Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 27: Going to the candidates debate

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The following opinions are personal and should not be considered representative of my place of employment.

Last night there was a candidates forum for the upcoming juvenile justice court elections in New Orleans. The event was relevant to my job - I work with court-involved teenagers - and with the promise of "light refreshments," I was good to go.

Little did I know what obscenities were about to unfold.

The four candidates were all middle-ageish with varying degrees of experience with the legal system and youth issues. They were speaking to an audience composed mainly of youth services and advocacy workers and students enrolled in a GED program, a demographic perhaps not ideal for the subsequent conversation about what type of youth can be "rehabilitated" and what type "needed" to be locked up. ["There are lions and tigers and bears that just cannot participate in our society," candidate Doug Hammel theorized. "And there are squirrels and rabbits that can."]

The questions for the candidates had been prepared in advance by the GED students, so they were usefully and amusingly direct: The first was something to the effect of, "What do you see as the role of a judge, aside from locking youth up and setting them free?"

Hammel introduced his credentials by speaking at length about his undergraduate "justice" studies at American University in Washington, DC. Now, I too studied "justice" at a well-regarded Northeastern college, but I in no way feel this qualifies me to be a criminal court judge in Orleans Parish. Actually, I've come to understand how such a pursuit counts against me in certain ways. At this forum, I might have highlighted my experience working with youth, or any other indicator of cultural competency. Obviously another audience member agreed with me; I literally heard someone murmuring, "Yankee go home."

Hammel also discussed his objective to enable children to "have the ability to participate in the school band," which is a goal I don't necessarily oppose, but it ignores the disjointed scholastic experience of many New Orleans children who frequently have to switch schools due to rampant expulsions and incarcerations, mid-year revocations of school charters, and other shuffles in our area public education system. That aside, where is the funding for all this musical training?

The other candidates sounded equally unpromising at first: George "Gino" Gates also played up his Washington, DC-based experience, having advocated extensively for alternative charter schools (aka privatized daytime jails for "bad" kids). Yolanda King talked about her work as a long-term criminal justice prosecutor, sporting an "80% win rate." Cynthia Samuel discussed the importance of not "chipping away at the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment," an extremely good - if awkwardly stated - point. But she went on to sing the praises of so-called child protective services which, in my experience, often do more to pull families apart than to stabilize them.

Throughout the event, I was texting updates from the proceedings to a colleague at another youth services agency. Here is a sampling of our correspondence, edited for clarity:

Me: I'm at the juvenile judge candidates forum and it's offensive.
L: I couldn't do it. Had to sit that one out.
Me: Yeah for real. They're all saying parents are the problem.
Me: They're talking about whether they would lock up nonviolent offenders. Two have said absolutely no, which is interesting.

Samuel agreed, saying she could not "imagine a circumstance when I would lock up a nonviolent offender. But overnight in jail," she elaborated "...sometimes - and parents should know this but they don't always - you have to be strict with kids...so they understand that you have to follow the rules."

Sure. Just like getting grounded, only they're in FUCKING JAIL.

The candidates continued to undermine parental authority throughout the conversation, King asserting that parenting classes would help parents "figure out what to do with their children so they don't continue to commit crimes."

There was a shared opinion that something is wrong with the child who gets arrested. Rehabilitation is possible, but only if (overworked? underfunded?) social workers, probation officers, teachers, and (stressed out?) parents act in accordance with the judge's wishes. There was little questioning of the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating problems for youth and their families. The law was seen as something absolute and unbiased.

Hammel and Samuel pontificated on the "multifaceted" issues some children have, including untreated emotional problems. Most of the youth I work with are on some kind of medication regimen to treat psychological disorders that the youth don't understand and in many cases can't even name. I would argue that the problem here is not a lack of treatment, but the assumption that the best course of action is to force a child to cooperate with the adverse conditions (poverty, racism, dysfunctional school system, etc) of his environment. In my opinion, it would be more effective to stop crime by interrogating those conditions.

Me: Gino Gates just equated getting arrested as a black 13-year-old in New Orleans to the black bar mitzvah, a coming of age ritual. I'm liking him more.
L: Is that real? Did that really happen?
Me: Yup.

