Diwaine Smith was never in a gang. However, when a police officer stopped him when he was 11 years old, and, instead of asking about his parents, asked for Smith's nickname, the officer made the assumption that he was. The policeman wrote his information down on a white card and left. Smith was stopped by police several times after this first incident, but he was never told why they recorded his information on that white card.
When Smith was invited to go to the White House to meet with the Obamas for his work as an activist for violence prevention in Long Beach, he was denied entry because the police used the white card to enter him into the system as a terrorist.
Now Smith is a youth leader for L.A. for Youth, an organization that fights for the creation of a department for youth development within the City of Los Angeles. To fund this project, they recommend a reallocation of five percent of the LAPD's total spending of over $2.5 billion to their cause. On top of LA's existing budget of $36 million, this would amount to a total of $174 million for youth development.
This Tuesday, the organization published a report that outlines these plans at a press conference at LA City Hall. L.A. for Youth then met with the City Council to discuss the issues outlined in the report.
After the conference, the organization repeatedly stressed LA's insufficient investment in its young people. While LA's budget of $36 million for youth development seems large on its own, the report they released Tuesday compared LA's spending on youth development with that of other major American cities.
L.A. for Youth seeks to use this money, drawn from funds the LAPD uses on enforcement, to finance 30 Youth Development Centers, train 350 Community Interventionists and Peacebuilders and provide 15,000 jobs and paid internships for youth.
The organization sees this move as instrumental to protect young people, especially people of color like Smith, from being targeted unfairly by police and to create safe spaces with well-trained staff.
When L.A. for Youth compared LA's budget for youth development with those in other cities, they found that New York has twice as many youths aged 10-24 years old as Los Angeles and spends 14 times as much on development programs.
Steven Cue Jn'Marie is the pastor of the Church Without Walls on Skid Row and voiced his support for L.A. for Youth and the press conference. "If we don't stabilize our youth and if we don't invest in them when they are young, once they're older and they get caught up in various systems, it's hard to undo that damage," Jn'Marie said.
Mariella Saba, a youth leader and cultural worker with L.A. for Youth, supports her organization's call for a reapplication of funding for youth development. "We are up against a culture that creates policing and violence on a daily basis so that's why we have to create a counter-narrative," she said.
Saba's community considers her to be a "healer" who peacefully intervenes between her community and the police. "It makes a lot of sense that we invest in young people," Saba said, regarding the budget. "That's an investment for everybody, and when we stop investing in police, that's only creating more death in our streets, more violence and more lockups."
Looking back, Smith says community centers with trained employees are important to give young people of color a support system. "They need it now to develop themselves to be the leaders that they can be, have critical thinking exercises, mental health departments, resources and jobs."