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One mother's fight for her son: police took away Bernice Hatfield's boy and for the next decade, the Black mom learned just how the prison system is set up for what she calls "the legal kidnapping of my child.".

EARLY ON A THURSDAY MORNING in 1992, just before that year's long Independence Day Weekend, a dozen officers from the San Bernardino and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Departments and the West Covina Police kicked in Bernice Hatfield's front door. Hearing what sounded like an explosion, followed by footsteps, falling furniture and shouting, Bernice rushed to the top of the stairs in her modest suburban condominium, and looked down on a vision of terror. Guns drawn, the police stood in the knees-bent, two-hands-on-the pistol crouch that tells every television viewer that bullets are sure to fly.

The officers were calling for the surrender of her 17-year-old son "Stick," and they hollered at her to put her hands where they could see them. Bernice raised her hands over her head and edged down the stairs, trembling as she asked over and over again "What are you doing here? What do you want?" As it turned out, they wanted to charge Stick with six counts of attempted murder. The officers took the teenager away that morning; and for the next decade, Bernice fought against what in her periodic newsletter, A Mother's Plea for Help, she called "the legal kidnapping of my child."

Never a naive woman, Bernice grew up Black and working-class in a postwar southern New England city, living inequality and racism in generally unremarkable ways. Determined not to be poor all her life, she studied hard in school, became a nurse, and worked for 20 years to care for and reassure the sick and suffering. Bernice thought she knew about how the justice system worked. While she did not expect it to be truly unbiased, she did expect that when someone is charged with a crime, there is probably some evidence, whether genuine or bogus. The "people's" case against her son consisted of contradictory testimony and there were no injuries, no gun, no motive and no clear reason for him to have been brought up on charges in the first place. Yet he was charged, and as a gang member.

The powers of and pressures on the principal players in the criminal justice system were augmented by the California Street Terrorism Enhancement and Prevention (STEP) Act of 1988, and a host of related laws. California declared war on gangs during the first phase of the prison expansion program in the mid 1980s, and specifically targeted Los Angeles County, where Bernice and her family lived, as the region where new programs would be developed. Sacramento directed local law enforcement agencies to identify all gang members in their jurisdictions so that the state could develop a comprehensive, centralized gang database.

Stick had never before been in custody, but about a year earlier, after he was pulled over for a motor vehicle infraction, his name had been entered into the state's gang database. In early 1993, after he and his mother rejected a plea bargain offering him six years in the Youth Authority, the prosecutors decided to try him on the six counts. With sentence enhancements, or extra time per charge, due to his gangster status, the state assured him that he faced 91 years in prison.

Stick, who by then had turned 18, decided to accept the bargain, which required him to confess guilt and to waive any rights to an appeal; in the interim, the prosecutor increased the minimum term from six to 19 years, even though nothing in the case had changed except Stick's age. Bernice could not legally intervene, because the child had reached majority. In her view, he had been coerced into the confession by those who promised him a lifetime behind bars if he went to trial and lost. Young and scared, he tried to act hard and worldly. Although Stick was a minor at the time of his arrest, the sentencing judge bound him over to the custody of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) Adult Authority.

The morning the police first took her younger son away, Bernice stepped into a role she could never have imagined herself playing: that of a mother who would reach out to strangers and ask anyone who might listen to help her get her child back. At first she did everything herself, driving 50 miles round-trip to her nursing job each day in addition to traveling 40 miles round-trip in the opposite direction for Stick. She visited with her son, met with the public defender, checked up on the private investigator, confronted the prosecutor, interrogated the psychiatric evaluators and sat stony-faced at the hearings.

Bernice found that while she was struggling to free her child, because his arrest was simply a mistake, the state was working systematically to hold on to him, because his arrest was part of a program to take people "like him" off the streets. For Bernice, the crucial given was that her son had never been in trouble with the law before; for the state, the crucial given was his prior identification as a gang member. For a long time, she refused to engage the state on its own terms, because she thought things should work out fairly: "I believed I had constitutional rights. I mean, I really thought I had constitutional rights. But I found out .... in the courtroom ... that I am a second-class citizen. The Constitution does not apply to me."

For Black people there is nothing new in realizing, once again, second-class citizen status. But while repetition is part of the deadly drama of living in a racial state, the particular challenge is to work out the specific realignments of the social structure in a period of rapid change.

