). Parenting is losing its potency as well as schooling, mentoring and elders. We have to renew ways to see and respond to young people – with respect, meaning, and teachings, to reconnect in deep and powerful ways. Youth violence by the way is less than adult violence. How do young people learn their violence? Mostly from adults. The same government that wants to control assault weapons has drones killing civilians (and directed at us). There wouldn’t be assault weapons in our streets if not for government and business complicity somewhere along the line.The hypocrisies are increasing as the wellbeing of most people decline.
Do you feel there is a correlation between class and youth violence? What about race and youth violence?
Poverty is one of the biggest factors of trauma and neglect that also begets violence. Poverty itself is violence against people who have little or no power, against the working classes and the disenfranchised. Poverty numbs and enrages. Many youth may not know this intellectually but they feel the class differences. They know some people are rich and powerful, and they are not. They know most of this is due to injustice– social resources are not distributed equitably, and not because the rich and powerful are more valuable or more deserving. Of course well-off youth are also neglected, fed material things, and many times dispirited. This is why many go crazy in their gated community -- while the poor waste their lives in real prisons. Race is the historical means to control and disunite the working class in the U.S. and now most of the world. The violence of poverty strikes people of color particularly hard, linked to race or migration status. Racism is also violence.
When talking with incarcerated juveniles, what is the main message you aim to give them?
My main aim is to provide both the social and personal aspects of their liberation – even behind actual bars, but also in the metaphoric prisons of living this society. These liberations are linked to imagination, creativity, the arts. When young people find their own authority –their own passions, capacities, dreams, and story – they can begin to challenge with all their faculties the chains that have bound them to an archaic capitalist economic social order not of their making. Everything should be questioned, challenged, and/or renewed by every new generation. Being properly independent and authoritative means they are also properly interdependent and connected. Both are necessary. The “prisons” of their lives also include addictions, compulsions, rages, fears,and violence. They are wrapped up in the web of “the crazy life.” They need to start learning to own their own life – and not turn it over to others, to gangs, to drugs, to destructive impulses. I do much of this by telling my story.
In your experience, are most convicted juveniles willing to give up violence and be rehabilitated/helped? Are there resources available for them?
The vast majority of young prisoners can and will change their lives, but there are little or no resources or rehabilitation for this in most institutions. This is no accident. There are vested economic interests to keep youth lost, angry, criminal, and caged. When properly guided, mentored, taught, and trained (including to deal with their most destructive webs) they can become the next generation of peace warriors. This is the work I’ve done and witnessed for forty years. Late teens and early to mid-twenties is a major threshold time in anyone’s life – doors appear to open and possibilities open up. In particular the brain finally finds its shape by the late 20s. This is called attunement, a time to “tune” the harp of a person’s body. All society, all institutions, all therapies, and programs should be geared to this attunement process. While anyone can change anytime in their lives (indeed changes occur constantly even if imperceptibly), the “threshold times” (there are five major ones in a person's life) are key.
What kind of conditions do juveniles have to face inside the juvenile facilities and adult facilities?
Mostly I see institutional abuse, isolation being one ofthem. Another being placing blame on the perpetrators (when they are also victims). And the rest of us not taking responsibility for how a young person ended up in such places in the first place – ended up with a gun in their hand, with drugs in their system, and fodder for any kind of war, including in gangs. Most of this is environmental, interacting negatively with the biological (the complex interaction of nature and nurture are constant in all development). Beyond that I’ve seen or known of actual physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuse in such institutions. Youth are vulnerable and we make them more vulnerable, more accessible to other perpetrators and abuse. Punishment to remove the perfectly legitimate responses to an abusing, violent, narrow-ended world does not work. It becomes abuse on top of abuse.
Knowing you are against the sentencing of juveniles toLife Without Parole, could you explain your thoughts on the subject and most important reasons for being so?
No life should be wasted, pushed out or forgotten. LWOP is another death sentence – only the slow and grating one. Those with LWOP are removed from contribution, from full love, from family, from children, from the beauties of the world. This is another kind of death. Healing needs to be the key aspect of institutionalizing anyone, not pushing them into deeper folds of inhumanity. LWOP should be declared unconstitutional – a cruel and unusual punishment.
What alternatives are there to juveniles and LWOP? What do you believe works best?
