I moved to the Western Addition in the summer of 2007, just a couple of weeks after seven people in the neighborhood were wounded in a series of shootings in two days. In the weeks following, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, relying heavily on evidence provided by local law enforcement, issued a preliminary gang injunction in the neighborhood. The preliminary injunction included the names of more than 100 men. Of the 42 black men (and they were all black men) named on what would eventually become a permanent injunction, over 80 percent were under the age of 30; half were between 18 and 24. A decade later, it’s no surprise that, as Herrera claims, 75 percent of the black men named on the injunction are, “no longer engaged in criminal gang activity.” What is surprising to me, as a researcher who interviewed some of the people named on the injunction during that time, is Mr. Herrera’s claim that the injunctions were a “key part” of this change.
The evidence of success that Herrera provides simply doesn’t support his claim that gang injunctions contributed to a drop in “gang activity.” There is also little evidence in general that injunctions have a long-term effect on crime rates. There is a large body of research, however, that provides an alternate explanation for why such a large number of men seemed to have changed their ways: They got older.
Life-course studies show definitively that, if given the chance, young people will age out of criminalized activities. Herrera’s office admits that 30 of those named on the injunction “aged out” of the activities targeted by the injunctions. That’s 70 percent of the people named on the Western Addition injunction — a much more likely source of a drop in crime than an injunction.
These facts suggest that Herrera’s stubborn insistence on keeping the injunction in place has more to do with symbolism than safety. Additionally, the continued use of an outdated “tool” to combat violence in a neighborhood that has changed substantially over the last 10 years is symbolic in another way: it symbolizes his commitment to a history of racism that continues to shape the life experiences of black people in San Francisco. Black youth make up 12 percent of youth in The City yet are 43 percent of youth arrested in San Francisco. These disparities can be traced back to a history of racial exclusion that created the black ghetto in San Francisco and has led to a declining black population; in 1970, 13% of San Franciscans were black. Today, less than 6 percent are. Make no mistake — Herrera’s clinging to the injunction has more to do with sending a message to black youth in the neighborhood today than the small number of black men who remain named on the injunction.
Herrera’s resistance is retrograde in a city that wears its badge of progressivism with honor. Other jurisdictions have struck injunctions down. Many people in The City are concerned with addressing racial disparities, not exacerbating them. In this way, Herrera is out of step with his peers and appears simply uninterested in supporting other non-punitive ways of encouraging change in young people who are most likely to be involved in violence, as victim, perpetrator, or both. I write about these other models in my new book. These models — Cure Violence, Homeboy Industries, and the Richmond Model — also start with a list of people, but do not attempt to coerce change by holding the threat of punishment and life-long surveillance over their heads. Instead, they focus on mending beefs and building relationships. The evidence for these programs actually shows that they are effective. No smoke and mirrors there.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing on the injunctions at the Public Safety & Neighborhood Services Committee on Wednesday from 4-6 p.m at City Hall. The San Francisco No Injunction Coalition has already succeeded in getting Herrera to review the status of people named on the list. Herrera is now moving to purge 34 people from the injunction (four of the 34 are dead). This is not enough. The city started a war against black youth in the 1980s — the war must end. Herrera’s repeal of all injunctions is a start.
Nikki Jones is an Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. She is the author of “The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption” (2018).