Activists Take to the Streets in Cars, Escalating Efforts to Free Incarcerated Youth

Nessa Bugarin, right, prepares her car before participating in a “car rally” that drew at least 130 cars to downtown Los Angeles to raise awareness of the plight of youth in juvenile detention during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Blasting cumbia from car speakers and chanting “detention is deadly!” and “care not cages!” a parade of more than 100 cars, vans and trucks circled downtown Los Angeles’ criminal justice nerve center Tuesday afternoon to draw attention to the perilous conditions of incarcerated youth.

The 90-minute motorcade looped around three city blocks in a slow crawl, as local activists and family members shouted from their windows and blasted messages through loudspeakers calling for the swift release of teens and young adults locked up during the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent weeks, nearly 2,000 people have been released from county jails to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but far fewer juvenile offenders have been among those returned to the community. Meanwhile, coronavirus infections in Los Angeles County now top 6,900, with 169 people reported deathes.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department, which runs the county’s two juvenile halls and six detention camps, confirmed yesterday that two staff members who had been working at Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall have tested positive for the virus, and dozens of youth in those facilities have been isolated in an attempt to stem further infection.

Tuesday’s peaceful but boisterous “Car Rally”  – the only safe form of public protest in a city of 4 million holed up at home under strict local and state orders – represented the desperation of many city residents and advocates, who fear for the lives of youth who remain locked up in close quarters as the pandemic spreads. Legal advocates and parents of young people detained in the county say conditions are dangerous for youth, with limited supplies of disinfectants and poor enforcement of social distancing practices. 

Placards and banners draped over the sides of vehicles in the protest organized by the locally based Youth Justice Coalition read “Inaction is murder,” and “COVID in Cages = Death,” as the roughly 135 cars circled the county’s criminal justice landmarks. The line of cars rounding Temple and Hill streets grew so long as the afternoon wore on that the two ends met, creating a complete circle around the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the Superior Court’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse, and the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

Activists from several criminal justice reform organizations circled downtown Los Angeles in their cars, honking their horns and brandishing signs. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

There were no reported arrests, and protesters dispersed peacefully, heading back to the highways and their homes at roughly 2 p.m.

For Nessa Bugarin, 16, and her mother, the afternoon outing was inspired by someone in particular: Bugarin’s boyfriend, who has been locked up at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights for the past year. Bugarin said her 17-year-old boyfriend  has been cut off from visits with his family for the past month, leaving him scared about what the next few days will hold. 

Bugarin said she lies awake at night wondering what he is doing and whether he is able to stay clean inside the juvenile hall. Access to water is difficult, she said, and her boyfriend doesn’t have access to the bathroom after 9 p.m. 

“I just feel it’s not fair to the youth locked up right now, they deserve to be out and with their families,” Bugarin said. “Everybody makes mistakes. But no matter why they’re in there, they’re human just like us.”

The caravan of cars organized by the county’s youth justice activists left after noon from a bakery run by Homeboy Industries on Alameda Street, as rain began to spill out onto the streets. As the cars made their way through downtown, a handful of pedestrians walked at a distance on the sidewalk, holding signs.

Car-driven protests like the one in Los Angeles have been spread by activists nationwide, in a surreal time when most of the nation is remaining inside their homes following social distancing edicts.

The noisy protest in Los Angeles broke the otherwise eerie calm of downtown, where these days nearly empty buses roll through deserted streets. County health officials have called on residents to limit time spent outside this week — including even trips to the grocery store.

Meanwhile, activists say, youth in detention are living in conditions described as a “human petri dish.”

“It’s mind-boggling because usually children are considered first when a crisis happens,” said Anthony Robles of the Youth Justice Coalition. “People want to do everything they can to protect young people. It’s been crazy that adults have been getting released more and have had more protection than young people.”

Advocates like Robles said that despite letters his group has written to county officials, progress on releasing youth to probation supervision at home has been “way too slow,” with reports that many youth detained in halls and camps do not have access to disinfectant supplies, hand sanitizer and masks.

Social distancing is not only particularly challenging inside lockups, if youth become infected, they may be at special risk. A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that “youth in the juvenile correctional system are a high-risk population who, in many cases, have unmet physical, developmental and mental health needs.” 

“We already know you can’t get well surrounded by concrete and rebar,” said Phal Sok, a member of the Youth Justice Coalition, who drove his Volkswagen sports car in the rally.We’re trying to build connection to these young people who are all alone, without their families and very scared right now, like we all are.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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