Four hundred teenagers converged outside the four-star Hilton hotel in San Francisco, then pushed inside the plush lobby with whoops and chants. Many stood behind posterboards cut out to represent jail bars; other placards said Educate, Don’t Incarcerate. Once assembled, the motley group of protesters shot their fists in the air–the signal to stand still and be quiet. A designated spokesperson broke the dense silence: “We’re here to speak to your manager. We want to know why Hilton funded a state ballot initiative that would lock children up in adult prisons.”

Youth activists upset business as usual at a string of Hilton hotels in California in a recent campaign to protest the company’s contribution to Proposition 21, renamed “California’s War on Youth Initiative” by its opponents. (After youth repeatedly stormed the headquarters of Pacific Gas & Electric to protest its $50,000 contribution to the pro-21 campaign, that company publicly pledged neutrality on the initiative.) If passed on March 7, Prop 21 would prescribe yearlong prison sentences for 14-year-old graffiti writers and felony charges for middle school students found guilty of any activity loosely defined as “gang recruitment.” In “three strikes” math, this adds up to the real possibility of a juvenile doing 25-to-life for schoolyard robbery. Prop 21 would obliterate the concept of rehabilitative juvenile justice in California and perhaps beyond: The state’s initiative process has been a national trendsetter for repressive campaigns, spawning tax revolts, three-strikes laws, anti-immigrant hysteria and the dismantling of affirmative action.

Young people of color organizing against Prop 21 are dancing with a contradiction: how to win a campaign that requires swaying white, middle-class voters who have historically betrayed them at the ballot box and many of whom see them as the “superpredator” generation. The stakes are high at the polls but, perhaps, higher in the streets, as young organizers redefine what it means to win. Up against California’s booming prison industry, the movement’s leaders are tackling Prop 21 while also hatching long-term organizing strategies and building sustainable coalitions. Van Jones, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, explains: “Regardless of what happens on Election Day, a new generation of Californians is coming to political voice.”

The statewide organization Californians for Justice is helping to lead the fight. CFJ’s leadership is composed of people of color, mostly in their 20s, who were politicized and trained during the past decade’s crushing defeats on wedge-issue ballot initiatives. “We take on issues that impact low-income communities of color. So when we screen voter lists, we look for who’s impacted by the issues,” says CFJ co-director Abdi Soltani. Designed to circumvent the state legislature, the ballot-initiative process has attacked constituencies most marginalized from the electorate. CFJ’s counterstrategy is to build political power from the grassroots. CFJ’s army of young volunteers–more than 40 percent in its last campaign were under 20–attempts to mobilize those labeled “occasional,” even “unlikely,” on voter lists. Combining voter turnout with grassroots base-building, CFJ is targeting 500-600 precincts in low-income communities of color in its “No On 21” campaign.

Former California Governor Pete Wilson launched Prop 21 when he thought he had a shot at the Republican presidential nomination. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Prop 21 would try in adult criminal courts 8,800 more California children each year–a sevenfold increase. Over the past decade, forty-five states have made it easier to try kids as adults, but Prop 21–because of the sentencing power it grants prosecutors, the limitations it places on juvenile probation, the death penalty it creates for certain gang offenses, its definition and criminalization of “gang” association and the breach in confidentiality of juvenile court records that it proposes–would be the meanest, most sweeping policy in the nation. Prop 21 makes no funding provisions and, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, could cost California’s social programs more than $300 million a year.

Although its proponents and the Columbine-fixated media report otherwise, the forty-three-page initiative is not a response to a “juvenile crime wave.” From 1990 to 1998, California’s juvenile felony arrest rate dropped 30 percent, and its juvenile homicide arrest rate declined 61 percent. (By contrast, since 1990 the violent felony arrest rate for white Californians over 30 has increased 20 percent. For every other racial group over 30, this rate decreased.) CFJ’s Emanuelle Regis, a 19-year-old student at UC San Diego who lost a family member to police violence, doesn’t need statistics to state her case: “I take Prop 21 personally,” she says.

Though the electorate is becoming more diverse, it is still disproportionately white and middle class. Polls show that the majority of voters support any alleged attempt to crack down on gangs and don’t care about disproportionate racial impact or infringement of civil liberties (Prop 21 proposes guilt by gang association and mandates wiretapping of alleged gang members). But polls also reveal that after reading the initiative and information on its fiscal effects, 41 percent of likely voters said they will vote no, 24 percent yes and 35 percent were undecided.

With movement-building as well as their immediate electoral challenge in mind, No On 21 organizers are framing messages about the potential human and fiscal impact of Prop 21 that speak to their peers as well as to the wider electorate. They are debunking myths about rising youth crime and pushing for a shift in funding priorities away from prisons and toward better schools. Organizations like Critical Resistance Youth Force and Homey in Northern California and Youth Organizing Communities and Youth in Action in Los Angeles have learned from the mistakes of past campaigns, which lost by playing to the middle: conceding, for example, that affirmative action is a problem and contesting only how to deal with it, with slogans like “mend it, don’t end it.” Youth organizers are leveraging new resources–hip-hop superstar Lauryn Hill has offered her support–and venturing into new coalitions with labor, teachers and gay and faith communities.

For the youth movement emerging in California, the treacherous campaign against Prop 21 is also an opportunity to engage new leaders and build a solid foundation. Says organizer Ryan Pintado-Vertner: “We’re determined to come out of this fight with something we can hold on to–and that’s the movement. Whatever way the election goes, we get momentum. So we can’t lose.”