Thirty years ago today, in my community, the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department was caught on video, allowing individuals across the globe to bear witness to the barbaric violence of institutionalized racism. The acquittal of those officers inspired an uprising that shaped my generation and resulted in substantial investments into many communities of color. Sadly those resources were never sustained because of a pattern opting for the politically expedient over systemic change. We now have the opportunity to do something bigger and bolder in our City.
Last summer activists took to the streets, not just in Los Angeles, but around the world to protest for racial justice and civil rights. The video of George Floyd, calling for his mother, gasping for air while a police officer knelt on his neck, was yet another infuriating example of police brutality captured on film, and the breaking point for the nation after watching men and women of color killed indiscriminately during a police interaction. The legacy we inherited as a nation, which we used to build our government institutions and systems, is deeply rooted in the oppression of people of color.
Thirty years later and we find ourselves standing in the same place, as the leaders before us, grappling with the same questions. However, today we have something they didn’t thirty years ago, hindsight. Los Angeles has an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of the past and to make meaningful change to the systems that have historically oppressed communities of color throughout the City.
Public safety isn’t simply about law and order. To truly make our communities safe, we need to address the root causes of crime and poverty and implement alternative policing strategies that involve the community. Business as usual isn’t working and we can’t waste another thirty years to realize that. Systemically what remains to be changed is reform of policing practices and accountability, investments in community based public safety and greater investments in youth.
Looking back at 10 years of arrest data from the Los Angeles Police Department shows that 32% of the 1.2 million arrests is made up of persons ages 10 to 25. Intervention strategies for youth should not begin once someone has a run in with law enforcement. Instead, we need to invest in programs that reach young people before they require costly interventions.
Stanford economists predict an entire generation has been impaired by the lack of class time due to the pandemic. They estimate household income for these affected students will be 6% to 9% lower and we know communities of color have suffered the most during the pandemic. Looking ahead, Los Angeles needs to be ready to support the young people of our city, to provide the scaffolding they need to heal from trauma and emerge from these difficult times, better prepared to support themselves and support their families.
The 800,000 youth in the City of Los Angeles deserve a system that is universally accessible, invests in developing their full potential and is structured, governed and measured to meet their needs. They deserve more than the status quo, which continues to preserve an outdated system that is grounded in the failed idea of investing in youth by policing them.
It’s not lost on me that often programs providing outlets for young people are the first to be cut during lean economic times. Any parent, educator or young adult will tell you, if the numbers don’t, this pandemic has only amplified the disparities in access to quality youth programs across our City. For some youth, the opportunity to participate in and benefit from these programs is dwindling because of the oldest lie, “we can’t afford it.”
The City has an opportunity to provide young people with a department that will meet their needs, and offer options to those that don’t have a village of support to get through their adolescence, like many youth coming out of our foster care system. Those for whom homelessness becomes a probability due to a lack of youth employment strategies that don’t just provide a paycheck, but open the world of possibilities. Imagine a singular department charged with the responsibility of securing our fair share of federal, state, and county dollars to better leverage city invested dollars to service the needs of young people. Imagine not making a one-time investment, but a sustained investment that uplifts youth and communities.
The time for bold action is now. It’s time to put an end to a system that promotes limitless spending on policing and prisons. We should instead invest in proven strategies that give every youth a real chance to succeed. It’s time to deliver a Youth Development Department.
We need to be the leaders we needed thirty years ago. For decades youth have been marching in the streets, not seeking to be appeased, but demanding change, the same change we sought in the wake of previous unrest. One time reprogramming efforts won’t solve decades of underinvestment, revolving infusions of dollars which expire during economic downturns. From the 18 year old who was ignited 30 years ago and grew up with bars on our windows, I say to you now, we deserve more than new drapes.