In 2004, we spoke with activist and former California legislator Tom Hayden who passed away last month. The topics were gangs and violence, how and why young men and women join gangs and how we can stem the violence of these groups and help the young people who belong to them to live better, safer and more productive lives. In these days of continued strife on urban streets, we can still benefit from his hopeful – yet controversial – ideas on the topic.

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Guest: The late Tom Hayden, former member of The Chicago Seven and California State Senator of 18 years, is author of the book, Street Wars: Gangs and the future of violence.

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Remembering Tom Hayden’s Activism

Gary Price: The death of civil rights activist Tom Hayden last month reminded us of a story we did with him back in 2004. Hayden was in our studio to discuss gang violence on America’s streets. We are replaying that story here because the problem of gangs and why they exist across the country is still very relevant today, and Hayden’s research and ideas on the issue can shed some light on this urban problem. The talk these days is of terror and terrorists coming from a foreign land to strike us at home or hitting targets overseas. But there’s another kind of terror taking place on the streets of our own cities, by our own people and it’s racking up a heavy body count. Tom Hayden, former member of The Chicago Seven and California State Senator of 18 years, is author of the book, Street Wars: Gangs and the future of violence. He says gang violence is an alarming problem that receives far too little attention. He says that the number of people directly affected and the cost of gang violence up to 2004 is very difficult to determine because there is no national standard for measuring it accurately.

Tom Hayden: At the end of the day we don’t know how many people have died in street wars. I know from the LA criteria, you can say with certainty 12,000 to 18,000 or even more, but a minimum of 12,000 since 1980 have died in street wars. That doesn’t include the people shot who didn’t die. It doesn’t include the hospital costs. It doesn’t include the number of attempted drive-bys as apposed to lethal drive-bys. It doesn’t include violent crimes. If you total that up, it’s an amazing statistic over 20 years.

Price: If gang violence is such a serious problem, why don’t we hear more about it? Hayden says the deaths of mainly African American and Latino gang members from poor areas are treated as less important.

Hayden: If 25- or 30-thousand white Americans were dead in 20 years of street fights you’d hear more about it. Statisticians I’ve talked to say they think it’s because the body count among young Black or Hispanic gang members is like, they deserved it. It’s not a priority to tabulate the numbers. They did it to themselves. And also that means there’s a very, very low success rate for arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators. And in a weird way it explains why the funerals of a homey are attended by so many people. Because it’s the only way for their death to count. It’s not going to be counted statistically, it’s not going to make it into the papers. And so you see these amazing turnouts of all kinds of people well-dressed and paying (for) the casket and getting the priest and doing this big occasion where everybody cries and everybody remembers and then they get votive candles and they put it out on the street at the exact spot where the body fell and people pray and they remember the homey and they stand there for hours and days and far into the night.

Price: According to Hayden, they do this to gain respect, which is also the reason many of these kids join gangs in the first place. He says that while being part of a gang often means enduring episodes of terror against each other and innocent civilians, the gang culture is much more complicated.

Hayden: We have an opportunity to know what we’re talking about because there’ve been a number of surveys. There was a survey in the 20’s, surveys in the past year, all kinds of surveys just asking gang members about their background and what they want and what they do. And the pattern is usually they join a gang because they feel left out, they feel like they’re surplus baggage, they want friends, camaraderie, they want to hang out, they’re usually young guys, they want to be cool, they want to learn to disco or party, they want to learn about girls. Sometimes they say they want to smoke weed. Very rarely do they say they’d really want to get the killing on, or something like that, or they want to rob banks.

Price: Hayden adds that gang members hardly ever call themselves “gangs,” but there is a history to how they got the name.

Hayden: In the newspapers in the South before the Civil War, runaway slaves were always called “gangs of runaways.” Police call them gangs. Gang members call themselves “the neighborhood” or “home boys” or “homeys.” So it’s inherently difficult to measure, but obviously there are patterns over time. They form among adolescent boys who are on the, who grew up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. That’s the pattern everywhere. That was the pattern with the Jews, the Italians, the Irish; it’s the pattern with the Salvadorans, the Dominicans, the African Americans today.

Price: Because of the violent crime and drug dealing carried out by these gangs, police have tried to crack down and get the dangerous members off the street. But Hayden says sending them to jail may actually be making the situation worse.

Hayden: You don’t just serve your time. The reason I would never want to go back to jail – I wouldn’t mind it if I could sit and read books quietly and not have business with anybody else – but it’s a place of constant intimidation, testing, macho, sexual humiliation, threat of stabbing. You need to affiliate with one racial group or another. And is this caused by the gangs? No, it’s caused by the institution itself. It’s not a center of rehabilitation or engagement. That would be considered “soft on crime.” But the result is you get 600,000 of these guys released every year who’ve been hardened, they’ve gone through their adolescent period, their whole male identity has been formed in the absence of women, among other very macho and militaristic males. What do you expect?

Price: He says the system continues this way for the wrong reasons.