The vast majority of troubled youth can be removed for a short time – perhaps three years for most major crimes and no longer than seven years for the worse. This is of course assuming real resources/rehabilitation are brought to bear. Youth don’t need arbitrary long sentences, but “enough” time to gather themselves, get attuned, get reconnected, and set on a path of their passions. Use these experiences as real initiations that in turn lead to fuller lives and a restoring of their place in family, community, work, art,and life.
How did your experience through the juvenile justice system effect you long term? To who and/or what do you credit your life turnaround?
I was detained since age 13 for fighting, disturbing the peace, and stealing. I ended up in various jails in the greater East L.A. area– the East L.A. sheriff’s substation, the Monterey Park jail, the San Gabriel jail, the Norwalk sheriff’s substation, and others. At 15, I was held for stabbing someone but released when the person stabbed (he lived) refused to identify me. At 16 I was placed in the adult section of murderer’s row in the old Hall of Justice Jail in downtown L.A. I had a cell next to Charles Manson. They were threatening to charge five of us “cholo” gang members for the murders of three people during a major riot. Even though I was lost there for five days and nights, they eventually let me go without charges. I was in juvenile hall twice for arrests, but never adjudicated, although once at 17 for attempted murder when four people were shot (again, the victims refused to identify me). These experiences only taught me to be a better criminal and addict, more violent and “untouchable” (how fear turns into stone). Then at age18, I got jumped by police and sent to the county jail, facing a minimum of six years in the state pen for fighting with police officers. This time I faced a crossroads. I was hooked on heroin, 25 of my friends had been killed by then,and I had no family or homies visiting. The only person who showed up was a youth counselor/activist who became my guide and mentor. Prior to this, however, I had begun to paint murals, go back for schooling, and become active in social change. This mentor got people to write letters on my behalf and show up in court. This was largely unheard of. A judge then gave me a break – perhaps the biggest of my life. He refused to try me for the felonies (although police clamored for this) and gave me time served in the county jail for “drunk and disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” During my time in jail, I began my first heroin withdrawals and refused to get more active in the higher echelons of barrio gang life. I left those bars committed to social justice – and I’ve never done any more time for criminal acts. I have, however, gone to prisons throughout California, the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, and Europe, for more than thirty years– my way of giving back by doing writing workshops, readings, and talks. I’ve been active in prison reform, gang peace, and prevention/intervention as well. Unfortunately, my oldest son got involved in gangs and ended up doing 15 years in state prisons, a way of how the madness called me back by claiming one of my own.
If you were to rework the juvenile justice system, what would be the first thing you would do?
The choices are not brutal punishment OR country clubs. People should see the juvenile justice system as an initiatory experience that can turn their life around – this should be difficult and require hard work. But the premise is: Every trouble and every lost road can be a doorway to more knowledge, more soul, and onto a hero’s journey. Use mythology, stories, song, dance, writing, theater, music, even digital arts, to draw from the inexhaustible and abundant reservoir of the imagination we all carry. To teach young people the direction and innate nature of their actions, decisions, and indecisions. Punishment is not even in the equation. Such institutions should be restorative and transformative. Change is one absolute aspect of human nature, yet we act as if things stand still. Being angry and hungry are natural to all of us. We just need to give it eyes, direction, and meaning so that the real angers and real hungers (not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit) can be taken to their completion. I call this process “Hearts & Hands,” not “scared straight” but “cared straight.” Using caring and proper emotional connection (the heart) from community along with skills, teachings, and "holding the ground" (the hands) to re-imagine and recreate even stronger community.
For two decades El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world, due to intense warfare between its two biggest street gangs—Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18).
The leading cause was the mass deportation of gang youth beginning in 1992 from the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom did not speak Spanish and had little or no families in the country. Since then the official response has been repression—more police and prisons. They’ve included anti-gang policies known as Mano Dura (Firm Hand) and Super Mano Dura. With billions of dollars invested into these policies, including from the United States, the gangs became larger, better organized, and more violent—recruiting from the thousands of homeless, abandoned and war-ravaged youth and children throughout the country.
However, something phenomenal emerged a year ago on March 9 when members from among MS-13 and Barrio 18 forged a peace in one of the country’s largest prisons, spreading to other prisons and the streets. Facilitated by Catholic Monsignor Fabio Colindres as well as former congressman and former guerilla Raul Mijango, gang leaders agreed to end recruitment near schools and to turn in rifles and other weapons to the Organization of American States (OAS) representatives. Most recently they’ve enacted “peace zones” where gangs would not commit crimes or violence.
