Matt Nelson

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.

“That would include almost all my students,” said Lynn Klipstine, co-director of El Puente High School after reviewing the criteria. “I can’t think of any one of our youth that could not loosely fit into one of those criteria.” El Puente, an alternative high school, primarily serves Milwaukee youth who have dropped out or have been kicked out of other public schools, using small class sizes and a community co-teaching approach to help them get their diploma or GED.

Klipstine’s theoretical assessment on why young people drop out of school amplifies much of the research and experience at other metropolitan school districts; students have many reasons for dropping out and most of them center around economic needs and/or family demands. “Many of the students who drop out don’t see a future for them in school. They know too many of their family members or friends who are making money in ways that do not need a diploma,” continued Klipstine. “Oftentimes, there is a parent, sibling or cousin incarcerated, and the kids work to provide for themselves or baby-sit for their families, because no one would be at home.” Klipstine, who has been a teacher for the last 15 years, says she has not seen recent spikes in gang activity and believes that the most violent crimes are “strictly economic” and not tied to gang membership.

Are gangs the real problem?

Some members of Congress seem to think so. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) “Gang Abatement and Prevention Act,” called for increased incarceration as a means of reducing gang crime. Opponents of the bill argue that it would enhance an already hostile environment toward young people and feed into the mainstream fear and criminalization of youth. With possibly $250 million attached to this legislation, local governments are stepping around or over youth advocates to pass local gang loitering legislation that targets 15- to 17-year-olds.

“Communities deserve to be safe, and in the face of crime, we need to avoid failed, uninformed policies of the past and invest in programs proven to reduce crime,” reads a press release from the Milwaukee Police Accountability Coalition, the group leading the opposition to the gang loitering, or what is being called the youth incarceration ordinance. “This ordinance would target black and Latino communities for increased police harassment, arrests and detentions. Gang activity and violence in the city are a result of failed citywide economic policy and Milwaukee’s massive black and Latino youth incarceration rate is fueled not by an actual increase in crime rates but in the racial profiling and criminalization of people of color, poor people and young people.” The Milwaukee Police Accountability Coalition has pledged to legally challenge the gang loitering ordinance and has offered support to young people who are ticketed.

It is a combination of job skills, life skills and improving household conditions that youth social service providers envision will address the economic needs of young people. Youth worker and advocates further stress that there are many young people who want to work and are not hired. “A lot of young people are very ambitious about attaining employment,” commented Adrian Thomas, program manager of youth services for the Social Development Commission in Milwaukee. “The downside is that their skill set is not there. The life skills and job skills need to be there because at age 16, youth could already have the financial responsibility for younger siblings and from a socioeconomic standpoint if they feel hopelessness about being gainfully employed, they may turn to other ways of making money because it is a matter of survival.”

Thomas also acknowledges that there are many young people who are unable to find employment, citing the consistent waiting lists at agencies or government programs providing employment placement for youth. “Once they put the announcement about their hiring efforts, they have a waiting list. Young people tell me they need consistency and to only commit to something that you can deliver on, so we need to have a sincere and realistic approach in our understanding of the needs of youth.”

For more information about the issues addressed in the article, visit the Milwaukee Police Accountability Coalition.

Matt D. Nelson is a co-founder of the Milwaukee Police Accountability Coalition and the Freedom Now! Collaborative based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.