The Problem With Gang Injunctions

Several California cities recently moved forward with controversial gang injunctions. The measures, ruled constitutional by the California Supreme Court in 1997, allow city attorneys to file public nuisance lawsuits in civil court to restrict the movements of alleged gang members, often banning them from the neighborhoods with which they’re associated. Violators face misdemeanor charges and a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

Since they were first introduced in the ‘80s, gang injunctions have become a distinctly Californian approach to fighting crime. Currently, at least a dozen cities in the state have issued them against alleged local gangs, each time with promises that they'll cut down on violent crime and, vaguely, make residents happier. So far, city attorneys love them. Many longtime residents and the ACLU don't. For years, there have been conflicting reports on whether the injunctions actually reduce violent crime.

In cities across northern California, the debate's taken on a particularly hostile tone. Critics claim that the injunctions are just thinly veiled attempts to kick black and brown folks out of some of what's fast becoming some of the priciest real estate in the country. Malia Cohen, San Francisco's District 10 Supervisor in the city's mostly black Bayview neighborhood, recently had this to say :

The gang injunctions are happening in project areas where there's redevelopment going on. Where I think there's a systematic effort to possibly, quote, 'clean up the streets,' some folks I've heard go so far as to say, 'ethnic cleansing.'

While "ethnic cleansing" might be a bit much, it's true that Cohen's district is in the middle of massive redevelopment, spearheaded in part by Florida-based developer Lennar Corporation and the University of California's massive campus expansion project. It's a theme that trickles through several other targets of the injunctions, including the city's Fillmore and Mission districts. The same also goes for North Oakland, where City Attorney John Russo's office put together a fairly extensive defense of the expensive measures, outlining that they only target "violent criminal enterprises:"

The injunction is based on the demands of many residents and merchants in the area. It is sharply focused on stopping the violence in our community while giving those responsible an opportunity to leave the criminal life.

Not an entirely convincing argument when you consider how tough it is to define gangs. At least where I come from, these "violent criminal enterprises" aren't usually defined by tattoos or colors. It's more often folks you grew up around, see everyday, and try (but often fail) to make money with -- by any means necessary. To say that there's an organized and lucrative effort at hand is probably overstating a problem that could, maybe slowly, be solved with jobs. And even if you concede that your neighbor or cousin may be running afoul of the law, banning them from the neighborhood seems like a terribly reactionary and short-lived approach. But, again, maybe that's precisely the point.