Re: Raymond Marquez’s Nov. 4 letter, “Draft gang members”:

The letter by Mr. Marquez asserts that the front lines in war would be a more appropriate place for our gang members than the streets in our country. He does not see America as a war zone, whereas many young people do. They are fighting for attention, for recognition and for legitimacy.

Because we teach them little about nonviolent power, about changing the dynamic of the “powerful few” and the “powerless many,” about organizing themselves toward a greater good, and about structures of systemic and institutionalized violence, they use what they perceive as their only power: violence through brute force.

I see every day the origins of their careless, bad attitudes and their sense of disenfranchisement from society. They are concerned about the basics: money, food and their personal safety, things that, as a caring society, we should be providing in an attempt to raise a compassionate generation ready to lead us in the future.

Yet, nearly 25 percent of kids in America live in poverty, while we spend $350 billion annually on our military. Funding for education, justice, housing assistance and social programs together makes up less than one-third of the military’s budget. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that a “country spending more on its military than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Our young people know where our priorities are because the money we spend, or refuse to spend, speaks volumes about what we value: money, weaponry and absolute power.

When gangs fight on the streets, the violence is illegal and punishable with jail time, but when they train and fight in the military, the violence becomes legitimate. Right time, right place, right enemy and they get a medal of honor and money for college.

Wrong time, wrong city, wrong enemy, they become immersed in the prison-industrial system of injustice. This mixed message is exactly what Mr. Marquez suggests we employ in our country.

His suggestion is both classist and bigoted. Instead of only sending the already poor and disenfranchised young people in gangs to war, why do we not also send the sons and daughters of the members of Congress who have voted so adamantly and unilaterally for this war in Afghanistan?

Not even those orchestrating this war, namely Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, served in the armed forces. Are the lives of gang members less worthy and more disposable than the decision-makers’? Additionally, if Mr. Marquez believes that a healthy dose of combat will shape up our gang members, I wonder if he believes, too, that the veterans of the Vietnam War were better socialized in American society after serving in the armed forces.

Not even our classrooms are exempt from military indoctrination. Education in America already encourages institutionalized violence through participation in the armed forces. Because administrators and teachers have more to worry about than military recruiters on campus, the Pentagon has an unobstructed avenue into the consciences of our youth in high schools. Whether through brochures in the career counselor’s office, or on television through Channel One, a “news” channel that advertises for one of its primary sponsors, the Pentagon, the captive high school audience is in prime marketing territory for the military.

In recent years, more than $1 trillion has been cut in aid to cities and those funds have been reappropriated for usage by our military, with little accountability to the American public and certainly no accountability to our youth and future generations who will have to live in the militarized world we have created. When students believe they have no future, their actions reflect their inner emotions.

In an open letter to a newspaper on May 5, students from Los Angeles High School outlined their gripes in their own words: “How can you blame us for doing poorly as students when you are doing poorly as parents? You should insist on the right to be good parents. If your employers complain when you have to go to a parent-teacher conference, tell them that most juvenile crime would disappear if only the adults would take charge of their children.”

In this letter, the class demands that we build more schools to accommodate the growing student population, that we take them to museums instead of the malls, and that we, the adults, clean up our acts and take responsibility for our skewed priorities.

Instead, every day, 200 new prison cells are built, according to the War Resisters League. In March 2000, Proposition 21 was passed in California creating a death penalty for people under 18, and directly violating international law.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country other than the United States and Somalia, clearly identifies people under the age of 18 as requiring special protection and exempting them from being treated as adults, especially in a court of law.

The solution is not new. We need to provide health care to every person, we need to engage in restorative justice rather than punitive justice, and we need to allocate enough money to schools so that teachers are well-paid, classrooms are well-maintained and higher education is accessible to anyone who wishes to continue studying.

What we don’t need are more people telling kids how bad they are, and providing suggestions for how to get rid of the problem of delinquent youth in our society.

Perhaps I have learned more from my students about wisdom, compassion and value than they have learned from me. My students are my role models, all of them. Being around gang members and troublemakers reminds me how far we have to go in creating an equitable society and encourages me in the struggle for justice.

*Leah C. Wells is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Peace Education Coordinator.