Civil rights attorney and gang intervention strategist Connie Rice doesn’t mince words to describe her philosophy on social change and crime prevention, “I expect action,” she told the crowd of nearly 150 students, faculty, and visitors at UCLA, “and if I don’t get action, I’ll sue you.”
Rice, who is co-director of the Advancement Project Los Angeles and author of the study "A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to L.A.'s Gang Violence Epidemic," served as counsel to the leaders of the Watts gang truce. She is renowned for her unconventional approaches to tackling problems of inequity and exclusion, having teamed up with conservatives on education issues, and, as counsel to the leaders of the Watts gang truce, having enlisted the support of LAPD officers.
A highly successful civil rights attorney by profession, Rice won more than $1.6 billion in policy changes and remedies during her nine year tenure in the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF.) She became involved with the issues of gangs when she realized the scope and scale of gang violence that grips the city of Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles is the gang capital of the developed world,” describes Rice, “In our impact litigation, we were winning our cases on issues of employment, on environmental cases, on excessive force cases, but we were sending our clients back home to neighborhoods where they couldn’t walk home. I realized that without safety, there is no freedom—without the right to be safe, there are no other rights.”
Rice estimated that Los Angeles has between 60,000-100,000 gang members, and describes the last 20 years as “an epidemic of youth gang homicide, which means that our kids are killing each other at such a high rate, that epidemiologists are classifying it as an epidemic.”
She urged those in the gang prevention and intervention field to seek out new and unconventional perspectives to address gang influence, including anthropological views, cultural and political dimensions, and also using a public health model.
“Why is LA stuck on stupid when it comes to gangs?” she questioned, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We lack the scale and intensity to address the problem; and it doesn’t change conditions in the community that create it.”
Using what she describes as the “public health wraparound model,” Rice calls for a “24/7 effort to build up the community so that they are inoculated against the virus that is violence.”
“You’re after norm change in the population,” she says, “so the population doesn’t incubate and re-infect the community. Every vector that makes that disease possible, you cut it off. If you have cancer, it’s not enough to do the surgery, you have to change all the patient’s norms.”
Using examples of effective community-based programs such as “Summer Night Lights”—which provided alternatives for gang involvement in 24 parks across Los Angeles this past summer and resulted in an astonishing 57 percent reduction in gang-related homicides—Rice emphasized the multilayered and collaborative approach necessary to implement longstanding change, and the vital importance of doing so for all Angelenos.
“Understand that we can never be safe if seven and ten miles away from us, 90 percent of children in gang zones are chronically exposed to violence,” she reminded the audience as she closed her remarks.
The complete video of Connie Rice’s presentation is available for viewing below.
Learn more about the ongoing series “Gangs: Intervention Strategies to Break the Cycle of Violence.”
Read the L.A. Times article on Summer Night Lights.