Dressed in mock prison uniforms and lugging fake balls and chains along South Central Avenue, a teen-aged "chain gang" led about 100 youths last week in a peaceful march and rally against the state "three strikes and you're out" law.
Chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, 'three strikes' has got to go!" the protesters called for the exclusion of juvenile felonies from the law, which mandates offenders with two serious or violent felonies to face 25-year to life prison sentences if convicted of a third felony. The law went into effect in March.
"People who think that by building prisons (they) fight crime must also think that building cemeteries is necessary to fight AIDS!" shouted Tony Zepeda, an 18-year-old recent Jefferson High graduate to a crowd assembled Wednesday at the Police Department's Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center.
The march began at Welcome Baptist Church at South Central Avenue and 76th Street, where the protesters warmed up with slogans such as "Three mistakes is all it takes. . . . Three strikes, takes your life."
Protesters moved up Central Avenue passing out flyers to residents and merchants. In a show of solidarity, passing drivers honked their horns and stopped to pick up information.
The midafternoon rally was organized by South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action, an arm of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention. The coalition contends that the cost to incarcerate teen-agers costs the same as sending them to an elite university.
"This is just one of the steps we are doing in order to reach a full-blown educational campaign," said Karen Bass, executive director of the substance abuse organization, as she passed out flyers.
"Because there has been horrific crime, there doesn't have to be sweeping social policies," she said. "There should be policy to prevent social problems. We know who is going to jail. It isn't the white middle-class male. Look at the statistics."
Bass contends that the law is racist since the majority of the adults and youngsters who are convicted are black or Latino.
According to 1992 California Department of Justice statistics, 28% of felony charges statewide were filed against blacks and 31.6% of blacks convicted were sent to prison. In addition, 33.8% of felony charges were filed against Latinos, and 37.2% of Latinos convicted went to prison. Statewide, 34.3% of felony charges were filed against whites, and 28.9% of whites convicted were sent to prison.
"As a general rule this (law) impacts more minorities," said police Officer John Harris outside the juvenile center. "People are less inclined to hire minorities, so they are more apt to get in trouble--and subsequently they end up in jail."
Darl Corner, a 17-year-old Washington High student, said the policy affects teen-agers he knows who have been convicted of felonies: "I experience a lot of crime in the community. But I get more harassment by police than by gang members walking down the street."
"It's hard living here in South-Central. Most gang-member kids come from one-parent families, whose mothers can't give them so much attention."
Corner said because South-Central families face so many day-to-day struggles, youths who can't get jobs turn to crime. "If a brother sees something he wants, he's going to get it. The homeboys want jobs, but there's no jobs out there."
Community elders such as the Rev. Algie F. Rousseau of the 105th St. Christian Church in South-Central and Davis L. Rogers, president of the Watts Branch NAACP, marched alongside the black and Latino youths in support.
"We need people to look at the impact," Rousseau said. "In an attempt to solve the problem (by enacting 'three strikes'), we may be creating greater problems."