September 24th, 2007
HOMEY in Xpress Magazine
Born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission district, Rene QuiĖonez, 30, remembers waking up to the smell of corn tortillas cooking on the comal (grill), and walking to the nearest panaderia (bakery) to get some piping hot pan dulce fresh out of the oven. Those were the good old days, he recalls, and the chance of having that security in the neighborhood is slowly diminishing.
Many things remind the Mission residents of their home countries, from the wide array of taquerias televising Mexican soccer games to the mural of Mexican paintings by Diego Rivera on 24th Street. The streets of the Mission district have always been a safe haven for those who come from Mexico and any other Central and Latin American countries. But now, each time QuiĖonez walks them, he is running the risk of being questioned by law enforcement for no apparent reason.
QuiĖonez, a short, bald-headed Mexicano, has had run-ins with the cops for “fitting the mold of a gangster.” Dressing in a crisp, white t-shirt, baggy denim jeans and plain white shoes is an everyday look for him – one that has made him an easy target for law enforcement.
“Anyone who’s brown and bald is going to be questioned,” says QuiĖonez. “That is all it takes.”
With the recent crackdown on gang violence, City Attorney Dennis Herrera proposed a civil gang injunction program in San Francisco. But rather than prevent gang violence, it's hit a green light for racial profiling in the Mission and Western Addition. The injunction is a restraining order that prohibits illegal behavior from gang members as well as certain activities like hanging out on street corners, carrying felt-tip markers, flashing gang signs and wearing red clothing. QuiĖonez, like many others, finds himself as a potential target for the gang task force to antagonize.
Chicago authorities passed something similar to the gang injunction, called the “Gang Loitering Ordinance,” which targets suspected gang members for loitering in groups in certain neighborhoods, says Liz Brown, assistant professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University.
However, Chicago’s program resulted in the arrest of primarily Latino and African American youth.
“The idea of gangs often has racialized overtones, and many programs that attempt to target gangs often focus primarily on targeting gangs from racialized communities,” says Brown.
The same issues that surfaced in Chicago have trickled into San Francisco. Although a proportion of Latinos and African American men are involved in gangs, community leaders and residents feel that only people of color are being targeted while Caucasian men, who are also involved in gangs, are excluded. Anamaria Loya, executive director at La Raza Centro Legal, feels that the residents of the Mission are being abused by the local law enforcement.
“They are running around like cowboys, harassing young boys and men,” says Loya. “We need community police officers with cultural sensitivity and relevancy, not a gang task force.”
QuiĖonez, or “Smurf” as people call him for his short stature, remembers hanging out with a group of friends on a street corner in the Mission. As a San Francisco Police Department squad car drove by and noticed them, it slowed down. The police officers stepped out of the car, approached QuiĖonez and his friends and questioned them about what they were doing.
You ain’t fucking with me or my civil rights,” QuiĖonez remembers telling him.
The cops, astonished at what Quinonez said, left him and his friends alone.
“I know my rights, and they ain’t going to intimidate me,” he says.
In the 1980s, cities started issuing civil gang injunctions. The media did not begin coverage of the injunctions until Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn placed a civil gang injunction in 1987 against the Playboy Gangster Crips, a 200-plus member gang that prosecutors say sold rock cocaine. Since then, gang injunctions were ordered in Oxnard, Pasadena, Burbank and Sacramento, among many other cities and states with significant levels of gang violence.
But the effectiveness of gang injunctions has caused major debates. Although supporters of the prohibition have claimed that gang injunctions lower crime in certain neighborhoods, there are no studies to support the claim.
However, a study done by Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis, “Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Strategies,” released by the Justice Policy Institute, found that Los Angeles, a city notorious for its gang affiliations, has not been able to reduce gang violence even with an increase in the number of arrests.
“Herrera probably wants to show that he is doing something about the gang problem,” says Brown. “A gang injunction is a way that an attorney can use the civil system of justice, which has lower standards of evidence to prosecute, and potentially imprison suspected gang members.”
But the reason for joining a gang is different for everyone.
After QuiĖonez's father abandoned his family, his mother had to work longer hours cleaning houses and babysitting to pay bills and put food on the table for him and his sister. Having no guidance at home or a positive father figure in his life, he started hanging out with the older kids from the neighborhood who introduced him to the gang lifestyle of selling drugs and carrying weapons. It was a family thicker than blood. For once in his life he felt comfortable talking to and getting advice from a group of individuals. If someone messed with him, they messed with his whole crew. He returned the love by becoming fully active in the NorteĖo gang, and by the age of fourteen he was selling crack, weed and cocaine.
Although there were times when he did want to change, QuiĖonez lacked a support system and was not ready to go back to the life he led before.
“Anything that is life threatening makes you want to change,” says QuiĖonez. “But I didn’t want to go back to being poor either.”
He continued drug dealing to ease the financial burden of fatherhood at the age of seventeen, but in 2001, he was busted by the federal authorities and served a year in jail.
When QuiĖonez was released from prison, his parole officer hounded him for community service, but QuiĖonez didn’t want to pick up trash on the side of freeways. One of his friends volunteered for outreach and group workshops for Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth, or HOMEY. He asked if he could fulfill his hours as a volunteer at this program, whose mission is to transform the lives of high-risk youth. A summer later, HOMEY hired QuiĖonez as the interim director in the organization. He is now the full-time director.
“I still associate with my homies out on the streets,” says QuiĖonez, “But we both know that I have transitioned over, because at the end of the day, no person wants to put their family’s life at risk.”
Non-profit HOMEY has workshops for youth, internships, and an entrepreneurial program in graphic design. But one of their bigger projects is the fight against the gang injunction.
Since many of the workers and volunteers at HOMEY used to be gang members, they use their street knowledge to their advantage by reaching out to those who are living or have lived that hard-knock lifestyle. They are some of the few individuals who can bring people together from opposing gangs to make sense of the violence in their neighborhoods.
Although QuiĖonez acknowledges that external forces, like the law enforcement, can be a part of the movement to stop gang violence, he knows they cannot lead the movement. They go by the motto: “we dictate what we understand,” and he believes that their motto is flawless, one that can work in any community. But before trying to fix the problems in other cities, the program has to first handle the issues plaguing its own backyard.
“My job is only possible because people are fucked,” says QuiĖonez, “And as long as we have poor people and people who are starving on the streets, then we are going to have gangs.”