Toward the end of one of her long, lonely days, before the confession and plea-bargain deal was struck, Bernice drove toward home from a visit with Stick, frightened that they were losing and unable to understand why. She happened to tune in a radio program about the trial of the LA Four, the four Black men charged with beating a white truck driver during the 1992 uprising, and heard a defendant's mother talking about a group called Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (ROC). While Bernice had thrown herself into her child's case because she is his mother, she had never thought about forming alliances with parents in similar circumstances. Keenly aware that being able to claim her maternal relation to Stick made some difference--court officers and bureaucrats might return a mother's call or respond to one who spends hours waiting on molded plastic seats in anterooms or standing in corridors--Bernice decided to attend a Mothers ROC meeting to see if they could help her.

The group had been started in South Central Los Angeles when police murdered George Noyes in 1991. His aunt Barbara Meredith and other mothers began holding meetings to talk about what was happening in their communities. In the months that followed, the group's actions became generalized so that the ROC could act quickly and consistently on new cases. Members set up systems of court monitoring and legal workshops. Mothers would attend court sessions, either for the cases of other mothers or randomly to see what was happening to defendants.

Over time, this system became a palpable presence in the halls of Southland county courthouses--especially in Los Angeles. Bailiffs, prosecutors, public defenders and judges began to recognize that, in Bernice's words, "nice Negro ladies with big handbags" were watching and noting. Indeed, some judges ordered the women not to write while court was in session. They would scribble a clandestine note or two and then write up or dictate the proceedings afterward. Judges who issued such orders got more, rather than fewer, observers in their courtrooms. Some mothers who had difficulty with the written word would simply pretend to take notes and rely on their substantial memories to reconstruct events at the end of the legal day.

Mothers also monitored relations between defendants and their attorneys--usually public defenders--and began to hold workshops with activist lawyers in order to learn about the best way to work with legal representation. The workshops became primary centers for people to learn about topics such as acting as one's own lawyer, sentence enhancement and related issues.

The ROCers encouraged Bernice to get her story out, to start a chapter over in her part of the county and to reach out to other mothers like herself in the places where she spent so much time on Stick's behalf. Bernice promptly wrote the first edition of A Mother's Plea for Help. She visited a number of copy shops looking for affordable rates and found an establishment run by a man who became sympathetic with her cause after she explained her plight. He agreed to let her use his machines at a discounted rate; and she began to produce her news on brightly colored paper (usually orange, sometimes startling blue) to catch the prospective reader's eye. Combining narrative, scripture, and cartoons, Bernice's two-to-six page broadsides attracted the attention of mothers and others engaged in the unwaged reproductive labor of reclaiming the future by saving their children.

Eventually, Bernice established a regional meeting. Every Saturday, new mothers and others arrived at a Pomona coffeehouse with a broad range of problems. Some were trying to stop drug dealers on their streets, others had lost their children to the Department of Youth and Family Services and wanted them back. Men from churches, the Nation of Islam and several local Black fraternal organizations came to observe and offer help. They also came to let the ROCers know that city and street politics were already under the informal jurisdiction of the old urban coalition organizations such as the NAACP and the churches.

The implicit caution and challenge from the old civil rights elites came to nothing for two reasons. First, their highly developed localism availed little against a state-organized criminalization project consisting of combined and overlapping jurisdictions. Second, under the weight of the region's ongoing political-economic crisis, the golden age of Black-white coalitions were crumbling, while at the same time Chicana/os' achievement of elected and appointed positions signaled certain, if unpredictable, changes to come.

The ROCers determined to find out about the STEP Act under which Stick had been charged and sentenced. One Saturday afternoon, a group gathered in a California lawyer's library to read up on the law. None of the participants was an attorney, but they had extensive experience in research and writing, and they assumed it would take them an hour or two at most to find the statute and write a statement about it for a flyer. Several hours into their quest, they all realized that the arcana of legal letters starts at the most fundamental level of organization; an outsider could not simply slide her finger down a table of contents or index to find a law. A subcommittee of the group found the law's text the following week by talking their way into a library with an electronic legal database service, and doing electronic subject searches.

The STEP Act, and the events leading up to its implementation, made abundantly clear what the mothers feared: the "system" had for years been designating a profile of young persons whose rights and prospects were statutorily different from those of others in their cohort. The Task Force on Youth Gang Violence had stipulated that the region most in need of surveillance and control was in the Southland, and that Black and brown youths were most likely to be gang members. While it had stretched the analysis of gang violence to encompass suicidal propensities among white middle-class "Heavy Metal" and "Satanic" gangs, the Task Force absolutely ignored, for instance, the growing skinhead and neo-Nazi gangs concentrated in the Southland.


