L.A. Gang Members Win $30 Million in Job Training Benefits

A settlement with the city recognizes that youth of color were subjected to unconstitutional enforcement of curfew restrictions.

Image REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Shameeka Welch, 17, and Fallon Tooks, 27, pose outside Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles, which is staffed by at-risk and formerly gang-involved young women training to learn restaurant and catering work. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Thousands of Los Angeles residents who’ve been ensnared in gang life are about to receive millions of dollars in job training programs, and they can thank the late D.C. “mayor for life” Marion Barry for it. First, some background.

The Los Angeles Police Department knew in 2012 that it was illegal to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew on people whom cops presumed were gang members. Police brass told its officers then to stop arresting people for this particular violation after the department was sued over the unconstitutional curfew restriction. Police continued busting alleged gang members for violating the curfew anyway.

This defiance spurred a federal judge last year to instruct jurors to award a financial sum to each of the nearly 6,000 people named in a federal class-action lawsuit against the city—all people whose due process rights were violated under the gang curfew rules. Under the settlement, the plaintiffs will receive a total of as much as $30 million, a sum approved by the Los Angeles city council on Wednesday with the city attorney’s encouragement, the L A. Times reports.   

That money won’t be distributed directly to the individuals named in the class-action suit. Instead, the funds will go to local community organizations for job-training programs and continuing-education classes. And this is where former D.C. mayor Marion Barry comes in.

After months of negotiations about how to distribute the money—with some city officials wary about paying off alleged gang members—the plaintiffs’ attorney Olu Orange proposed applying the money to jobs programs. Orange tells CityLab that the impetus was the Summer Youth Employment Program created by Barry in his early years as mayor.

“I remembered working for D.C.’s parks and recreation, back when Marion Barry was saying that any child who wants a job will get a job, as a way of reducing crime,” says Orange. “So I said, let’s pitch this [$30 million settlement] as a jobs and education program to provide better opportunities for our clients.”

Orange grew up about two hours south of D.C., but spent summers with family in the nation’s capital, where he was employed by Barry’s jobs program. He later graduated from Howard University’s law school in D.C., and has since specialized in civil rights as an attorney. In Los Angeles, he’s spent much of the past few years challenging laws that allow police to essentially profile mostly black and Latino youth as gang members as a pretext for arrests. That’s how the thousands named in this settlement ended up in this lawsuit.   

Police stopped “every black and brown kid who lives in an economically depressed area, like a housing project,” says Orange. “So, as soon as you turn 13—or as soon as you’re big enough that they start seeing you as a problem—[the police] start serving these kids with gang injunctions, just by catching them walking home from school or hanging out on a corner.”

Speaking with these youth during the settlement negotiations, Orange said that the vast majority were eagerly on board with the money going to jobs programs rather than individual payouts. Under the settlement, which isn’t final, each of the plaintiffs can forward their right of access to the work trainings to a family member, as can incarcerated plaintiffs. The settlement funds will also go toward schooling and to tattoo removal for those looking to transition out of gang life.

Half of the nonprofits and companies involved in administering these services will be chosen by the city, and half will be chosen by community organizations, like the L.A.-based Youth Justice Coalition. A federal judge still has to sign off on the settlement, and Orange has yet to file a motion asking for this approval. There’s no deadline for this, and Orange says he won’t be rushing it through. And no matter what, the police will have to change their policies on how they pursue people they suspect are in gangs.

“It’s all their fault,” says Orange about the LAPD. “The reason this whole thing came down is that courts said you can’t do this kind of curfew enforcement, and and they kept doing it. They should not have been violating these people’s rights all of this time.”

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