In a year’s time the peace decreased violence in El Salvador from 40 to 60 percent; by December homicides went from 14 per day until five per day, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas. The gang leaders did what no repressive plan could do—bring a badly needed respite to a country that has been in some kind of war, including a 12-year civil war, for more than thirty years.
Yet the U.S. government’s Treasury Department in the fall declared MS-13 to be an international criminal enterprise, subject to the seizure of property and assets. And on January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens that placed El Salvador on the same level of security concerns as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Honduras, and Mexico. These actions indicate a dangerous disconnect between what is possible for public safety and our government’s response.
This past July, I took part in an 11-member delegation from the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) to assess the situation on the ground, and advise and assist where possible. The delegation included human rights advocates, a psychologist, researchers, and leaders in U.S. gang prevention and intervention programs from New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington D.C. area, and London—Chicano, white, African American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran.
We talked to government officials in the departments of health, education, and public safety including heads of the country’s prison system. We visited factories that hired gang members as well as schools, nongovernmental agencies, indigenous communities, and six prisons and a juvenile lockup.
Tattooed-faced men and women greeted us from behind razor wire as we were able to see firsthand the miserable conditions they lived under, including in facilities housing women and their children, also locked up in worn cellblocks, often without running water or electricity, in overcrowded cells and lacking decent food and medical attention. They told us that they were not “lost causes” or “without hope.” Many had children of their own—they didn’t want them enmeshed in the same level of violence they grew up with and in many cases participated in.
In September of 2012, TAGSPPES issued a report of our trip that concluded “all stakeholders must take part in a broader peace building process.” In other words, the gang peace must not just benefit gang members, but the whole of society, including establishing the necessary structural changes for real jobs, education, trauma treatment, housing, and humane prison conditions. Due to our efforts, clean potable water is being directed to many prisons. And books are being brought in to start libraries in these institutions with the support of people like musician and activist John Densmore, formerly of the Doors.
The peace building process will entail the backing of the international community as well as businesses, law enforcement, and the general population. Many in the present Salvadoran government agree, including Minister of Security David Munguia Payes and President Mauricio Funes, both of whom have challenged the official U.S. position.
For peace to last, it’s evident this will also require the backing of the U.S. government.
The United States does a major disservice by placing its resources and energies at odds with the immense possibilities brought to the table by gang leaders themselves, who are tired of the violence and now want to contribute positively to the development of their lives and their country.
It’s been proven that the single best path towards peace is when gang leaders turn their lives around, when they commit to raising families, when they dedicate themselves to working and educating themselves; and when they become the leading agents for making peace viable for all. Here’s an idea that now needs traction, something I have seen in my forty years of doing gang peace work in the United States and other countries: Sometimes from the most violent can come the most peaceful.
Give gang leaders a chance to make their own peace.
I’ve been to Venezuela three times in the past ten years – to attend the World Social Forum with the theme of “A New World is Possible,” as an official reader in the Caracas Poetry Festival, and as invited guest and presenter to their amazing book fair that looked at the possibilities of revolution in the United States. Each time I could see a country in the throes of new beginnings, striving for justice for those abandoned by present social and economic conditions.
During those trips I visited outlying areas, met with indigenous people as well as young people including activists, poets, artists, and workers. I went to marketplaces and entered free computer centers and medical facilities in the poorest areas. I also spent time in the slums of Caracas (similar to Brazilian favelas only in Venezuela they are called ranchitos), which had no lighting until their president Hugo Chavez made sure they had access to electricity.
Once I got to meet Chavez briefly, just before he gave a more than two-hour talk at the main sports stadium that held up to 100,000 people. This was hard for me. I’ve been trained in the fast-paced, ADD-inducing, TV flipping realities of modern times. I have a hard time listening to most people for more than five minutes before my mind wanders and my feet get antsy. But I didn’t lose interest. Hugo Chavez spoke mostly extemporaneously, citing the Bible, Karl Marx, poets, and others. He knew facts and history. He was funny, serious, angry, and gracious. He even sang. At the time the U.S. had George W. Bush as president, whom satirists and other political commentators poked fun at due to Bush’s poor command of English, of facts or of history.
And I couldn't imagine Bush singing.
