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Dija Manly will be a junior at Madison La Follette High School in fall. (Photo by AK Fin Photography)

As of this Friday, July 28, unsupervised teenagers will no longer be allowed in Madison’s two major shopping malls – East Towne and West Towne – on weekend evenings. Why does the first step towards trying to “fix” a problem always seem to be increasing the punishment? Youth of color in Madison have seen it all before. Specific issues, large or small, might persist in our community, and the response is to try to “nip it in the bud” completely. However, such measures usually don’t work. In fact, they often make the situation worse. As a black girl attending both Sennett Middle School and Madison LaFollette High School, I have seen the effects that punishing youth for the actions of few has on the psyche and the overall dynamic of a community. And let me tell you, it is nothing to be desired.

Take for example what I like to call “The Great Walgreen’s Decision of 2014.” Across the street from Sennett is a Walgreen’s. This Walgreen’s was considered a symbol of ‘good times’ by many. My friends and I would always hang out after school and make any kind of day great by buying $1 Arizonas and Takis, relishing in a sense of freedom from our parents. Sure, sometimes we’d crack a joke or two and make some noise in the store, but we were kids, and that’s what kids do. We make jokes and some noise, and it is entirely harmless.

The more I went to this Walgreen’s, the more I noticed the eyes of employees tracking my group’s movements. They turned their noses up at our group banter, and would stare relentlessly when we grabbed an item off the rack. We knew what was happening; we knew that these employees were expecting us to steal. In contrast, the white shoppers around us never seemed to get the same devout attention. They were ‘valued customers,’ after all. I would always try not to think about it, but it got to me. Here we were, the same group of kids who paid for $1 snacks in crumpled bills every day after school and we were the same group of kids who always wished the cashiers a nice day after getting our change back. But to them, we were nothing but trouble.

“I remember hating going to Walgreen’s by myself because I felt like I was doing something wrong. Not only was I a major dweeb with a closet of Doctor Who shirts and a 4.0 GPA, but I was also a goodie two-shoes. And here I was literally having nightmares about getting in trouble at school. Frankly, I was as harmless as a fly. Yet, I began to ask myself. Was I actually a criminal? Did I deserve this treatment?”

I remember hating going to Walgreen’s by myself because I felt like I was doing something wrong. Not only was I a major dweeb with a closet of Doctor Who shirts and a 4.0 GPA, but I was also a goodie two-shoes. And here I was literally having nightmares about getting in trouble at school. Frankly, I was as harmless as a fly. Yet, I began to ask myself. Was I actually a criminal? Did I deserve this treatment?

These moments of dissociation only increased later on. A policy to leave school backpacks in the front of the store (with limited supervision) was implemented to prevent shoplifting. Eventually, due to “large amounts of shoplifting,” anyone under the age of 18 was prohibited from shopping at Walgreen’s during school hours without a parent/guardian. This was a burn, not just to my group of friends, but to everyone at my middle school. So many of us had been devout shoppers at Walgreen’s. But to them, we were all just criminals. Some of us got angry at the students who had allegedly shoplifted, for spoiling our fun. All of us, however, began to view Walgreen’s as criminals of another kind; ones who generalized a whole population and who took away unfairly.

Another form of somewhat extreme punishment was implemented last year at La Follette High School. Now, I genuinely love my school; there are so many staff and faculty who genuinely want to help students and see us grow. However, I do not agree with some of the methods to promote such “growth.” In the 2015-2016 school year, we had extreme numbers of tardies to classes. Despite being the high school with the least amount of classes in a day (4) in the district, we had the highest number of tardies. Our school’s response to this? To implement hallway sweeps, in which teachers lock their class doors when the bell rings, and students still in the hallways are stalked down and given varying degrees of punishment.

With the integration of these sweeps, I would hear people in the hallway cursing and sprinting to their classrooms in fear of being caught in the sweep. I would hear stories of people trying to stand on toilets in locked stalls to avoid being caught. As these sweeps continued to take place, I noticed an increasing amount of tension within my school. In response to being penalized for being just slightly tardy, students felt like they had to hide from the staff. In response to being hunted down almost like criminals, we felt like criminals. A lot of the respect that students previously had for teachers was gone. We felt that they were being unjust and abusing their power, and how could we respect that? (I will admit that there was a brief attempt, before the hallway sweeps, to educate students on the importance of timeliness, but they gave up on it.)

