Photo credit: photodune.

Unfair gang laws in California discriminate

Photo credit: photodune.

Photo credit: photodune.

Gone are the days of racially segregated bathrooms, lynching of black males and the internment of Japanese Americans.  In modern America, overt and blunt government endorsed racial and ethnic stereotyping has generally become a thing of the past.  One of the exceptions: California gang laws.

In 1988, the state of California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act in order to “seek the eradication of criminal activity by street gangs.” In enacting the STEP Act, the legislature declared that California was in “a state of crisis” caused by “violent street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize, and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods” and sought to impose increased penalties on suspected street gang activity.  In doing so, our lawmakers sanctioned stereotyping.

In my practice handling gang cases, it has become abundantly clear that If someone looks a certain way, has certain tattoos, was raised in a certain neighborhood, and hangs out with certain people, law enforcement and school administrators will brand them as gang members.  However, through talking with my clients and learning their stories, I’ve learned that these alleged gang members often aren’t gang members at all.  Instead, they are merely products of their environment.  They don’t choose where they’re born, who their parents, uncles or cousins are, who they’re raised around, which schools they attend, or which neighborhoods they live in. As NFL player Richard Sherman wrote when discussing childhood friend DeSean Jackson and his alleged gang ties, “I can’t change who I grew up with,” and “Sorry, but I was born in this dirt.”  Yet, because of these factors that are usually beyond their control, my clients are labeled and demonized as gang members from a young age, a tag that they rarely can ever shake or remove.

This stereotyping preys primarily upon impoverished minority males, namely young blacks and Latinos.  In San Jose, my hometown, police commonly create field identification (FI) cards and place Latino youth in gang databases merely because of where they live, who their family members are, what colors they might been seen wearing, because they have a childhood nickname or because they are seen congregating on a street corner with friends. Once an individual is placed in a gang database or has a set of FI cards, there’s no way out.  His friends are also likely to find themselves in the database because of their association with a “known” gang member.  A house of gang cards with a foundation built upon baseless stereotyping.

Thereafter,  every crime these young minority males allegedly commit is deemed to be gang related.  Prosecutors, whenever possible, attach heavy handed gang enhancements to charges against these perceived gang members, thereby subjecting the accused to severe terms of incarceration and/or penal supervision.

For example, in a current case of mine, my client, a young Latino male in his early 20s, is accused of participating in and committing several robberies with four other Latino men.  Based on nothing more than their shared race, where they all grew up, who they spend time and communicate with and what tattoos they have, they are all branded by law enforcement as gang members.  The prosecution, in turn, has accused these co-defendants, my client included, of not only committing the robberies, but also of doing so for the benefit of a criminal street gang, even though nothing about the crimes themselves had any gang markings.  The robbers weren’t wearing gang colors, didn’t yell gang slogans and there was no evidence that the stolen money went to a gang organization or members.  The gang accusation, which exposes my client to a dramatically lengthier sentence than if the crime wasn’t allegedly gang related, is rooted in stereotypes, that because a Latino male may commit a crime with other Latino males that the crime must be gang motivated.

Surely, there are some crimes that are gang motivated and should be prosecuted accordingly.  However, for every one of those, there are countless other prosecutions that are not based on actual gang related evidence and instead grounded in assumptions and prejudice.  Black and Latino young men are not all gang members, nor is every crime they commit gang related.  If clients accused of baseless gang crimes are willing to forego plea bargains in those cases, juries will be exposed to the disgraceful realities of the racial and demographic profiling that are at the root of these prosecutions.  Public defenders and defense attorneys must be at the forefront of ending this government endorsed racism and bigotry.  We must demand that juries, and in turn, our communities, stand up against the stereotyping that is sanctioned daily in our country and courthouses in the form of gang prosecutions.

Editor’s Note: Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. He has a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UC Hastings. When not advocating for justice, Sajid enjoys playing basketball, football and baseball, and is a huge fan of Cal football and A’s baseball. He lives in San Jose, Ca with his wife and son. The views expressed here are his own.

On Losing Legal Legend Derrick Bell

By Nadia Ahmed

derrickbellOn October 5th, the law lost a monumental American, NYU Visiting Professor Derrick A. Bell. He was 80 years old when carcinoid cancer seized him. While news of his death may have been lost in the headlines because of the demise of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs the same day, Bell’s life deserves commemoration especially among Muslim Americans.

Bell was to social justice and constitutional law what Jobs was to Silicon Valley’s high tech industry and computer innovation. Bell was a rebel before the American Bar Association (ABA) ever began honoring recipients with the distinction of “Legal Rebel.” He was well-known for being the first African-American law professor with full tenure at Harvard Law School, but resigned in protest because of the lack of hiring of women of color. The New York Times reported that at a rally while a student at Harvard Law Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

At the beginning of his career, Thurgood Marshall recruited Bell to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund after he left his position with U.S. Department of Justice because of his refusal to end his ties with the NAACP.  In 1966, Bell was named deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Afterwards, he would start teaching law. 

I had the great fortune of being able to meet Derrick Bell in 2001 as a result of a series of emails back and forth between us. I was supposed to be studying for the LSAT in the summer of 2001, instead I started reading Bell’s books which I saw sitting on the same shelf of the Seminole County Public Library’s Casselberry branch as the LSAT materials: Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. For someone who is naturally reticent, I resort to writing as a preferred mode of communication. Bell had also taken the time to contribute to my 9/11 anthology, Unveiling the Real Terrorist Mind. He helped me feel comfortable in my own skin.

Looking back to 9/11, Muslims were scared and some even afraid to even leave their homes. Muslim leaders were issuing fatwas for women to remove their headscarves in public out of fear for their safety. I was more astounded and confused by the North American Muslim community’s reaction. This was not the first time our community had come under attack and it surely would not have been the last. For me, 9/11 was a time more than any other to reassert our identities as Muslims.

In Professor Bell, I found someone who had walked the walk. He was also one of the most spiritual persons I had ever known, who had a deep commitment to religious value, an anomaly in higher education, especially within the law.

Initially, when I heard of his death, I was saddened, but at the same time I felt reawakened and reenergized. I remembered one of those occasions when I had to the chance to sit in on his class. On the blistering cold afternoon of February 4, 2002, I trotted up to the NYU Law school building and was told that I could not enter the building because my name was not on the list of approved visitors for that day. From my days in journalism, I knew how to slip by security. I walked slowly toward the side exit door and when the guard was distracted by other visitors, I darted up the stairs to find the Secret Service central because unknown to me President Bill Clinton was giving a talk at NYU Law that afternoon. The speech had just concluded so I stood on the side of the hallway as President Clinton walked by and greeted students. When I finally got to Professor Bell’s class, I heard some of the students joking that they had “gotten their tuition’s worth” because they “got to meet President Clinton.” I laughed inside that I, too, had been able to meet the President without the exorbitant cost of paying NYU Law tuition.

When I was accepted to the University of Florida Levin College of Law a few months later and somewhat hesitant to attend, Professor Bell encouraged me by saying that the battlegrounds for social justice and civil rights are in the South, but warned me that the racism only worsens the further I progress in my life in the law. My law school days and the year or so after I was admitted to the Florida Bar were pure and utter whatever.

In 2007, Professor Bell had mailed me a copy of his book, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.  And it is that book that serves as my blueprint for surmounting obstacles and advancing where life leads.