We hear a lot of talk these days about “inner cities.” During his campaign, our new president characterized them as “a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise, in every way possible,” and proposed ramping up policing as the catch-all solution. This ignores how racist practices like redlining caused this “disorder” in the first place. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color literally had big red lines drawn around them, deeming these sections undesirable and cutting them off from mortgage loans, capital and investments. Instead, the redlined communities got things like environmental hazards, waste sites, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants, while more productive businesses, jobs, and schools deteriorated. Yet instead of trying to fix any of the root causes of poverty and dysfunction, politicians focus on the symptom: crime.
I grew up in Stockton, California – a city marred by the scars of redlining. Historical documents show the redlining that happened in South Stockton and East Stockton, largely communities of color, marking them as undesirable neighborhoods. I personally experienced the effects of this neglect while growing up in South Stockton and going to public schools in the redlined zones. The East Stockton-serving Fair Oaks Library shut down and hours got cut at the other public libraries, leaving Stockton as America’s most illiterate city for two years in a row in 2005 and 2006. Recreational services for youth disappeared: The Hammer Skate rolling rink and Golfland got shut down, youth community centers closed, and Stockton Unified School District let go of hundreds of employees and cut critical youth programs. Cuts in funding to school transportation meant that I spent nearly an hour and a half on a bus to get home from school. The housing crisis in 2008 hit Stockton hard and gave our city the moniker of foreclosure capital, adding to our difficulties.
Yet, as all these services declined, one sector continued to grow.
Since the 1980s, along the highway 99 corridor, California built five correctional facilities and a prison health care facility. In that same period the state built only one public university, as funding went to law enforcement and building new jails. We saw a rise in incarceration rates, especially for nonviolent offences.
It hurt to see my city shift its priorities away from education and literacy in order to fund law enforcement and the creation of a school district police force that has given highest numbers of out-of-school suspensions out of 50 cities nationwide, according to an EdSource report. In Stockton and across the country, divestment from education and investment in incarceration created what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, where students, predominantly young men of color, get pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. Last year, I worked at Fathers & Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ) and mobilized with them around efforts to eliminate the School-to-Prison pipeline, and there, I met many youth who felt its impacts.
One of our youth organizers, Brandon Harrison, has “been in and out of the Stockton school system since the second grade, suspended over 60 times, and expelled twice.” He is now an active organizer speaking against the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2012, school police arrested a 5 year old arrested for class agitation and disruption; a police officer cuffed the boy with zip ties to constrain his hands and feet and charged him with battery on an officer — despite the later discovery that the boy suffered from ADHD. Instead of having teachers and counselors respond to the physical, mental, and emotional needs of students, we too often send police officers to deal with student discipline and further traumatize youth.
Disinvestment, neglect, and criminalization cripple low-income communities of color. Lack of law and order, where it exists, represents the symptom, not the cause. Focusing on police and jails also wastes money. It costs taxpayers $31,286 per year per inmate to incarcerate, while the average cost of tuition at a private university is $32,405. We can invest in better things than incarceration, like health, education and employment programs to build strong, sustainable, healthy communities. Instead of falling for political talk of fixing inner cities through law enforcement, we must fight to ensure investment into these communities and preventing the further encouragement of police brutality and increased incarceration.
Fortunately, the movement to invest in alternatives to incarceration to improve community well-being is catching on. Last fall, The California Endowment, along with community partners like Revolve Impact, Movement Strategy Center and the ACLU, launched a music and art tour to 11 cities to invest in #SchoolsNotPrisons, with Stockton serving as the final city on the tour. Stockton is also actively engaged in creating programs around restorative justice to bring people out of the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to continue to build on this movement and get more communities to shift their focus away from excessive law enforcement to restorative justice and healing practices in order to bring at-risk youth out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
If you are interested in seeing some of the work that is being done about this in Stockton, check out this video from Stockton’s All-American City presentation.