The act's directive compelling local enforcement to identify all gang members in their jurisdictions seemed to the mothers likely to produce indiscriminate listings that would include people based on race and space, and that this, in turn, would transform any kind of youthful stepping out of line into major confrontations with the system.

Acting on their new knowledge about the STEP Act, the ROCers decided to expand their stage of activism in order to prepare audiences and future actors for what the drama was really all about. They produced a flyer titled, "Mothers warn your children" alerting principal caregivers to forbid their dependents to sign papers or allow their pictures to be taken by police on the street. Minors should insist that their parents be called. Adults should politely but firmly demur.

The flyers were extremely effective ways to start conversations at bus stops, in the blistering sun at the County Jail parking lot, and outside schools, courthouses, and police stations. Both men and women took the flyers--often promising to duplicate and distribute them at church or work. New people arrived at the Inland Empire meeting, flyer in hand, to learn more about the act.

Bernice had to expand her daily activities. The combined events of Stick's confession and the discovery of the STEP Act increased her labor; in addition to duties of home, job, and the court/jail complex, she now had to learn more about how the act and related laws worked, politically and juridically, and whether anyone had successfully opposed the statutes. Chastened by the afternoon in the lawyer's library, she started spending her free days in the library at the UCLA Law School. By browsing and asking the reference librarian strategic questions, Bernice discovered how to find summaries of recent cases and judgments, how to find the full arguments of those cases and how to compare the growing stacks of paper to Stick's case.

In the short run, neither new knowledge nor new comrades made Bernice's struggle easier; on the contrary, she realized that she would have to work longer and harder hours as the mother of a kidnapped child. Since Stick's accomplices were never charged with anything, since people not enrolled in gang databases charged with similar offenses receive far lighter sentences, and since young people from different racial, class, or regional positions are often diverted to rehabilitation programs, Bernice set out to make the case of discriminatory prosecution, augmented by other claims, such as ineffective counsel.


Indeed, Bernice perceived what had once been a state-identified chink in its own armor a generation earlier, when the first set of postwar federal anti-gang street crime acts was enacted between 1968 and 1970. At that time, law enforcement hesitated to exercise the statutes because of civil rights concerns--especially in the area of discriminatory prosecution. However, more than two decades of political-economic crisis, coupled with intensive and extensive crime sensationalism in the media, had produced the notion that some people's rights should be restricted based on prior patterns of behavior, which was now perceived as common sense.

The intensification of Bernice's anxieties and labors on behalf of her son, coupled with her new occupation helping out and reassuring other mothers in similar predicaments, impeded her nursing. As is the case with so much "women's" work, nursing requires physical, intellectual, and emotional labor. This, on top of Stick's plight, wore Bernice out--especially emotionally. Ironically, she gave up "women's" paid work in order to do "women's" unpaid work, her inability to nurse enabling her to become a full-time mother. But full-time mothering meant being a "co-mother" with the ROCers, an advocate for her son and all the others--adults and children--caught up in the system.

The web of laws and mandates the ROCers found themselves tangled in was so complex that it seemed to many mothers as though the public defenders who could take the time to explain things were spinning tales. Eventually, however, the stories revealed patterns to investigate. Gilda Garcia's testimony exemplified many sociospatial constraints of everyday life for ROCers and their families: "And then she [the public defender] said, 'The reason the prosecutor can add the extra time is because your son was within 500 feet of a school when he was picked up.' My son went to bring his little brother home from school! That's why he was at the school. La migra waits by schools to catch people without green cards, and they detain anybody who looks like us. Anybody. We sent our son because he doesn't have a job, so if they stop him we don't lose any money. We're just making it. We can't afford to miss work just because INS needs to look good to ..."

As the newcomers like Gilda shared their stories and began to help each other on cases, Bernice began to understand why she had been so perplexed. While there had been no doubt in her mind that she and Stick were up against a system, it became clearer how the system targeted children like hers, and Gilda's. She had imagined the criminal justice system was on the other side of a fixed line of law, rather than that the law had moved to include her and her family in its legal and social space.

California's expanding criminal justice system overlaid the state's landscape with new prisons, new laws targeting people in specific areas, new mandates for law enforcement. These territorial and discursive regions constituted the system's political geography that the mothers were trying to find their way through. Their techniques of mothering extended past the limits of household, kinship and neighborhood to embrace the political project of reclaiming children of all ages whose mothers were losing them, at a net rate of 55 statewide per business day, into the prison system.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is associate professor of geography at the University of Southern California.
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Title Annotation:EXCERPT
Author:Gilmore, Ruth Wilson
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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