Analysis Politics

The Golden Gate has Iron Bars: Challenging California’s Progressive Reputation Part III

10.30.2020 by leftoutmag

By Broderick Dunlap

The Clinton Era

Michael Dukakis was the former Governor of Massachusetts, and the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in the 1988 election. During his stint as Governor, Massachusetts’ prisons had a furlough program in place for prisoners with a record of good behavior. This, in itself, wasn’t exceptional. Many other states, including California, had similar programs. In June 1986,  Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of first-degree murder, escaped while on furlough and raped a white woman and stabbed her fiance. Dukakis’ adversary, George Bush, politicized this tragedy during the election campaign. While Dukakis was not the one who implemented the weekend furlough program, he did support it. The fact that this crime occurred during Dukakis’ time in office made it look like Dukakis was soft on crime. Furthermore, Bush’s attention to this incident further racialized the crime issue by bombarding potential voters with images of Horton, and linking him with Dukakis.

Dukakis lost the election and planted the seeds for a narrative that suggested the Democratic Party was weak on crime. Pushing against this, 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton proposed a tough-on-crime agenda to rival the GOP. The repercussions of Clinton’s $30 billion Crime Bill are still being felt decades later. The new legislation introduced the Three-Strike law which carried life sentences for people with three or more felonies. Clinton further stripped the welfare system, added a five-year lifetime limit to government assistance, and a lifetime ban for anyone convicted of a drug related felony. 

The same year that the Crime Bill was passed, California passed stricter laws targeted at communities of color as well. Proposition 184 was similar to the new federal legislation nicknamed the “Three Strikes You’re Out” law. The new legislation “extended the sentences of tens of thousands of Californians over the next fifteen years,” and voters overwhelmingly supported it. Prop 184 won 72 percent of the vote. Another controversial bill on California’s ballot in 1994 was Proposition 187. It proposed “to make alleged violations of federal immigration status grounds for denying all public benefits, education, and health services and to require all public employees to report anyone suspected of such violations to federal authorities.” This legislation was widely supported. For example, Prop 187 passed by eighteen percentage points. At the time that these new initiatives were on the ballot, California was undergoing a massive demographic shift, and it could be inferred that the voter turnout was a response to these changes.

From 1988 to 1992, the state’s population grew by 25 percent and a large portion of these new residents were immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries. The population of undocumented immigrants in California grew by approximately 42 percent. The white population shrank from 71 percent to 59 percent, the economy was failing, and Los Angeles was still recovering from the Rodney King riots of 1992. Racial and class tensions were high, and Proposition 187 seemed like the solution for conservatives. However, this did not relieve tensions or dispel an anti-Latino sentiment, it only aggravated it. According to Daniel Martinez HoSang, “During and after the election, advocacy organizations noted a swift upsurge in reported incidents of anti-Latin violence and aggression; one Los Angeles group set up a hotline that recorded more than one thousand incidents in the eleven months following the measure’s passage.”

The Latino community responded with more naturalization, more political involvement and higher voter turnout. The Supreme Court would later find that most elements of Prop 187 were unconstitutional; however, the legislation set a new precedent by adding another layer of criminalization. Immigrants, or suspected immigrants, were now targets of the local police and federal law enforcement agencies in the wake of this new demographic shift, causing the same cycle of criminalization and over-policing in Latino neighborhoods.

 The goals of  groups like the BPP and Brown Berets for a more equal society have not been realized. The same issues that motivated youth in the 1960s to join organizations that openly oppose the government still persist today, and in many ways the problems have gotten worse. As the government sought to neutralize these groups, they introduced more aspects of criminality to the communities they served. Law enforcement agencies and politicians influenced the way the broader population viewed these groups, and were successful in portraying them as “violence prone” and “extremist.” The dehumanization of Black and Latino youth by Ronald Reagan made it possible for Hillary Clinton’s “super predator” comment to be accepted as politically correct and racially color-blind.


 What started out as an attempt to stamp out political dissent has now spiraled out of control. In its wake, new problems like mass incarceration are disproportionately affecting communities that were already struggling. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the 1994 Crime Bill have devastated Black communities all over the country and there are now more Black people incarcerated than there were slaves at the end of the Civil War. Despite being heralded as one of the most progressive presidents in our country’s history, Barack Obama deported over two million people during his presidency. This country is built on racism, and California is no different. Since 1980 California has built 22 new prisons and only one new university campus, and the number of people incarcerated has increased by 500 percent—from 25,000 to 133,000 —from 1980 to 2004.

Now California has a new innovative force in criminalizing the poor, with Kamala Harris, in 2011, she pushed for legislation that gave district attorney’s the power to charge parents with a misdemeanor when their student misses more than 10 percent of the school year with unexcused absences. Instead of critically examining why a student would miss such a large portion of the school year, (for example: poor public transportation, lack of stable housing, undiagnosed disabilities) Harris decided to criminalize their parents.The VP candidate has used her identity to portray herself as progressive but her history says otherwise and she often sided with the police during her time as a District Attorney.

If the state is progressive in anything it is in finding new ways to discriminate and criminalize non-white people; because the state has such a diverse population these same ideals of racism and disdain for the working-class have had to adjust to the population. Over the last few years the same communities that the government has been trying to neutralize for decades, have started new movements highlighting the same issues that the BPP and Brown Berets brought to the forefront. The renewal of mass movements focused on the same problems from fifty years ago only reinforces the idea that California is not a progressive state. 

The Movement for Black Lives gained national attention after several police officers were left unpunished for killing Black youth. Instead of addressing the issue, Obama endorsed the “Blue Alert” law, legislation that would protect police officers even more and strip them of any accountability during incidents of police brutality. Obama is also responsible for setting up the infrastructure that has given new agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) their power. During the last presidential election Donald Trump ran his entire platform on fear-mongering and said that in many cases Mexican immigrants were “drug dealers, criminals and rapists.”

As a result of this violent cycle, communities of color face more obstacles than they did during the civil rights era. Not only do the same problems of poor housing, education, and police brutality still exist, they have been exacerbated by decades of over-policing, and now this criminal association 𑁋to an extent𑁋serves to justify the government’s indifferent attitude towards these communities. Activists can now face longer prison time than violent offenders, and Donald Trump has refused to discourage or condemn racist attacks on communities of color. Radical organizations like the Brown Berets and Black Panthers will become the norm if the problems they were pointing out continue to be ignored. As radical as these groups might have seemed to the public, they were simply demanding the dignity of  basic human rights. It is imperative that these basic human rights be given to the communities who are demanding them. 

Radical organizations will continue to form in California as a result of the material conditions there. In 2013, the popular Black Lives Matter Movement was founded in Los Angeles in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he murdered a 17 year old child Trayvon Martin. The founders, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi were motivated to found the network because cases like Trayvon Martin happen all the time in California. The  Los Angeles Police Department regularly has the highest number of police killings in the country. California’s role in this process of criminalization and over-policing of working-class communities of color should not be ignored. Instead, this diverse, and supposedly politically-progressive place should be seen as a site where the process of criminalization was developed and shaped.

Read Part I and Part 2

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