Thursday, March 1, 2012

We need to win the hearts and minds... of Americans

Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze
When the United States military was in South Vietnam, there was much talk of “winning the hearts and minds” of the people there.  Not that it did a very good job of that.  

The phrase “Hearts and Minds” was used a good deal by President Johnson in reference to the war in Vietnam.  He said at one point, "So we must be ready to fight in Viet-Nam, but the ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there. By helping to bring them hope and electricity you are also striking a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world."

The idea was that efforts to defeat the enemy’s army were pointless if the America could not make allies of the people for whom it ostensibly fought.

The phrase also became the title of a 1974 documentary that described the failure of the United States to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.  

It is a phrase that has been repeated often in relation to the U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And as the recent Koran-burning incident in Afghanistan proved, many of the hearts and minds there have not been won.

Last week I heard a report on the radio that made me think of the various efforts the United States has made to “win the hearts and minds” of the people in countries the U.S. military has occupied.   It made me think, “If only America tried to win the hearts and minds of Americans.”

Last week the Los Angeles City Council voted to change its enforcement of school truancy.  The program was originally intended to curb daytime crimes by teenagers, but in time it had become something else.  Police officers were arresting students just outside of their schools – students who were headed TO school, not sneaking away from it.  

Police officers were waiting at city bus stops near the schools, arresting students as they stepped off the bus.  Since they were not in the company of their parents and since school had started, they were deemed truant.  They were arrested and given heavy fines.

I am not a police detective, but I would wager that not many crimes are committed by teens as they run from the bus to their school’s front doors.

Between 2005 and 2009, police issued more than 47,000 citations for the daytime curfew violations (truancy).  School police issued 11,000 of those citations – that means, they were issued on or near school grounds -- and not one of them was issued to a white student. 

Hearts and minds.

It seems that poor students and students from single-parent homes are more reliant upon public transportation than are middle-class students or students from two-parent homes.  The poor kids were at the mercy of the city buses to run on time; if the buses ran late, then the students were liable to be arrested on their way to school.  The kids who had a parent to take them to school might be late, but since they were not alone, they were not “guilty” of violating the curfew laws.  So you could have a situation where a poor student was in the process of being arrested while an equally late student was allowed to pass because his mother was dropping him off at the school’s entrance.

Hearts and minds.

In some cases, when students realized they were going to be late to school, they decided to go back home.  It was better to miss school altogether than to risk getting arrested – and to risk having financially strapped parents pay a fine that could reach $800. 

Is it any wonder that young people, especially young minority students, can grow to resent the police?   Is it any wonder that young people, especially young minority students, can feel disenfranchised, alienated from the government that supposedly represents them?

Some politicians like to talk about the United States as a welfare state that encourages dependency by the poor upon the services of the government.  But programs such as this truancy enforcement look more like harassment than help.

Similar disparity of enforcement can be found in drug-related arrests.  Studies indicate that illegal drug use among minority teens is no higher than illegal drug use among white teens, yet minority teens are FAR more likely to be arrested for drug possession.  And those arrests (and convictions) often create large roadblocks for those young people to escape the cycles of poverty that plague their neighborhoods.

Government and police strategies designed to be “tough on crime” or "make the streets safe" can easily be seen as being programs designed to keep certain segments of America poor and powerless.  

Fortunately, the Los Angeles City Council voted to end its counterproductive truancy policies, to stop arresting students so frequently and fining their families so mindlessly.   It has voted to change its policies to more accurately reflect the goal of truancy laws: keeping kids in school.

It is a small step toward winning the hearts and minds of America’s at-risk youth (who ironically are sometimes put at risk by government policies) and their families.  It is one step toward convincing them the nation needs their success and the nation is dedicated to helping them achieve that success.  Many more steps remain.

1 comment:

  1. That's a wild story, and not being from round those parts, I hadn't heard it. What a stupid idea (or stupid enforcement of an idea anyway).

    My wife has what seems to me a very reasonable rule that none of the school districts seems to want to implement: You can take a class, but if you fail and need to take it again, you should pay for it. Why do we allow students to fail and fail again, considering these same students are usually the ones who are indifferent to education and so are a distraction/impediment to teaching the others?
    but oh no - you have to reach everyone. You have to give them a chance. You have to provide a free education.