Bush a few times characterized Chavez as a monster, blaming him for turmoil and discord in South America, although most of this was due to U.S. foreign policy decisions and third world capitalist realities. The majority of reporting and comments on Chavez in U.S. media were unflattering and downright slanderous. I always knew U.S. media, except for a few remarkable instances, misrepresented Latin America. Being there in Venezuela, on the ground floor – as I have done over the past thirty years in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Argentina – provided a fresh and more nuanced sense of what was really happening.
Yes, Venezuela is still poor (although Chavez in sixteen years cut the poverty rate by half). Slums continue to reach high up into the mountains surrounding the capital. There were also major political splits, although most of this fell into social class backgrounds – for the most part the rich (a small minority) hated Chavez; the poor and working class loved him.
Venezuela is also violent. For years, Caracas was known as one of the three most violent cities in the world. And Chavez had many issues, many holes in his doctrine as well as personality. I can be as critical about persons, parties and policies as anyone. But I also support unconditionally the Venezuelan people and their revolution – even with the back-and-forth, up-and-down nature of social change.
What the Venezuelan people have accomplished is a beacon for this continent – and the world. Venezuela represents hope and possibilities during this period of global electronics-based capitalism, when financial decisions in the office suites of banks and corporations of the U.S. impact more what Latin American countries do than their own elected presidents or legislators.
Chavez stood up against U.S. Empire. He stood up against those who would enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and working classes. He took over oil production and placed much of this income into bettering the country, but also in helping others. Chavez spearheaded a new Bolivarian Revolution, re-igniting the revolutionary spark that Simon Bolivar first lit to get rid of Spanish rule in the Andes region of South America.
Poetry, song, dance, political teachings, and more exploded in Caracas and elsewhere. Having free medical care and computer access – something not available in the richest and most powerful country in the world – is revolution in itself. I walked into one of those clinics, talked to the doctors and medical assistants, and watched as they brought the best medical practices to anyone who walked in the door. People needing help didn’t have to show their finances, their status, or even their passports. Rich or poor, Venezuelan or foreign, with no regard to religion, gender, sexual preference, or race – all were able to get this kind of attention.
Venezuela is a country of contradictions, like most countries of the world. But unlike many others it is moving in an equitable and embracing social economic and political direction. Hugo Chavez didn’t make this happen by himself, but he held the leadership.
Chavez died last week in Cuba from cancer. He was 58, born the same year I was born. I feel connected to his dream and his actions, his striving for more knowledge as well as his practice. Anyone who places a gulf between the two is missing the vital connection of how ideas become a material force. A vision, a plan, and getting things done – that’s Hugo Chavez’s legacy.
I send condolences to the Venezuelan people – who treated me as a brother, fellow poet and revolutionary – for the loss of their president: Hugo Chavez Frias.
Puerto Rican poet, band leader, and pioneer of the country's cutting edge in poetry performance, David Hernandez passed away on Monday, February 25, 2013 in the city he loved, Chicago, due to a heart attack. He was 66.
I met David thirty years ago exactly, 1983, during a fundraiser for mayoral candidate Harold Washington, who went on to become the city's most beloved mayor. I then moved to Chicago in 1985 and worked with David in various configurations of the poetry and art scene in that vibrant city until I left in 2000.
David Hernandez and Street Sounds were the performers to bring to any occasion. Combining David's humor, poignancy, and rhythms with words, the group took poetry to new heights. According to the Chicago Tribune, David once performed to a million people in Chicago's Grant Park and was commissioned to write a poem for the city's 150th anniversary. He worked with troubled youth in lockups and prisons, with the homeless, with the most forgotten and pushed aside. He carried the soul of his Puerto Rican heritage through words and music. At the same time he reached out and embraced all peoples, all colors, all of Chicago's amazing cultures, languages, and voices.
He was my friend and a poetry partner, helping me also create Tia Chucha Press in 1989 and in establishing the Guild Complex Literary Center. Along with books by Michael Warr, Patricia Smith, and Rohan Preston, David's 1991 poetry collection "Rooftop Piper" helped launched this press to national status. At one point he was declared the city's "unofficial poet laureate."
David also knew about drink, drugs, and the street life--in this respect we related, even as we got clean, worked hard to help others, and tried to tear away from the most debilitating prisons of the mind and spirit.
