Youth Confront California’s Prop 21

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Louise Cooper

When it became clear early on the evening of March 7 that California’s Juvenile Crime Initiative (Proposition 21) had passed by a wide majority, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of San Francisco, converging outside the Mission district police station.  Earlier that day, more than 500 protesters shut down San Francisco’s Hilton hotel, protesting at the hotel’s support of the Initiative.

Prop 21 passed with 62% of the vote in spite of a highly organized and visible No on 21 campaign.  Organized opposition to the measure had been going on for over a year-street protests, free concerts, rallies and school walkouts.

The campaign brought together activists from longtime radicals to high school students who had never been politically active before.  Many were too young to vote, yet recognized this initiative as one attack too far.

Youth came out in force against Prop 21 because it effectively dismantles the state’s juvenile justice system as we know it. It sends more juveniles to adult prisons instead of youth facilities, and makes it easier for prosecutors to try youths fourteen and older in adult court.  The Act also includes numerous gang provisions, expands three strikes laws, and labels a young person a criminal for life by opening up juvenile records to schools and employers.

Sponsored by former governor Pete Wilson, and bankrolled by corporate heavyweights like Chevron, Hilton and PG&E, Prop 21 was designed to cement Wilson’s appeal among voters as he considered a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.  It follows a long line of recent regressive California ballot measures.

Californians for Justice (CFJ), a statewide organization established in 1995 to fight the anti-affirmative action Prop 209, was a substantial presence, organizing more than 400 volunteers to walk precincts in low-income areas of Oakland, Richmond, San Jose and Los Angeles.

Volunteers worked to build voter turnout by registering new voters and educating youth about Prop 21’s impact.  CFJ volunteers also helped bring out the vote against the anti-gay initiative Prop 22, coordinating gay activists and youth of color in a combined No on 21 and 22 campaign.

Critical Resistance Youth Force, a coalition of youth of color from around the Bay Area, conducted education campaigns in Bay Area schools, staged protests outside Chevron’s East Bay headquarters, conducted a voter-registration campaign, and joined with local hip hop organizations and artists to host free concerts and rallies.

Individual actions culminated in the February 21-26 “Week of Rage” as hundreds of youth coordinated conferences, mass rallies, candle light vigils, benefit concerts, and arts and film festivals in cities around the state.

Ultimately, what made the campaign stand out was its ability to mobilize young people with no previous political or organizing experience, including Black and Latino youth from neighborhoods that regularly face harassment by the cops.

Pecolia Manigo, a 17-year old high school junior who visited high school students as part of the Critical Resistance campaign, told the San Francisco Examiner, “I live in the middle of it all the time. I see cops picking up youth that are just trying to survive.”

Increased Police Powers

Prop 21 increases discretionary powers for routine police surveillance, random searches and arrest of young people.  It increases the use of wiretaps against gang members, loosens legal definitions for gang “association,” and requires gang members to register with police following conviction in a gang-related offense.

Even if applied within their legal limits, such laws are repressive.  Yet the law’s application in California’s inner cities goes much further.  The LAPD’s recent corruption scandal provides a case in point, revealing unprecedented police abuse of Black and Latino youth at the hands of the city’s anti-gang unit.(See note 1)

Searching for optimism in the wake of defeat seems difficult.  According to the state’s own legislative analyst, the initiative will cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year to implement, on top of the almost $4 billion a year the state currently spends on prisons and the $2 billion a year spent on punitive responses to juvenile and adult crime. (See note 2)

Rehabilitation is still considered a more effective way of reducing crime-yet this very concept, along with the principle that juveniles should receive different treatment under the justice system, is being steadily eroded.

This applies not just in California but across the nation.  Since 1992, forty-four states have passed legislation making it easier to try youths as adults.  The United States is one of only four countries to allow capital punishment for juvenile crime, and the thirteen U.S. executions of prisoners for crimes committed as juveniles are more than the total in all other countries in the world. (See note 3)

Cause for Optimism?

These overwhelmingly depressing facts shouldn’t stop consideration of the positives that came from this campaign.  First, Prop 21 was defeated in five counties, including Alameda and San Francisco where organizing efforts were strongest. (See note 4)

Across the state as a whole, 2.5 million people voted against it. This is despite the fact that information given to voters at the ballot was misleading and inflammatory, misrepresenting the initiative as an almost exclusively anti-violent crime measure. (See note 5)

The Proposition also had to contend with endorsements from both major parties (Democratic Governor Gray Davis publicly supported it) as well as a vigorous Republican primary that led to the highest turn-out in a California primary since 1976.  Republicans identifying with the religious right made up a bigger proportion of voters than usual, encouraged to turn out both in favor of Bush (against what they perceived to be John McCain’s anti-religious campaign) and in support of the anti-gay initiative, Proposition 22.

Given these circumstances, a 38% No vote should be seen as a something of a success.  Second, the campaign itself brought together a coalition of activists that included teachers’ unions, gay and lesbian activists, social justice and civil liberties groups, and organizations fighting for the rights of Black and Latino youth in our communities.

It mobilized middle school students, high school students, and those in their twenties, bringing many into the political process for the first time and creating a new generation of speakers, activists and leaders.  We shouldn’t underestimate the achievement of the No on 21 campaign in bringing the voice of youth to the forefront, in bringing substantial media attention to the Proposition, and in heightening discussion around issues of incarceration in general.

(With a moratorium on executions currently in force in Illinois and Ohio it would appear that, elsewhere at least, a discussion is taking place that is taking us in the right direction.)

Initiative for Whom?

The California ballot initiative process itself, originally conceived in the Progressive Era before World War I, as a tool to give (albeit middle-class) citizens greater control over the policy-making process, now serves as a powerful vehicle for right-wing, corporate-sponsored attacks on immigrants, affirmative action and youth.

Under current conditions it is unlikely to become a vehicle for democratic change.  Propositions 187, 209, and 21 were all heavily backed by corporate interests and either adopted (or in the case of Prop 21 explicitly created) by Pete Wilson as wedge issues to divide the electorate along racial and class lines and in his favor.

Once on the ballot, such propositions are extremely hard to defeat.  As with Prop 21, the 1996 battle to save affirmative action featured a strong grassroots campaign, but ultimately lost because it couldn’t compete financially, and because the legislation itself was complicated and written in a manner that was designed to confuse and mislead voters.

Attempts to reform the process (for example, to reduce the power of financial backers by banning the use of paid signature gatherers) have been unsuccessful, and represent only a partial solution.

While a short-term focus on defeating these initiatives is essential, attempts by CFJ and others to use momentum from these struggles as a springboard for more long-term community organizing efforts is important, and clearly represents a more viable route to radical change-which still begs the question of how this recent period of activism can be sustained.

Yet California’s attack on youth will continue to be challenged.  Activists in the hip-hop community have pledged to continue the fight against Prop 21.  The fight for justice for Mumia Abu Jamal continues with a strong youth presence.  Bay Area students have taken to the streets around a number of issues in recent months, including in support of the campaign to reinstate affirmative action.  The November elections will also likely include new anti-immigrant measures, thus providing a continued focus to many organizing efforts.

Whether the groups that came together around Prop 21 can continue to work together as an organized and coherent force remains to be seen. Regardless, the campaign’s numerous achievements suggest we are seeing a significant reawakening of radical youth politics in California that can only lead to positive results.


Louise Cooper has been active in the Californians For Justice.

ATC 86, May-June 2000