Oakland youth rally to oppose jail
By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor
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
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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