Civil rights groups in Seattle are launching a last-ditch campaign against a bill they say would encourage racial profiling. The anti-gang bill passed through both houses in the Washington state legislature without drawing serious public attention, and has now reached Gov. Gregoire's desk, awaiting her signature to become law.
But opposition to the bill, led by civil rights activists and community leaders, has rapidly grown. Opponents say the bill would justify racial profiling and they have asked Gov. Gregoire veto it.
"We want the governor to just veto the whole bill," said KKNW radio host Keith Tucker, who has publicized the campaign against the bill on his show, The Keith Tucker Show (1150 AM). "It definitely is mostly people of color who will be impacted by this bill. White kids could be unfairly targeted too, but we know for sure that people of color will be impacted the most, because they already are anyway."
In Portland, the drug-free exclusion zones ordinance was dropped because of concerns about racial disparities in enforcement. Yet the prevalence of racial profiling is still under debate.
Introduced to the Washington House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of legislators including, Rep. Christopher Hurst, a Democrat representing parts of King and Pierce counties; Rep. Charles Ross a Republican from Yakima; Rep. Daniel Newhouse, a Republican from south central Washington; and Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat; the bill was intended to respond to public concern about gang violence. Some areas of central and eastern Washington have reported a jump in gang related crime.
Initially it included some funding for gang prevention programs, but that funding was removed as the bill passed through the legislature. What's left is legislation that increases sentences for gang-related crimes; toughens penalties for graffiti; defines a gang as three or more people who link up to commit a crime and share some identifying signature; and creates a police database of gang members.
"I think that everybody was a little bit slow in addressing the issue, but we are all here now," said attorney James Bible, who is president of the Seattle area NAACP. The NAACP has joined forces with advocacy groups, Centro de La Raza, United Indians of All Tribes and the Community Coalition for Justice to oppose the bill.
Bible said the bill would simply give police an excuse for stopping and searching young people of color.
"Given that gangs have been linked to people of color – typically Black and Brown people – we would see this as another means for unjustifiably stopping, searching and on occasion, arresting, particularly minorities," he said. "It basically codifies race profiling — which elevates this to be a larger concern because a lot of people who have done nothing wrong whatsoever will likely find their way into that particular database."
The database is supposed to track gang members, he said, but police often make judgments based on poorly thought-out criteria. He relates a recent complaint brought to the NAACP by a parent, who had dressed her two children in similar clothing for school. The students were stopped and photographed on their way home. Constantly being regarded as a suspect exacts a severe toll on ethnic minority youth, Bible said.
"The neighborhood handshake doesn't mean that you are a gang member; it means that this is your neighborhood," he said. "It's troubling that those sorts of things can later be defined as gang affiliation and justify the stop and detention of someone that may just be trying to go to school or work to pick up their kids or care for a loved one."
Opponents of the bill say police officers should not have the power to place people on a gang database, solely based on their suspicions.
"If youth are hanging on the corner or they're out in a crowd and the police stop them and the police recognize one of the youth as a potential gang member, or if one of those youth had a record as a gang member or an affiliation, then they can discretionally – at their discretion – say that all of the members of the group hanging on the corner are gang members," Tucker said. "Who has the right to say if somebody is a gang member? What if that ex-gang member is now an upstanding person in the community and they have changed their life but the police don't know it."
Tucker said lots of young people, particularly — but not only — youth of color, adopt hip-hop style dress. So do gang members. But it doesn't follow that everyone wearing that style of clothing are gang members. Tucker also argues that hip hop offers gang members a way to leave the street gang lifestyle.
"I'm into hip hop and I know that hip hop is a wonderful culture with people of all ethnic origins around the world; it's a phenomenon. But the only thing that's focused on (in the mainstream media) are the negative images and stereotypes associated with it – that's purposely done. So on my show I focus on all the positive sides," he said. "I know gang members personally who have taken their lives and changed their lives around and are now business people. They are no longer selling drugs; they are no longer committing crimes; they are running businesses and doing concerts. So that's the part we want to focus on."
Priest Amen, a member of the Community Coalition for Justice, works with former prisoners and gang members. He says many of the young men he works with want to be productive members of society and contribute to their communities. But they face serious barriers, such as lack of education and training. Putting these young men in prison for longer periods won't help them change, he said.
"The gang bill lacks any focus on prevention or education," he said. "It's all about an increase in arrests and harsher punishments. It will lock more of our youth up, which will end up destabilizing even more of our families."
The bill provides for names to come off the database after five years, but activists say the danger is that suspicions will follow people for far longer.
"The claim is that people will be in the database for five years, but there is no real proof that that is true," Bible said. "And anytime you create a database there is always the risk that it can get out to the general public at large."
Bible's other concern is that the increased penalties for gang members will disproportionately affect minority youth.
"…we are deeply troubled because – again, gang is code for Black and Brown children. And because it is code for Black and Brown children — even if they have done something wrong – they may end up in a place where they are doing more time in custody than a similarly situated person who is part of the majority group. This bill is constitutionally questionable at best."
Advocates opposing the bill met with Marty Brown, the governor's legislative director last week. They were told the governor will make her decision in the next few days.
The full text of Washington HB 2712, SB 6608, is available online at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/. To make your views known to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire 360-902-4111 or visit www.governor.wa.gov/contact/default.asp.
WEB EXTRA: Visit www.theskanner.com, for a story about how a local hip hop show was cancelled over police allegations of gang activity that rappers say are unfounded.