I fear the same thing is going to occur with the new youth escort policies (YEP) at East Towne and West Towne Malls. This policy will undoubtedly target youth of color, and law enforcement will hunt kids down and penalize them. For what? For being kids and going to the mall? We are unfairly being perceived as a threat, as thugs, and generalized for the actions of a few. We are being held to this unfair standard that every group of youth, especially that of color, cannot possibly be congregating for anything other than thievery and fighting and crime. In what seems now typical of Madison, rather than addressing the source of any problems, authorities have instead decided to escalate the situation.

“Trust between the youth and law enforcement will be broken even more than it already is. After all, there will be no respect where respect is not earned. But what I fear most? That these kids will look at themselves, internalize these messages, and view themselves as criminals.”

Here’s what I think will come from this policy – a mess. Like what has happened at Walgreen’s and at La Follette, youth, especially of color, will be monitored and hunted down in a place where they just want to be themselves. They will be kicked out for simply being a certain age and/or a certain race, at the discretion of management or law officials. They will unfairly find themselves in the criminal justice system when they are not, and never have been, criminals. Trust between the youth and law enforcement will be broken even more than it already is. After all, there will be no respect where respect is not earned. But what I fear most? That these kids will look at themselves, internalize these messages, and view themselves as criminals.

If we want to solve the issues within a community, extreme punishment is not the way to do it. It doesn’t address the root of the problem, and frankly, it just makes things worse. I have been told by so many adults things like “well, if a baby drops his pacifier, he deserves to lose it,” and idioms of the like. Here’s the thing though; we’re not babies. We are capable of intellectual thought and of conversation. We are not criminals and thugs; we are people. We give respect where it is earned. And more than that, we are also customers at the mall. So perhaps if authorities and CBL really want to “improve the quality of shopping” and solve problems at the mall, they had had ought to initiate a civilized conversation with the youth in our area, rather than just taking away from us completely.

Written by Dija Manly

Dija Manly

Dija Manly is a junior at Madison La Follette High School who works as an assistant at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She is passionate about social justice, working with organizations like the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, GSAFE, and Simpson Street Free Press to help promote equality.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Dija, I would stand with you in protest. As a middle aged white woman, I fondly remember going to the mall on a Friday or Saturday night as a teenager. As a minister’s daughter that attended private school, it was the only unsupervised activity I was ever able to enjoy that got me into the public and away from the church or school. Black or white, this is a form of age discrimination and a right of passage to be enjoyed by all.

    This boils down to a lack of understanding between people who fail to see you as bright young people vs potential thugs because of the color of your skin. While I cannot possibly understand how this must make you feel, it angers me that this happens to you.

    Maybe the mall should invest in common areas to socialize vs boxing teenagers out. They provide play areas for children. It just seems wrong that a public establishment should make any segment of our population feel unwelcome vs trying to learn what meets their needs and market a niche that speaks to that need. What is next, a wheelchair passing lane because shoppers are annoyed having to be courteous and walk slower around handicapped or elderly persons? I love that you are addressing this boldly, kindly and without hatred. The crux of change is not to hate but to seek to understand. Love and peace! Deann

  2. I definitely see the issue with the youth escort policy. Law enforcement will pick and choose who to ID and the chosen will obviously be the “suspicious-looking” people of color. As close as I am to 18, I am still a minor but I don’t foresee myself ever being stopped because a) I generally look older, b) even though I am a person of color, I’m white passing, and c) I usually travel alone. This cannot be said for many adolescents who use the mall as a social place. In Dane County, there is already a huge disparity between people of color and law enforcement and this new policy is going to teach young people to fear the police when they just want to buy a new choker from Hot Topic with their friends – not their mom. Business in malls has already seen a decline in the past few years and this policy will only intensify it. I see the malls losing a huge customer base but I guess that’s a price they’re willing to pay to keep the “rowdy black kids” in check. They will definitely lose my business.

  3. Thank you for offering a perspective that I haven’t seen in Madison’s mainstream media. Thanks Dija Manly and Madison365.

