SouthWest Organizing Project Youth Speak Out
The country is going to hell, and it's the young people who are at fault! At least that's the message sent by the latest anti-youth legislation bills, being introduced to Congress. Lawmakers are proposing legislation that incarcerates, discriminates, and violates the rights of youth.
New Mexico lawmakers, Congresswoman Heather Wilson and U.S. Senator Pete Domenici introduced the "Juvenile Crime and Community Protection Act H.R. 1498/S-838" (coincidentally dated the same day as the Littleton, CO incident). This anti-youth bill allocates $500 million to state and local government to "get tough" on young people by prosecuting juveniles ages 14 and over as adults, eliminating mandates that require incarcerated juveniles and adults to be housed separately, and having public access to juvenile court proceedings and records.
Young people of Albuquerque won't stand for this violence against youth! Youth and adults from the SouthWest Organizing Project and other organizations, held a Youth Speak Out on June 3rd in front of Wilson's office. The goals of this action were to spread awareness of this type of anti-youth legislation and to educate the public on why this particular bill and others like it, make bad law. Other objectives were to stop the bill from being passed, to show that there is opposition to this kind of legislation, and to request a meeting with the Congresswoman.
Topics addressed at the Speak Out were violence on youth, prevention and rehabilitation, youth in prisons, lawmakers being reactionary to isolated incidents of youth violence, and the inefficient use of resources.
After addressing the press and participants, we delivered a letter to Rep. Heather Wilson, requesting a meeting with her. A week later, twelve people (mainly youth) met with her. We agreed on some points regarding better ways of addressing youth violence but disagreed on others. To our disappointment, she showed a lack of commitment to solving the root of the problems and it was hard to get a straight answer on certain issues. Although the Wilson/Domenici bill allocates the bulk of the money for punitive measures, Wilson said there is money in her bill for preventative measures. However, we believe focusing on the punitive rather than the preventative is like taking one step forward, and two steps back.
When we addressed the issue of how anti-youth legislation affects people of color, Wilson said "I know racism exists, and I hate it." But what she doesn't realize, is that young people of color have to live with racism. Hating racism does nothing to remedy it.
The Congresswoman patronized us by first asking if we had read her bill (of course!) and was upset that we protested in front of her building. She stated that it is more effective to write letters when requesting a meeting and said that we were lucky that she responded to us with "open doors." "Any other politician would have not been so welcoming," said Wilson.
Discouraging us from protesting undermines our Constitutional rights. Civil and Women's rights would never have been achieved if it weren't for protests and the use of direct action. We were surprised that she, a Congresswoman, would make such a remark. She knows now there is strong opposition to anti-youth legislation.
So why are youth the target? Some people assume that youth commit all of the violent crimes. They also assume that juvenile crime is at an all-time high. In reality, youth commit only 13 percent of all violent crime in the U.S. (versus 43 percent, which the average American adult believes). There are also fewer homicides by juveniles today than 30 years ago.
Another myth is that our schools are unsafe. But schools are actually as safe today as 20 years ago. You are twice as likely to be killed by lightning than by a gun-related shooting at school. Lawmakers are trying to find someone to blame the country's problems on. But don't blame the violence in the U.S. on the youth!
Blame our country's problems on capitalism! The real cause of violence in the U.S. is the inequitable distribution of resources. It's easier to accuse teens of our country's problems, than to act on the millions of youth growing up in poverty. The average age of a poor person is nine years old. It doesn't help when youth are being portrayed in the media as superpredators. And it's not all youth that are being accused. Young people of color are a target, and have been for too may years.
Youth face injustice every day, when not allowed to cruise, hang out, walk in the mall with friends, and be out after certain hours. All of these laws are a violation of young people's rights. They fail to reduce juvenile crime, violate the right of parents to set rules for their kids, and overall are discriminatory.
This anti-youth bill is violence against youth. Prosecuting 14 year olds as adults is unjust. If lawmakers are going to start treating teenagers as adults, they will have to lower the drinking age and voting age. And forcing incarcerated juveniles and adults to be housed together is not a bright idea. Young people jailed with adults are eight times more likely to commit suicide, and five times more likely to report being raped or sexually assaulted.
All of these tactics and laws to "lock up youth" are a waste of money, space, time, and resources. We need to use what we have to work at the root of the problem! Instead of hiring more police, building more prisons, and imposing longer prison sentences at younger ages, we need to end poverty, enrich our schools, youth centers, activities, extracurricular and after-school programs (especially MUSIC), counseling services, and organizations that focus on the leadership development of young people. The SouthWest Organizing Project is one of those organizations.
Reprinted from "Voces Unidas" the publication of the South West Organizing Project, August 1999. SWOP can be reached at 211 10th St. SW, Albuquerque, NM 87102-2919. 505 247-8832. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and website: www.swop.net
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