All the candidates seemed to understand that court-involved youth typically come from distressed circumstances and are themselves products of difficult environments. However when asked more pointedly, the candidates placed the blame for criminal activity squarely on the youth "offenders" and their parents, with jabs thrown at probation officers, social workers, and teachers for not "supporting" the youth enough:

Me: The candidates have all said something about how parents are uneducated and don't know what to do with their kids ever. Probation officers need to be more strict. Gino Gates is talking about how probation should have athletic requirements.
L: Oh Jesus.
Me: I hate it. I want to throw up. I'm sitting behind Dana Kaplan. I can't tell what she's thinking.
Me: Nothing yet about the crushing effects of racism, poverty, and police brutality.
L: Haha of course not! Those things have nothing to do with the juvenile justice system.
Me: Oh we got something on probable cause from Gino. Police need to be better trained.

Indeed, when asked what they would do to a child who doesn't comply with probationary requirements, such as improved school performance or participation in a counseling program, the candidates all pointed fingers at "the parents," who supposedly need to be educated on what's right for their own children. This conception is extremely unfair, as it establishes a very specific paradigm for successful child-rearing that is not appropriate for all families. It ignores the difficulties particular to impoverished, overworked, single, and/or non-white parents and their children. It is also disrespectful of family structures in which biological parents are not the primary caregivers.

Furthermore, punitive measures that extend to every conceivably problematic area of a youth's life - "wraparound," as we say in the biz - do not alleviate the complexity of the youth's problems so much as create more opportunities for the youth to violate his probation and get in more trouble with a judge. Such measures also conveniently ignore the problems caused by court-involvement itself. Just today I had a client get in trouble with his probation officer for missing an appointment with my agency. The reason why he missed the appointment was because he was given detention at school for missing too much classtime. He missed the classtime because he had been incarcerated.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, it's because it is. Rather than being responsive to the needs of the youth offender, the court expects the youth to comply with a narrowly envisioned model of success. If he can't magically adapt, the youth is discredited as a contributing member of society. It is much easier to accuse an individual of being dysfunctional than an entire system:

Me: Yolanda King says not everyone is college material.
L: Oh my.
Me: Yeah. It's getting real. Hammel is trying to explain why a uniform school expulsion policy is different than zero tolerance.
L: How the eff is it different than zero tolerance??
Me: King says she doesn't believe in the school-to-prison pipeline. I think I did throw up. Discretely. In my brain.
L: Hahaha omg omg I'm dying reading this.
Me: I'm glad someone's amused. "Some kids aren't high school material," according to Samuel. We've reached a new depth of despair.
L: WHAT!!!!

King proposed that a judge might "get at the roots of a problem through social services and counseling," and the reason why those options sometimes don't work is because "the parents aren't educated" as to why they're important.

L. and I have seen in our work that when youth don't comply with probationary requirements, it often has less to do with parental indifference and more to do with logistics. For example, it may seem optimal or generous to sentence a kid to counseling instead of jail. But when the counseling center is two long bus rides away from the kid's house and he's afraid of certain people that hang in the neighborhood by the center, counseling becomes more of a burden than the "second chance" that so many judges are convinced it is.

Moreover, counseling is not always a positive therapeutic activity. Mandating a youth to participate in a counseling program is like telling him that he and his family are wrong or bad in some way. He must be "reconditioned," as Gates suggested. For many communities, counseling is considered invasive and degrading, and thus is met with suspicion or resentment. Such sentencing alternatives can further the general mistrust of the legal system that persists among many court-involved families in New Orleans.

Accordingly, rhetoric of salvation was strong at the forum. The candidates agreed that the most pressing community concern was the need to "save the children." From what?, I wondered. Their uneducated parents and lazy teachers, as the candidates suggested? Or the rolling wheels of a racist, classist court system? This truly gives new meaning to the idea of "blind justice."

Me: I was going to ask a question but I think I'll just go drink heavily instead. It seems more productive.
L: Absolutely.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 14-17, aka What is St. Claude Main Street up to this time?

Sorry - tiny text!
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On Thursday I made a trip home from work during the afternoon to pick up my forgotten lunch. [Go through the trouble of making it ahead of time only to leave it on the counter - frustrating!] I was chatting with my neighbor in the street when I saw two representatives from St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) walking down the block. They were distributing the flyers pictured, and I flagged one of the people down - it turned out to be the SCMS manager, Michael T. Martin - to find out what they were about.

Michael explained that he was flyering to announce conducting research that will inform the creation of a "mini-park" on the lot across the street from my house. This lot has served as the site of a SCMS-sponsored pop-up night market once before, and Loyal Readers will remember that the market, despite its merits, was experienced by me and many of my neighbors as an imposition on the space. It billed itself as a community event yet was hosted without the involvement of the very people who live on the block.

