July 24, 2007
Eddie Perez is a stand-up guy who used to be in a notorious Milwaukee gang. Now, Eddie is a dedicated husband and father of two working as a community organizer in one of the city’s highest crime areas. Last year, he was caught up into what seemed to be another example of police misconduct rooted in racial profiling and youth criminalization.
“I was arrested and jailed for five days because I was a young Latino male driving a nice car and wearing Dickies. This happened right outside of my house and the car was parked. The officers told me my car was stolen, commented on the clothing and took me downtown,” explained Eddie. “It is wrong for police to assume people to be in gangs. Since I have been away from gang activity, it hasn’t followed me and I haven’t followed it.”
As politicians from Congress to city councils line up to pass new gang legislation, innocent young people, especially youth of color and poverty, are harassed, arrested, assaulted and incarcerated for flashing signs, wearing Dickies, or leaving the gang and keeping some friends. Despite public opposition, including figures such as the county district attorney, a measure to crack down on gang loitering in Milwaukee passed the Common Council on June 19, as in “Juneteenth.” A nearly identical ordinance had been voted down by the same council a year ago claiming it would “do more harm than good,” citing racist enforcement, the redundancy of the law and the consequence of further dividing the city while increasing the strain on police-community relations.
The only change in this year’s version of the gang loitering ordinance is that the fines increased from $50-$500 to $500-$5,000. The ordinance defines “gangs” so broadly that noncriminal youth in groups could be issued up to a $5,000 ticket, and for many, that means jail time. According to the ordinance, someone like Eddie, who fits the definition of a “criminal gang member” as a person who, “at one time admitted to be a gang member but now claims that he or she is not a gang member, although he or she continues to associate with known gang members.”
Eddie Perez stated, “Look, I don’t think people are being shot out here because of gangs or gang activity; usually, it is because someone owes someone, like money. Back in early ’90s people got shot because you were affiliated with rival gang, now kids are not in gangs, they are doing other things like slinging dope or robbing people to pay the bills.”
Milwaukee’s anti-gang or anti-youth ordinance, depending on your perspective, lists six criteria to define someone as a “Criminal Gang Member,” subjecting them to the fines. Aside from previous admission to membership, the other five criteria include: the person is a self-admitted gang member; the person is identified as a gang member by a reliable and proven source; the person is associated with known gang members and uses gang signs, gang dress and mannerisms; the person has been arrested more than one time with known gang members for gang-type criminal offenses; or the person has been observed by law enforcement associating with known gang members at known gang locations. A suspect only has to meet one of the six criteria.