Friday, June 22, 2007

"Safety Zones" in California: Dennis Herrera's Bid for the Streets of San Francisco

With "gang" related violence going up along with the unusually nice weather in San Francisco, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has gone to court seeking to obtain civil injunctions against gang members in two very small areas and one large (60 block) area of the City (both in the immediate environs of public housing projects). See, SAN FRANCISCO City attorney aims to widen gang injunction.

Declaring these areas to be "safety zones," Herrera would require gang members to remain off the streets in these neighborhoods other than for school and work, and to obey a 10 pm curfew.

The gangs spread violence and fear through their neighborhoods, dealing drugs, killing rivals and innocents and intimidating law-abiding citizens, the city attorney said.

"We need to take back the streets," Herrera said at a City Hall press conference attended by police, prosecutors and Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Ross Mirkarimi, who represent the Mission and Western Addition respectively.

Do not let the fact that the orders are civil mislead you. This is governing through crime. The ordinary presence and conduct of adults in their own communities are directly regulated by law in order to prevent specific crimes from occurring.

As the presence of Ammiano and Mirkarimi documents, governing through crime is hardly a right wing monopoly in the US. Both Supervisors, and City Attorney Herrera would self identify as progressive liberals in American political terms.

Of course it is easy to conclude that circumstances like these, an upswing in violence among criminal gangs with a long history of violence, are just the kind of ones you would want to govern through crime. Crimes of extraordinary violence are the target, as well as the rights of hundreds of other ordinary residents whose freedom is curtailed by a sense of gang domination.

But even assuming such violence and intimidation is at stake, escalating degree to which ordinary behavior is governed as crime is not necessarily a helpful response. Indeed, there is much about the civil injunction model (embraced by some prosecutors and city attorneys since the 1980s, and by Mr. Herrera in an earlier crack down a year ago) to suggest it is a repetition of failed themes of the war on crime.

If, as the authorities claim, these gangs have operated since the 1960s, a spike in violence is likely to be the result of a specific conflict between the "gangs" rather than a structural feature of the communities. A potentially productive logic is to identify those specific gangs involved in a dispute and address them very specific promises and threats, like Boston's much touted "Operation Ceasefire." The logic of injunction just builds on the same problematic criminological presumptions that have misguided the war on crime right from the start, i.e., the "ecological fallacy" that neighborhoods are the source of crime problems, and that targeting them with one or another law enforcement intervention will solve those problems.

But to borrow a phrase from our friends on the locked and loaded right, neighborhoods don't kill people, people do. Freezing the mobility of gang members (even assuming we can agree on who rightly belongs in that category) in a specific area, large or small, is not likely to prevent partisans of both sides from finding other parts of the city to be out in public together and to pursue opportunities for the vendetta(s) to continue. Haven't we seen this play before, Romeo?

If we are really tired of forty years of gangs in San Francisco lets begin pulling our investment out of this identity. Without prisons to reinforce gang organization, most would remain loose neighborhood cliques. But like the musshegannah Israelis delivered Palestinian teenagers to prisons during both intifadas, facilitating recruitment by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc (see Jeffrey Goldberg's brilliant book Prisons for this story), we are delivering up the youth of our cities to prison gangs. More fundamentally (and driving the incarceration) we simply have to step up and end the illegal profits available for selling illegal drugs in the only way we've always known how to do that, i.e., by creating legal, taxed, and heavily regulated markets for those same commodities . Once "gangs" no longer hook you into a viable way to make money and honey, they will go the way of the hippies and other identities that had their summer of love (or hate) and then faded away.

Most pathetically, the rhetoric of "safety zones" is itself a repeat of a failed strategy of precisely forty years ago with the introduction of the "safe streets" idea by the Johnson administration in the legislation they offered in 1967 (see, chapter 3 of Governing through Crime). Of course the result is always the opposite. By talking of safe streets and safety zones we guarantee that the people in and around them will feel less of both.

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