  4. When I was a teenager, Yes, The Malls were the “rights of passage”. They were fun to go too and shop in. Malls generally offered us a wide range of entertainment. There were places to eat, usually a movie theatre, arcade rooms, some had indoor paintball halls. Some had incredible seating areas around immense Fountains. They were aesthetically appealing and clean. Yes at times kids did get rowdy, and had to be told to “tone down the horseplay”, and we usually would abide. Yes there was respect for all forms of Authority. We knew if we did not..that “right” would be taken from us. We used peer pressure to keep others in check, We Valued that little slice of independence. Our parents kept close tabs on our behavior. They kept close eye on our grades, our friends.I had a curfew. If I violated any rules that were implemented to keep me on the path of responsible behavior then I lost my “rights” Believe me, I wanted to keep from being grounded, because going to the Mall with my friends would be one of the first things to get taken if I got into any trouble. Fast forward to today’s society….Most malls generally speaking, no longer offer areas where youth alone can congregate and have fun. Why? I can say it is Costs. The costs of vandalism, destruction of property, graffiti. The costs of crime when a child is abducted, or sexually assaulted within that public domain. The costs emotionally when shots are fired related to drug deals or gang related activity. The costs and suffering someone must go thru to get their identity back after purses are snatched and they are assaulted. The costs associated to shoplifting, and that loss is passed on to you, the consumer in higher prices. Sadly, alot of these crimes were in fact committed by youth. Youth of all ethnic backgrounds. Youth who have little respect for Mall Security, who have little respect for Law Enforcement. Youth who come in and stay because they don’t want to go home for whatever reasons. Somehow all these issues have to be addressed. Some unfortunately cannot be solved by Mall Management, but By Parents, Peers and Communities alone. I can totally empathize with those who do good, and are responsible, yet feel like something is being taken away. I can understand . But the bottom line here, has to be safety. Safety for all.The world we live in now is nothing like the one I grew up in going to the malls. When bad things happen, the Public turns to Law Enforcement and Security to take charge and implement programs to fix what is wrong. These are programs that I am sure are implemented based on statistics. There is No easy fix here, It HAS to be a concerted effort of Home, Community, and Businesses working hand in hand to get moving in the right direction. I honestly do not feel like its too much to ask for the public of all ages, to give the Youth Escort Program a chance. If the intended purpose is to deter those who would do wrong, then that will be a start in making it a safer environment for all. If Crime goes down, the public will will feel safer about shopping in the malls. Parents would feel safer letting their children enjoy that “right of passage”. Isnt that what it USED to be like? That’s the big picture here. We have to TRY. We have to Implement whatever tools are available to turn these wrongs into rights. We all have something to contribute here. No Voice should go unheard. We are a Community. We have to own what is wrong, and together find solutions that protect all of us, Young and Adult. All Persons, All Ethnic backgrounds, All Economic Levels . Persons of All Faiths or No Faith, and All Levels of Education. No Matter what, Get Involved and make a difference that brings good changes in OUR Community. WE ARE MADISON and we can do this together!

  5. I appreciate your perspective, Dija. But I would like to know if you have any ideas for alternative solutions. How should Walgreens have addressed the issue of increased shoplifting during school hours? What should LaFollette have done differently to motivate students to be in class and learn? (I recall a very critical article about LaFollette from Simpson Street Press about all the black kids in the hallway). And please, Dija, what is a better solution to the increased violence in Madison’s malls? I would love to see a group of youth, as intelligent as you are, come together and develop solutions rather than criticize the people who are trying to solve real problems in our community. Perhaps that can be your next article.

  6. Thanks for this very thoughtful article.Our community is really lucky to have people like you taking leadership.

  7. Nice article. (I also enjoyed your appearance on WORT’S “A Public Affair” show.)

    Whereas I agree that the primary impetus for the young people ban at the malls is largely discriminatory (racist, followed by classist and ageist), I’m not convinced that the result will be a net negative.

    Will the ban bring about an increase in the “criminalization” of young people of color? Yet to be seen. If young people thwart the new rules, perhaps. But if they stay away from the malls, there will be less opportunity for police to be called due to “shopping while black”; numbers might go down.

    The larger benefit, I believe, resulting from the new policies of the malls, is that everyone affected (young people and their families) might take a closer, critical look at the system they are part of: namely, CAPITALISM. Much like the discriminatory policy of the malls, capitalism is rife with exploitation. Much of the food and material goods we consume involves the exploitation of people and resources from production through retail and eventual disposal. Dangerous working conditions, sweatshops, pollution of the air and water, low wages, few benefits, and ever-increasing landfills.

    I would caution you from seeing the retail workers as your nemeses. They are likely making little more than minimum wage, and are pressured by management to guard against theft. They are caught in the same capitalist prison, in which the wealthy are pitting the rest against each other.

    Since we are stuck for the time being with capitalism, I would hope that those involved (young people and their families) vote — by not shopping at those establishments which institute discriminatory policies. (Start a minority-owned convenience store — perhaps as a cooperative — and treat everyone with respect.)

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