Back to News & Commentary

Wearing a Hoodie While Brown Does Not Mean You Are in a Gang

Courtney Bowie,
Racial Justice Program
Share This Page
December 13, 2012

On December 16, 2010, West High School officials in Salt Lake City, Utah invited the Metro Gang Task Force into the school to conduct a gang sweep. Students identified, searched and interrogated by the police were mostly Latino/a or, in the case of Kaleb Winston, African-American. He was targeted by his school and by the Task Force as a potential gang member, searched and accused of being a tagger. As an artist, Kaleb had a notebook full of drawings in a backpack manufactured to look like it had been spray-painted. But because graffiti is loosely defined, if at all, the police decided Kaleb was a “gang tagger” despite his denials. Kaleb was then forced to hold up a sign with the words “My name is Kaleb Winston and I am a gang tagger.” Law enforcement officers told him that this information was being placed into a database and that the information would be removed if he did not get into trouble for two years. Kaleb was emotionally devastated by the experience. He is not and has never been in a gang. Yet, his attendance at school that day, not bad behavior, made him the subject of intense police scrutiny and he now lives with the fear that the police view him as a suspect.

Today, the ACLU Racial Justice Program and the ACLU of Utah filed suit against the Salt Lake City School District, the Salt Lake City Police, and the police departments responsible for the Metro Gang Task Force to vindicate the rights of all the students caught up in the December 2010 gang sweep. Because of the district’s vague gang policies and the racial profiling that follows, the sweep ended with children being photographed and placed into a gang database accessible to law enforcement throughout the country. The majority of these students, including Kaleb, have never committed a crime other than attending school in brown skin.

Going to school in a hooded sweatshirt is common for teenagers throughout the country. However, students of color run the risk of being racially profiled by their teachers and the police for their apparel choices simply because they are not white. Anti-gang policies have led to gang databases filled with the names and pictures of students of color who have not been convicted of any crimes, but have been victimized by police or school racial profiling. The result in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Orange County and Los Angeles, CA and a number of other cities, is that children are stuck in these criminal databases indefinitely; this is what happened to Kaleb Winston as a freshman at Salt Lake City’s West High School.

Like the case of Trayvon Martin, where a young, brown child in a hooded sweatshirt was racially profiled and a horrible tragedy followed, we should all be outraged. In that case, an individual gunned down a young man who looked suspicious to him because he was: walking, wearing a hoodie and cloaked in brown skin. Here the outrage should be because parents entrusted their children to the school district and the school district suspected them of being gang members. The result? The police placed their pictures in a gang database for some indefinite period of time despite the fact that none were arrested for a crime. As a result of this racial profiling by their teachers and police, these students’ lives are changed forever. Labeling them falsely as gang members unfairly stigmatizes them in the eyes of others. More importantly, assuming that they are gang members solely because of their race or ethnicity changes their view of themselves and their role in society. It is particularly tragic because this police and school conduct does not deter gang activity. Instead, it only discourages students of color from seeing the schoolhouse as a place of learning and it reminds them that they were born to be suspects rather than students.

Learn more about racial justice and schools: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page