Hayden: This is happening because it’s good politics. It’s terrible policy, but it’s good politics. Who wants to stand up for a gang member? Who wants to seek campaign contributions from gang members, or votes? It’s not there. It’s all the other way. You want the law enforcement endorsement; you want the homeowners’ association endorsement. So all politicians tend to feed into the politics that results in more prisons and more police and more kind of hardline tactics. They’ll be out of office, but the problem will be perpetuated. That’s what happens.

Price: Hayden believes there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we deal with the gang problem. He says the hardline tactics have failed and there are too many young, poor people going to prison and not enough getting good jobs. Yet, the police find themselves in a no-win situation: If they come down hard on gang activity, it creates a backlash; if they’re soft, the gangs can run the neighborhood.

Hayden: It’s not a police problem. The most police can do is deter, but deterrence just postpones a society decision on what we’re going to do. Rather than deter, often police contribute because they have kind of a working class macho ethic which triggers the underclass macho ethic. So if I was an administrator, I wouldn’t treat all gang members alike. You know, I would say to the police, “Don’t do anything that sets these guys off. If you have to arrest them, arrest them. But you don’t have to disrespect them. You don’t have to smash them with flashlights. That’s out. We’re going to criminalize that. Don’t do that.” And I would say, more generally to the media, “Give these people interviews. Try to understand the causes of their violence. And they’re like war-wounded people. Don’t just demonize them.” And I would try to work, in other words, to lessen violence by meeting both the needs of the guys and the needs of the women in the gang. Without…I’m not risking any public safety. I’m just saying do it differently, because now I know where they’re coming from.

Price: But what about the gang member who can’t be reasoned with? The hardened criminal who’s out to hurt people no matter what? Hayden admits that not all gang members are redeemable. However, he says the ones that are can be an asset to the community, but they need a reason to stay around.

Hayden: I’ve worked with a lot of gangbangers who become peacemakers. They have essential advice. They have influence on the street. They know what they went through and they can apply to what these other young kids are going through. They can give good advice to police about what not to do. They’re all behind the tattoo removal. They’re all frustrated because there’s been so little investment in jobs. Even if, you know, you get somebody job-ready and rehabilitated, there’s no job that’s ready for them. What happens is they transform, but after about 10 years goes by and they’re in their 30s, they’re going to leave for San Bernardino. They’re not going to be permanent volunteers in a movement to save the next generation.

Price: Hayden says there needs to be a lot of work done to address the root causes of gang life, and provide the tools for reform and rehabilitation.

Hayden: Number one, there’s a shocking lack of treatment facilities in the inner city communities for drug abuse or for alcohol or for violence counseling, anger management, that sort of thing. When I was in the legislature, for instance, I got funding a million, a couple million dollars from the state to do tattoo removal from the hands or faces of gang members who were seeking employment. It takes several weeks to remove a tattoo, and they’re still lined up. You know you get volunteer doctors couple days a week and you get hundreds of people lined up, thousands of people wanting the service. So rehabilitation tailored to their particular needs is the first thing. Secondly, you need employment opportunities that are competitive with drug sales, or with what is seen as a “slave job” on the street – a McDonald’s job. And you’ve had the reverse, you’ve had deindustrialization, a loss of manufacturing jobs in the urban areas all over the country.

Price: It would seem, though, that in order to resurrect some of America’s worst neighborhoods, the people in those neighborhoods have to help themselves. The government can only do so much and at some point people have to take responsibility for being law-abiding citizens. Hayden says you have to realize the conditions these kids are living under. He says they’re engaged in what he calls “street wars”.

Hayden: They’re talking about guys from Iraq coming back and 20% of them, it says and that’s a low estimate they say, already have post traumatic stress syndrome. A lot of them deny it but the evidence is there, most of them say it. Battle fatigue, shell shock, it has different names, and these are guys that went fully prepared and trained, blessed, took chaplins with them, only spent one year. Now imagine being born in that madness and living 17 or 18 or 20 years in it and not having any counseling? Imagine yourself in the crossfire in the inner city. You’re in an undeclared war, it’s not sanctioned so you can’t get any official credit for what you’re doing, but you’re risking your life or you’re taking other lives and when you die, you think people are going to say you deserved to die.

Price: The result is young men and women who are a menace to society as well as to themselves.

Hayden: Father Greg Boyle who I work with in East LA is just saddened and stunned by these young killers, you know, the 14, 15, 18 years old. Sometime you think they don’t really go out to kill other people. They’re going out to kill themselves. They’re dying to catch a bullet. Their humiliation and their sense of nothingness is so complete that they just explode. And when they’re shooting at somebody, he says it’s like shooting at themselves in the mirror.

Price: Tom Hayden was no stranger to controversy. From protesting the Vietnam War to his experimental ideas about gang violence, he always had something provocative to say. Whether you agree with him or not, the prevention of street crime is something that could benefit all of us. While his ideas might not be mainstream, when it appears nothing else is working, sometimes you have to think outside the box. I’m Gary Price.