A War on Young People

root - Posted on 28 October 2002

a protest and rally is held against the incarceration of today's youth and additional police presence in Oakland

by Andrew DellaRocca/PoorNewsNetwork Media Intern

At one point they asked,

"you been in jail?"

raise your fist…..

Drinking my bottle of water

I had to…

raise my fist

then they asked, "have any family ever BEEN in jail? "

raise your fist….

So now…

I have a water bottle stuck

in my mouth

& two fistS in the air ….

Finally they ask, "have any friends ever in jail?".

I decided…


to stick my foot in the air.

I was clearly….

out of fists

If they asked any more questions

I’ll have to be air born

…….At the Rally….Out of FistS.. ...by Charles Pitts, Po’ Poets Project

"I am the eyes of my despised generation," speaks Dat. Dat is a poet. Dat
is a youth. Dat has forgotten his lines and so has grabbed the book in
which his poem is written. Dat felt awkward because he forgot his words.
"I only wrote the poem a few days ago, and I tried to memorize it, but I
didn't have a chance." He pleads with us with the motion of his eyes and
the movement of his limbs. Us the audience, Us the activists, Us the
artists, Us the community, Us the youth. But Us does not need an
explanation. Us does not hold tomatoes in its grasp, ready to hurl at the
first sign of a mistake. Us only wants to hear the poem. Us only wants Dat
to get his voice and his words heard. Us cheers as Dat grabs his book and
continues his poem. Dat completes his poem successfully and exclaims,
loudly, that he is "NOT down with the lockdown." Us erupts in a victorious
applause. Dat raises his microphone to the sky in triumph.

"It makes me feel kind of messed up, you know, because a good percentage of
the juvenile hall right now is black, black kids. It seems like they're
just trying to put black and latino kids in there. Especially with 540
beds, why do you need that many beds? You trying to do something big time
and make more money?" Lamont, one of the organizers of today's event,
speaks about the plan of the proposed construction of a new juvenile
detention center in Alameda county. Lamont fits the profile of the majority
of the youth already locked up in the current juvenile hall- black,
sixteen, male. The construction of the new superjail concerns him directly,
and so he, and other youth like him, have organized the second "Not Down
with the Lockdown" rally; a protest against the incarceration of today's
youth and the additional police presence being formed in Oakland under the
administration of Mayor Jerry Brown.

I take the BART to Oakland from San Francisco. I go under the Bay. I go
over West Oakland, and it's warehouses, and the powerlines which carve up
its skyline. I arrive at the 12th street station, and walk from there to
the Frank Ogawa Plaza where the event is being held. The sky is at first
covered by clouds, but they break apart quickly and reveal the sun promptly
at noon, the scheduled start of the Oakland rally.

Oakland, they say, has become a more violent city. Mayor Jerry Brown and
the Alameda County Supervisors think that an additional 100 police officers
and the construction of a large juvenile detention center with additional
beds for additional offenders is the proper response to the increase in
violence. Van Jones, the national executive director of the Ella Baker
Center for Human Rights and one of the organizers of this event, challenges
their approach.

"Neither Jerry Brown nor the County Supervisors are the actual victims of
the crimes. It's the young people who are the victims of the crimes, and
they're calling for the opposite. They're calling for more jobs and more
schools and more opportunity for themselves, and I think its about time that
the government officials listen to what the young people themselves say
would solve THEIR problem."

And so those that are affected most by the violence in Oakland, the youth,
have come together in Frank Ogawa Plaza to not just protest the government's
response to their problems, but to promote a peaceful and creative existence
with each other. Spoken word artists, dancers, rappers, singers, actors,
one after the other, take the stage to speak out against violence,
incarceration, and poverty, and against those institutions which have
learned to profit off of them. The consciousness is high in downtown
Oakland. Each artist uses her own medium to express the issues which lead
to crime and incarceration. Colored Inc., a local group of youth artists,
rehearses a powerful skit chronicling the social issues that contribute to
youth violence. The skit ends with the resurrection of a murdered youth,
and his reconciliation with his murderer, a peer. Rashidi Omari, from
Company of Profits, creates a lyrical picture of an adolescent trapped in
the juvenile detention system, "lost in the abyss of thinking that you're

"They're trying to build it right next to Santa Rita [Jail]. So it's like,
OK, you leave from here, you're going next to Santa Rita. You ain't got no
hope. So you just walk across the street, you're going to the big time
prison." Lamont continues our conversation amidst the noise of the
performances, looking at me through the amber lenses of his sunglasses.
"You should try to go to the root of the problem, and try to talk to them,
try to talk to the parents, get the community involved with stuff like Not
Down with the Lockdown, help support, you know, throw little rallies, you
know, non-violence rallies like we're doing. We try to get everybody
involved so that we can stop the crime rate and everybody passing away."

California ranks 43rd in spending on public education. Meanwhile, it ranks
1st in the nation on prison spending. In addition to the money which will
be spent by Alameda county on the construction of the superjail, the city of
Oakland plans to raise $73 million to put 100 new police officers on the

"The youth of Oakland consider the Oakland Police department their number
one enemy and their number one barrier to having a peaceful life and a
peaceful existence. They call themselves peace officers but they act more
like war officers, and the war that they are prosecuting is a war on young
people. Adding to the police force in Oakland will just make the problem
worse," Van Jones explains. "These young people don't need more police and
more prisons, they need more opportunities. The safest communities in
California are not the communities with the most cops and the most prisons,
they are those that have the best jobs and the best schools, and that's what
these young people want for themselves."

"Now is not the time to be silent!" shouts the local hip-hop group Red
Guard, as they take the stage after the breakdancing group Critical Overdose
finishes their performance. The Destiny Arts Youth Performance comes on
shortly after, dancing and performing spoken word pieces. Dat's triumph is
the subsequent act.

As exemplified by Dat's interaction with his audience, the day's event is
filled with compassion, creativity, and, most poignantly, community. Each
singer, poet, dancer, and rapper that performs on this day is received by
the supportive applause of the singers, poets, dancers, and rappers that
preceded them, as well as by those that will perform after them. An example
of our youth's efforts. Society's welfare is not dependent on the
incarceration of such a future. Like the power lines that carve up the
skyline in West Oakland, more police and large juvenile detention centers
will only carve up the creative nonviolent efforts of California's youth

The Bay Area's youth have been extremely proactive in their campaign. Following
the precedents set by the Civil rights movement, they've done everything
from knocking on doors to marches and sit-ins. In May, they successfully
convinced the California Board of Corrections to withhold the funding from
Alameda county that would have gone toward the construction of the
superjail. They've formed organizations like Youth Force Coalition, Underground Railroad and Books Not Bars, who sponsored Saturday's Not Down with the Lockdown rally. "And
they're not going to stop," says Van Jones, "because it's their future
that's on the line."


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