Oakland youth rally to oppose jail

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

In Oakland, California a scrappy coalition of urban youth and their allies launched a desperate eleventh hour crusade last spring to derail Alameda County's plans to build the biggest per capita juvenile hall in the United States. Before a planned July 28 rally at the Frank Ogawa Plaza near City Hall in downtown Oakland the event organizers, Books Not Bars & Youth Force Coalition, released news about this important social movement.

According to the organizers' press release in mid-July, as recently as three months ago, no one thought the youth had a prayer. That was before they completely upset "business as usual" with an avalanche of "hip-hop"-styled protests. Now-on the eve of a key county board vote on July 24 and a major demonstration set for July 28-the youngsters appear to be within striking distance of a major, upset victory.

If they succeed, their triumph will add momentum to a growing national backlash against the over-building of prisons and the over-incarceration of youth. Even more important, it will also show the power of young people to steer public debate over youth policy away from budget-busting, "lock 'em up" solutions presently in fashion.

For years, public officials in tiny Alameda County (with a total population of about 1.5 million) have been preparing to build a 540-bed "jail for kids."

Despite the late-hour situation, this last spring, the Bay Area's Youth Force Coalition and the Books Not Bars Campaign decided to oppose it. They argued the facility would be too big and sited too far away for Oakland families. No one in government paid them any attention, so the youth touched off a virtual youth-quake: invading formal hearings to bombard the county's elected leadership with protest poems and rap music, marching youth descended noisily through the corridors of power, disrupting arid meetings of the state's top prison officials.

In May, after 70 youth crashed a stuffy meeting of California's Board of Corrections in San Diego, state officials waved the white flag. The board agreed to withdraw $2.3 million in pre-approved funding that was earmarked to help build the juvenile prison. The move stunned Alameda County officials.

Since then, opposition has mushroomed to the so-called "Super Jail For Kids." In recent weeks, children's advocacy groups, criminal justice organizations, community groups, labor unions and environmentalists have called upon the county to abandon the project. Two of the five county supervisors, Keith Carson and Nate Miley, have come out publicly against it.

"All we need is one more county supervisor to switch sides, and we will have enough votes on the board to stop this monstrous proposal in its tracks," said Rachel Jackson, state field director for Books Not Bars. This grassroots' campaign is sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco.

On Tuesday, July 24, the youth called upon the county supervisors to commission a new study, re-examining whether 540 beds are actually needed. The youth expect to win that vote which, they believe, will open the door to radically downsizing the proposed facility. As many as 1,000 people are expected to attend the July 28 Oakland rally.

"These youth came out of nowhere, won at the state level and are now driving the process at the county level," Jackson said. "At first young voices were no factor in discussions about building this massive juvenile hall. Now they are the main factor. Their success is proving that young people today do care, and that their activism can make a tremendous difference on issues central to their own lives."

The fight against the "super-jail" has become a rallying point for many that feel that the U.S. is incarcerating too many people, especially kids. California has built more than 20 prisons in the last two decades, but only one university. The nation's prison population has quadrupled since 1980. "Everyone knows that we shouldn't be spending millions of dollars to put more kids in jail," said Rory Caygill of the Youth Force Coalition representing more than 30 Bay Area youth groups. "We should be spending millions of dollars to keep kids out of jail."

A win for this youth-led crusade would add another triumph this year to a string of upset victories nation-wide against the incarceration industry. The dedicated anti-prison organization, Critical Resistance, won a major court victory this spring in halting construction of a prison in Delano, California.

Elsewhere, the national, student-led Prison Moratorium Project forced Sodexho Marriott, the largest shareholder of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, to sell off all of its stock at a recent shareholder meeting. Student groups had persuaded six universities, including American University, to cease using Marriott food services because of their association with privatized prisons.

Pay attention to racial differences, we're reminded. "The white, anti-WTO protesters have gotten all the big headlines," said Fela Thomas, of the Youth Force Coalition. "And that's cool, because we support them. We say, though, to not forget that we have youth of color out here, protesting and fighting for our own lives. That super-jail idea is like a big cannon - pointed right at our heads. And we ain't having it."

"Clearly, we are seeing the birth of a new civil rights movement," said attorney Van Jones, national executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "In the 1800s, young abolitionists fought against the enslavement of Africans. In the 1900s, young civil rights workers opposed Jim Crow segregation. Well, the Jim Crow of the new century is the massive incarceration industry, and the youth-led movement against it is our new civil rights movement."

For more information, please contact Van Jones at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights,PMB #409 · 1230 Market Street · San Francisco, CA 94110 (415) 951-4844 x25; Rachel Jackson of Books Not Bars Campaign, (415) 951-4844 x21; or Rory Caygill and Fela Thomas at Youth Force Coalition (510) 451-5466 x301.

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