After the market took place, I told St. Claude Main Street's representatives that their efforts at neighborhood communication fell short and had a lot of us feeling left out of decisions being made on our behalf.

That they're flyering our houses now is a new and good thing, but the fact remains that since the first night market, they have done nothing meaningful to connect with us as a block or community. Michael told me he'd been working closely with the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA), but it would be supremely naive to assume that most people in the area are affiliated with or have any sort of relationship with the BNA. In fact, the BNA does a lot of things that go against people's interests in the neighborhood, especially with regard to zoning changes for popular or helpful causes.

Moreover, St. Claude Main Street conducted research on Friday (the next day!!) between 10am and 3pm. Sorry, I have to work at those times. I can't stop by and say hello. Should I have rearranged my schedule? Also, where was I supposed to go? There was no location listed on the flyer for the research event. If the success of the project depends on my participation, why is it hard for me to participate? And isn't it SCMS' responsibility to check in with me, not the other way around? I didn't feel like this was a real invitation, considering the short notice and lack of pertinent details.

I wonder what will happen if I email (or mail a letter to?) Alita Edgar. The last time I submitted my comments to Michael T. Martin, I got a blisteringly defensive reply and then an apology note in my mailbox days later. Frankly I did not feel like my input was received very well.

My neighbor who registered her dissatisfaction with the last night market, calling it a "retail event" that disturbed her rest on a worknight, is upset with this newest initiative. "These people are...relentless," she wrote me. And she didn't mean relentless in their efforts to improve the block. She meant they persist in doing what they want.

I believe it is incredibly important and valid to continue interrogating the intentions of groups like St. Claude Main Street. The burden is on them to prove their legitimacy to the neighborhood. They should not only research what the community wants but actually do what we want. They were fortunate enough to receive $275,000 to help our neighborhood; theoretically this should mean that they are accountable to the people their projects impact. And as one of those people, let me just say that we do not want to be included in "visioning" anything unless our input is seriously considered.

We need accessible and effective communication with the people making decisions on our behalf, and we need regular, thorough, and honest updates on the consequences of these decisions.

For your research, Michael and Alita, here are some of my present concerns:

  • You're planning a mini-park across the street from my house. Did you ask anyone on the block if that's one of our needs or desires? It seems that you're just informing us that that's what's going to happen there. Moreover, the lot in question is not public space; it is in fact owned by one of your Board members, Maurice Slaughter. That in and of itself indicates that public input is not required for the project. So why act like it is? Furthermore, are permits required for this project, and if so, what is the relevant public input process?
  • The language of the flyer is exclusionary in several ways. It presumes knowledge of your organization's mission, its programs, and its objectives. For example, who are your grant recipients and what activities do they promote? What is Second Saturday? What is Tulane City Center and what does it mean to be "partners" with this project? Nobody would be able to divine answers to these questions based solely on the limited outreach you've done with us. Instructing us to email you or mail you a letter is a pretty big stretch of the principles of community engagement.
  • Your push for "revitalization" ignores the reality that there is already a great deal of vibrancy in the St. Claude area. Instead it presumes an absence of neighborhood street life. Therefore by its own interpretation, SCMS is needed to produce street life and an appropriate kind of vibrancy in the form of night markets and Second Saturday events. But when I go jogging in the daytime or evening, plenty of people are on their porches, stoops, or impromptu sidewalk patios. Lots of people congregate outside of bars and corner stores. This all happens without SCMS intervention. Similarly, musicians, sculptors, and others make art in the neighborhood all the time, yet the "Bywater Art Garden" backed by presumed SCMS ally Pres Kabacoff is essentially closed to the public, although public funds supported its creation. In this way, you are creating a hierarchy of communal activities in the neighborhood by making certain forms of street life "official" while devaluing others.

Please don't jump to the lazy conclusion that I am a "Not in my backyard" kind of neighbor. I am not against parks or art markets. I am not against spaces that have "wide community benefit." In fact, I am for all of these things. I am also for improved street lighting, affordable nearby grocery stores, and riverfront access, which hopefully are objectives of your organization.

However I am not for some bullshit. So please, St. Claude Main Street, et al: Do not dismissively tell us we need to be revitalized when our community already has a lot of vitality. Do not be coercive or disingenuous in your tactics to engage with and listen to us. If you are actually my neighbor, you will hear and care about what I say. You need to build the trust, and honestly, you've got a long way to go.