To round off my time in Northern California, jumping around from county to county, juvie to juvie, I spent some time at the Contra Costa Juvenile Justice Center. The great part about this particular experience was actually the teachers and staff at Contra Costa. The first class I walked in on, the teacher was basically giving a history lesson on systemic racism in America, and all the issues black and brown people face in this country, including the prison system. I was pretty shocked to see a teacher giving this information to the young people (because it doesn’t seem to be being given to them on the OUTSIDE of prison) but I was happy he was and only hoped that everyone was listening. But just in case they weren’t, I spent a lot of time during my talk driving home the points the teacher was trying to make, and even included the incarcerated youth in the equation, because it’s easy to talk about race and inequality as some abstract thing, but when you tell a bunch of brown teenagers to look around the room, and think about how much money is being made on their backs, from their struggle, their pain, their anger, their ignorance, it tends to set in a bit more.
Another class, was led by this really interesting guy, Mr. Repetto. When I came in he was teaching them an english lesson. I gave my talk, a talk I had given, every single day, three or four times a day, for three days in a row. A talk that delves into violence and retaliation, love and community, gangs and codes. But this time, one of the young guys raised his hand and asked me what did I expect him to do if someone killed his friend. He couldn’t fathom ever letting it go. He told me flat out that he couldn’t, he wouldn’t. Another young man chimed in, a latino kid with bright red hair. He explained that he was a “Northerner” and that they have beef with the “Southerners” and that’s just the way it is. And when it’s time to shoot, you gotta shoot.
Out of respect for these guys, I won’t get into all that was said, but I’ll tell you that afterwards, the teacher came to me and explained that he had had that discussion several times. That same talk. But the boys didn’t respect him they way they did me, mainly because this english teacher was white (and wore Hawaiian shirts.) I, of course, asked him why he got into this line of work. His response blew my mind. Turns out, Mr. Repetto grew up in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. The only white boy in an all Spanish neighborhood. One night, in the middle of a gang initiation, his grandmother was killed by a young dude trying to earn his way into a crew. He vowed to dedicate his life to stopping that from ever happening to anyone else.
He also brought up the red-haired kid — the “Northerner.” He said that what these kids who fight in these gangs don’t know is that the Northerner/Southerner beef started in the sixties between two guys, over a practical joke. One had hid a pair of shoes from the other in San Quentin, and the other got so upset (mainly due to embarrassment) that he killed the guy. And the cycle of retaliation began. Fifty years later, these kids…KIDS…are still shooting back.
I don’t have anything deep to leave you with besides a plea for you to reach out and love on our kids. No matter what. Love on them. Help them. Talk to them. They are not perfect. But even when they are devious, even when they are far from innocent, they are still children, sometimes spoon-fed a poison of the past, other times dealt a hand without spades. They need us, now more than ever.
To everyone who helped me out on this tour, thank you all so much. Thank you for the work you do. And thank you for encouraging me to work harder.