"Lincoln High fight leads to dispute over discipline."
That is the headline of a somewhat lengthy story published recently by The San Diego Union Tribune. A photo accompanying the story affirms the media's—and the larger public's—bias.
The photo could have been, but is not, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) Superintendent Cindy Marten, who seems interested in learning about how to stop the school-to-prison pipeline destroying lives, particularly those of black and brown boys. The photo also could have been, but is not, that of the many beautiful, high achieving students, great teachers and committed community leaders who gathered for prayer and healing on the Monday after a so-called fight resulted in the pepper spraying of numerous students, the tasing of another and a police officer taken to the hospital with an injury.
No. Photos like those—that create ideas of other possibilities, that prize humanity over fear—don't serve the narrative to which we are so addicted. Instead, the SDUT editors trudged the well-worn path and featured a uniformed Jesus Montana, president of the San Diego Unified Police Officers Association.
Montana is standing in front of a row of blue lockers, badge pinned to his chest, with a far-away gaze that makes him seem non-threatening. And to me, he is relatively non-threatening. As a white person, I know that I'm nearly guaranteed to walk away unharmed if I find myself in any sort of interaction with a police officer. And this is true for most white people.
This is not an experience internalized and shared by people of color, particularly black people, including those who attend Lincoln High School.
Details of precisely what happened on February 23 are unclear. But those that have been reported by news outlets have had the effect of simultaneously garnering unquestioning sympathy for the injured officer and effectively demonizing not just the kids involved in the incident, but the entire Lincoln High School community and Southeast San Diego.
Now, three teenagers face numerous felonies and a justice system designed specifically to put them in cages. No doubt, the trajectory of their young lives has been changed. But can it be changed again, with a more hopeful outcome?
It could be. It can be if the charges against the boys are dropped. They should be dropped. But this will require that you and I and anyone in this city who may not relate to the circumstances facing communities of color to imagine what it must be like for a black kid—who sees via media—people who look just like him being killed and assaulted by police on a nearly daily basis; and to watch his friend get tased by a cop and twitch on the ground. This is trauma and fully developed frontal lobe or not, that shit might just inspire some unpredictable reactions not so easily conveyed in a newspaper story or a ticker feed.
Sadly, predictably, this is all lost on Officer Montana and his organization—and presumably the SDPD and the DA's office—which do not support dropping the charges.
"These are not children," Jesus Montana says. "These are young adults who knew what they were doing. Some in the community, the NAACP, want to treat them like 7-year-olds and not 17-year-olds."
Now, no disrespect to Officer Montana or anything, but last I checked, kids are considered kids until they are 18 years old. Furthermore, neuroscience has proven that the brain of an adolescent isn't fully developed until her/his mid-20s. This is not an excuse but a scientifically proven reality that provides an alternative argument that "young adults" don't really know what they're doing.
The Lincoln High School fight—or whatever it was—absolutely did not happen in a vacuum. There is a longstanding record of over-policing in the Southeast community targeting generations of families. It should go without saying, but chronic experiences with law enforcement do not foster a sense of safety and trust, and it's doubtful that those teens had much trust for the officer on campus. Which is problematic in and of itself.
Look. It really doesn't matter who did what to create this bonfire. No critical-thinking person—no civic leader or school board member or educator who gives half a shit about the children our society purports to value—thinks these kids should be given a pat on the head and a beach day. Well...maybe I think they should be given a beach day; I think all kids should be given a beach day.
But felonies? That is cause for public outrage. Nothing—nothing—these kids did warrants putting them in jail, warrants taking away their civil rights. The SDUT puts restorative justice in quotes, a clever way of diminishing the proven-to-work policy that could change the future for these boys and spare the devastation that is coming. Yet, that is precisely what is called for here. Restorative justice is another way out of this, and being vocal supporters of its use in this circumstance is the way we show these boys that we care about them and their futures.