Luis J. Rodriguez
PO Box 476969
Chicago, IL 60647
FAX: 312.252.5321

May 14, 1996

Open letter to President Clinton in the wake of his proposed legislation against gang violence May 13, 1996

Dear Mr. President:

Should doctors treat disease by dropping off patients at the nearest cemetary? This is similar to your most recent proposed legislation ("President Talks Tough on Gang Violence," Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1996) that includes computerized cracking and stiffer sentencing for juvenile offenders. This only addresses the back end of the problem. I want to know what is being done for the front end.

You want to be tough on crime, Mr President? Walk these streets of Chicago. Listen to the young people, who are quite articulate on their needs. Spend time with their families, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet in an economy that is creating the greatest disparity between classes in the history of this country.

To join a gang does not make one a criminal. Talk to the experts who have long understood that gangs emerge under certain social and economic circumstances. Gangs are a response to lack of meaningful work, to lack of social recreation (there is virtually nothing constructive to do in many communities), to schools that are in need of facilities, equipment and teachers.

Gangs have been in existence since the 1820s, when the Forty Thieves emerged in the slums of New York City. In 1857, the worst gang rumble occured in that city's Five Points area between the Dead Rabbits (mostly Irish immigrants) and the Bowery Boys that claimed more than 100 casualties, including police (you hardly hear about it because it was overshadowed by the 1863 Draft Riots, in which more than a 1,000 people were killed or injured). As bad as the violence is today, it's not *that* bad (even with the greater firepower in the streets).

Let's look at some statistics. Police say there are 125 gangs in Chicago and 100,000 gang members. Yet last year there were 300 gang-related killings. I agree, there should not have been any. But still, this is not 100,000 young people killing each other.

There is in fact more violence in domestic disputes than attributed to gangs.

Let me tell you now: it's also not enough to blame "bad" parents. Despite the fact there are many parents who shouldn't be wearing the mantle, this "line" is narrow-minded and off the mark. I don't fall for it. I'm a father of four children and grandfather of three. Parents have a lot of responsibility, but they cannot take all the blame.

This position only deflects attention from the real motive forces creating gangs. Forces such as deindustrialization and the transition to electronics. The greatest gang violence in the last 20 years emerged out of Chicago and Los Angeles, once the most industrialized cities in the country. For a time, getting a job in a factory kept many a young gang member out of trouble and out of prison. Today this is hardly an option.

It's not that we can get back to industry. Those days are over. The key is to integrate young people into the new technology with computers in schools that engage the creativity and intelligence of all students, with teachers, mentors, parents and spiritual leaders who respect and value young people again. Many people today, including your wife Hillary, have adopted the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child." We would do well to try to live by that wisdom. It should not be reduced to a popular cliche.

Recently I've talked to a number of police officers who feel the same way as I do. They know that giving them the greater part of the burden of the so-called gang problem is unfair and nonsensical. They are not trained to be social workers, educators or psychologists. Even with more police officers on the streets, without prevention programs, basic resources and proper educational opportunities, law enforcement will be trying to deal with what society has abdicated at other levels.

I work with many gang and non-gang youth and their families in Chicago. To join a gang in many parts of this city is a natural and rational decision to make. There are many complex reasons why a young person might join a gang (they are hardly ever "seduced" as the article stated) but the underlying issues are the same: their communities are economically and socially fractured. What these youth need are viable alternatives so they can advance in their lives.

Through proper intervention and prevention, I have seen these young people emerge as strong leaders, with dignity and a deep sense of their own power and subsequent responsibility. Many of them are now active in helping change the inequities in their communities. I've seen this over and over. I've worked with young people for 25 years in Los Angeles and Chicago.

To care. To listen. To act. It works.

Yet, with the issues becoming highly "politicized," these approaches are being pushed aside. Mr. President, stop being a presidential canidate and be a leader. Law enforcement alone cannot eradicate a problem that must involve the whole community -- its churches, institutions, businesses, schools, parents, and young people. It will not change ("It's never-ending," Chicago's U.S. Attorney James Burns tells reporters) unless you address the role government has in this regard (which I say is plenty).

Answer me this: while libraries are closing, while schools in our city are crumbling, and some classrooms have more than 40 students to a teacher, while colleges are dropping programs that once allowed inner-city youth to participate, why is it that we see more prisons -- including the brand new multi-million dollar Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and the new Cook County Jail addition -- on the rise? As the saying goes, "if you build them they will come!" If you build more colleges, more schools, more technological training centers, and provide decent jobs, they will come. What do you think will happen, Mr. President, if you place many of our tax-burdened resources on prisons?

The best way to treat disease is to prevent it. The same goes for violence in our communities, gang-related or otherwise. If you are serious, they rely on the experts who have worked these streets for years, including some police officers. Do all you can to prevent the violence, not just respond -- in an election year no less -- after the fact.

Doesn't this make sense, Mr. President?


Luis J. Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez is active in Youth Struggling for Survival, a non-for-profit youth empowering organization, and in the Increase the Peace Network, made up of leaders representing more than a dozen agencies, churches and organizations in the Chicago area. He is the award-winning author of "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A."


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