Criminalized Black Youth: Where Will They Go?

Today, as my afternoon workday flew by, I came across a deeply disturbing headline. The piece was called, “The New Jim Crow North Carolina? Charlotte City Council, Police Consider Banning Arrestees From ‘Public Safety Zones.'” As someone who works with young people in highly criminalized communities, I was horrified by what I was reading. The City Council of Charlotte, North Carolina, is considering barring people from entering areas where they have been arrested, as a means of reducing crime. While this is not a new concept, it is the kind of policy that many municipalities have wisely tossed on the historical scrapheap of bad ideas. In Portland, Oregon, the practice was abolished in 2007, amid controversy over the disproportionate number of Black people who were subject to exclusion.

But what does a local law like this one mean, at this particular moment in history?

We’ve seen the growing pushback against the Movement for Black Lives in recent months. We’ve seen young people’s protests against police violence vilified and blamed for rising crime rates, with conservatives ranting on about the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” despite the fact that no substantive evidence supports any such association.  We’ve seen mayors like Rahm Emanuel demand stiffer gun laws and more incarceration due to their own failure to maintain services that could actually reduce street crime. And we’ve seen how our young people are treated by the system, every day, from schools that have resident police officers, but no art teachers, to young people who are harassed and abused on street corners by police, for no apparent crime.

One need only take a look at the comments on any major news story about a young person of color to see where our youth stand in this system. Without bothering to read the article, many will insist that any young person of color harmed by police “shouldn’t have resisted” arrest. I recently observed this tendency in a comment thread attached to an article about Rekia Boyd. Commenters congratulated each other on being sensible enough to recognize that fighting a cop gets you killed. Rekia, of course, was not resisting arrest, or even under arrest. She was walking home from a park with her friends when she was shot by an off-duty police officer who thought her group of friends was making too much noise. But her innocence was irrelevant to these internet commenters. What mattered, in their minds, was the snapshot of her young, Black face.

She was young. She was Black. She must have deserved it.

Having seen these tendencies manifest themselves in cases large and small, from the indignity of a baseless search to the long term loss of a young person’s liberty, I find the thought of what’s been proposed in Charlotte deeply distressing. And we all should. Because it won’t stop there. The criminalization of our young people is a standard practice in the United States, and with young people pushing back against police brutality, things are bound to get worse. Anytime the movement gains ground, there will be a backlash. History has proven as much.

So when we see a news story like the “safety zone” debate in Charlotte, we should recognize it for what it is: a preview of a story that’s likely coming soon, to a neighborhood near you.

I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to write an appeal to enter part of their own community, pleading that the state allow them access to their own home or workplace. I don’t want to live in the world we have now, where young Black and Brown people are treated as utterly disposable and inherently criminal. I don’t want to allow my city or any city to perpetuate anti-blackness with backward laws and thinly veiled recreations of Jim Crow. But living in a different world requires transformation, and that won’t come easy.

Quick fixes are rarely the real thing.

But we all know we owe our young people better than this. That’s why, today, I will be joining the young people of The Village Leadership Academy as they march for Rekia Boyd and against the criminalization of Black youth. It’s been a long week, but when young people tell us, “We are struggling. We are dying. We are fighting back,” and ask us to join them in action and in song, we have to show up if we can. Because we don’t want to live in a world where the students organizing today’s march are one day barred from their own communities over petty or non existent crimes.

If we want transformation, we have to support youth of color on the front lines, and we have to do it now. The enforcers of white supremacy are rallying against these young people. Will you rally behind them?

UPDATE: If you missed the march, where elementary students seized the streets in Chicago, you can have a look at what went down here. Give it a look and consider giving these young folks a social media shout out. They definitely deserve one.

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