David was one of the sweetest person I ever knew; he always embraced me, treating me like a brother. The last time I saw David, Tia Chucha Press was doing a reading at Jak's Tavern and Restaurant near Greektown as an offsite reading for the American Writing Programs Conference in February of 2012 -- celebrating 23 years of existence. Also on the bill were veteran TCP poets Mary Hawley, Warr and Smith, among others, and new ones such as Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Luivette Resto, and Melinda Palacio. I recalled his big smile, as if he was enjoying not only colleagues but his children continuing to break through all boundaries as we revolutionize the world with words, ideas, and song.
David's legacy can be found in all that we do.
His spirit is now in Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore, which I helped bring to the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles in 2001 with a strong influence from Chicago's cultural cafes, theaters, art galleries, and studios.
Hermano, compay, te doy abrazotes fuertes -- que en paz descances.
This is a statement by Luis J. Rodriguez during a national CONFAB on February 16, 2013 for the U.S. Justice Party. Luis was the Justice Party vice-presidential candidate along with Rocky Anderson for president during the last presidential elections. He is author of many books, including the bestselling “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” and its sequel “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing.” He is co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore and the independent cross-cultural publishing imprint, Tia Chucha Press. In addition he was a co-convener in 2011 of the Network for Revolutionary Change.
In my work as a writer, community activist and urban peace advocate, I travel around the country and speak to thousands of Americans. Recently my trips have taken me to economically strapped communities in Michigan, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Let me tell you all these people, many without jobs or in low-paying work with no benefits, need a Justice Party.
I’ve spoken to youth, men and women, mostly of color and all poor, in juvenile lockups and correctional centers—in the past two weeks in California alone I visited Soledad and San Quentin prisons, the San Bruno County Jail, and the Alameda County Juvenile Hall… they need a Justice Party.
I read today that unmanned Drones have been bought by U.S. police forces under this current administration to be used against us—already those given the badge to supposedly “protect us” have shot and killed many innocent people in our urban centers. And they want police officers in all our schools?
As a former steelworker and organizer for AFSCME, it’s also outrageous to see corporations and banks steal the homes and livelihoods of union workers – they need a Justice Party.
To migrants from all over the world, but in particular those from the native lands of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, forced to leave the countries they love just to survive – they need a Justice Party.
To the neglected people in our Native American reservations, in our migrant camps, housing projects, trailer parks, and homeless enclaves, where for decades I’ve done workshops, readings, and talks – they all need a Justice Party.
Presently the interests and aspirations of the working class, of the poor, of the pushed out and neglected, are incompatible with the capitalist motive aim of profits over lives… and incompatible with a two-party system that has strangled the democratic process and brought war to our doorsteps.
This country, more than ever, needs a Justice Party, beholden to no one but the majority of the American people who cannot accept any longer the deterioration of our environment, our healthcare, our schools, and our economy.
These people are hungry for a new politics and a new America. They need a vision of what true justice looks like, feels like – one that can last. It’s time for new thinking and new ways to unite the most diverse cultures, to cross over our varied beliefs and even ideologies, pulling these streams into one energy, one ocean, in cooperation for the benefit of everyone, everywhere.
The technology is on our side, the digital revolution that has preceded the social upheavals and discontent in our midst. For the first time our governance can align with the best clean advancements and the immense capacities of the people.
It’s time for a new party based on a truly broad movement for meaningful and livable work, for peace and the healthy wellbeing of children, teens, adults and seniors. It’s time for the Justice Party.
I, therefore, challenge all of us – can we find the character, the courage, the big ideas needed to create such a party? Can we set aside the unprincipled differences and drama that has dogged so many burgeoning third parties? Can we find the people and whatever funds are necessary to get the Justice Party on the ballot in every state of the union?
To reach out, to awaken, to incorporate more activists, thinkers and leaders into a different kind of politics – this is our challenge. I, for one, am willing to assist this course of action – to see if we can finally break the slavery of the two-party system and begin a new road toward the emancipation of the American voter.
I’d like to end with a story – of a young Guatemalan who had legal U.S. resident status and who graduated from high school in the Los Angeles area. Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, age 22, became the first U.S. combat death in the last Iraq War. His citizenship was bestowed after his sacrifice.
Can we have a country worthy of people like Jose Gutierrez – who loved this nation and gave his all to the war makers, yet there are many like him returning home to little or nothing?
Please join with me in what is no doubt a historical and practical necessity. Join with me in making justice a reality for all.