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.