In public forums, J.P. Herrada can come off as hotheaded and impatient. In more informal settings, he’s friendly and loquacious. A gifted gabber who can charm money from the pockets of philanthropists, Herrada grew up in a gang, so he connects with the young people he wants to help.
He is not trusted by law enforcement, but in the world of gang intervention, fairytale definitions of heroes and villains are of little use. As one of his funders said, “The nature of the model that J.P. is leading, is the guys on the street have to be connected enough to have credibility with gang members.”
While Herrada says he is curbing violence by mediating gang conflicts and mentoring youth, police aren’t sure he’s not the enemy. Since his Eastside organizer was arrested earlier this summer on drug -related charges, he’s been laying low. But he stopped by The Santa Barbara Independent offices for a wide-ranging discussion that addressed the work of Palabra, the City of Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction, his own decision to join a gang, and why, as he put it, “It’s hard to be an angel when you’re living in hell.”
What gap does Palabra fill in the world of service-providers?
Everybody is interested in providing services, but their motivation is very different from organization to organization. Some people are genuinely interested in improving the kids’ lives, but that’s all, and the money comes after. But then you have other organizations in it for the money purely, and the kids’ lives or their environment doesn’t matter as long as that grant keeps putting in the following year. Then you have real grassroots organizations who are not only trying to change the kids’ lives, but they’re trying to change the environment in which these kids are living, and that gets really hard, because those are the groups that are on the outs.
You would describe Palabra as one of those groups?
Most definitely. I’m not interested in saving one kid or changing one life.
How was Palabra founded?
Palabra was started with a man named Fernand Sarrat. He was new to Santa Barbara, and he got involved when [Angel Linares] was murdered on State Street. The guy who came onto the scene first was my brother J. C. Ramirez. He’s the one that actually broke up the fight and called 9-1-1. At the time, he was working with CAC [Community Action Commission]. When Fernand got involved in the community, he felt like he really needed to address the issues and be able to talk about them. So he formed a group called CCF, Collaborative Communities Foundation, and he’s the one that started asking about who he should hire to work in that organization. So he started going to certain individuals — Mike Valdez, Babatunde [Folayemi], my brother J. C., and a couple other individuals. And he started putting his own money into the organization. I came in about seven months later. I came out of jail, I attended one of the community forums he was holding, we sparked up a conversation, and I basically volunteered for about five months before he offered me a job.
What were you in jail for?
A parole violation. I had been on the run for four or five years, and I turned myself in. I just wanted to get it over with. I’m a two-striker, but the judge felt I was supporting my kids, I was using my real name, I never got caught with law enforcement, I deserved a chance. So he just gave me a nine-month violation. I came out, and while I was in there, I kept thinking I just need to get my life straight. I honestly thought when I turned myself in that would be my last strike.
What did you get in trouble for originally?
I was selling meth and transporting weapons, and I got busted twice in two months. I was fighting my case for about two years from jail, and in the process of me fighting my case, I just wanted to go to prison. I was tired of being in County Jail. I wanted to do my time and get it over with. I told the judge I accept my responsibility, I did what I did, I’ll sign a deal. I signed a deal for 15 years and two strikes. The judge said because I had no record as an adult, he was giving me a break. He sent me to a [rehab] program [at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission]. I told the judge I didn’t want a program, I just want to go prison. He sent me anyway. I lasted about six months before I got kicked out, and I went on the run.
What did Sarrat do that other organizations weren’t doing?
He wasn’t interested in the politics of the nonprofit world. He really felt that there were a lot of issues that were going on in our community that weren’t being voiced. He came from the business world, and he felt you put all of your cards on the table, you hash it out, and you go forward. He didn’t understand the politics, and he got himself in trouble with the city, the foundations. He was rocking the boat too much. Fortunately for him, he had his own money invested in the project. The day that I came on, he sat down with me and said, “Look, whatever you have to say out in the community, I want you to have that freedom. If you need to address a certain issue, then go ahead and address it. I’m the one paying you. I’m not depending on anyone for money. So you say what you have to say.” So when we started getting together, we said, okay, it is what it is. We started showing people that there are laws being implemented in a different way by certain officers, a population being targeted, also officers instigating more violence rather than trying to help out. We came out like, fuck, this is what you guys need to hear. Before we can move forward with stopping the violence between young men, we need to admit that this is really happening. Then we can start to change the environment.
Why can’t you say to kids, law enforcement isn’t perfect, but let’s put that to the side and focus on ourselves?
Here’s the thing. You have a kid, and that kid is dealing with an adult. All the meanwhile I’m telling the kid the adult should know better, the adult should handle himself differently, the adult is in a position to incarcerate you, to set you up, to really make your life hell. And you want me to tell the kid, “Yeah, it’s his fault, but try to be different.” It doesn’t work because you are teaching these kids that right is right and if you commit a crime, you have to do your time. How the hell is that fair for me to tell a kid to conduct himself in a certain manner when the individuals in power don’t even conduct themselves in that manner? That’s why I’m saying it’s very important for us to admit and to really address that there are certain officers out there who shouldn’t be holding a badge. We would be asking the kids to be bigger men than the adults. It just doesn’t work that way. There are certain kids that are so full of anger, they say, “Fuck that, why should I act in a certain manner when I know I’m not even in the wrong.” For us, we really wanted to address that with the city, law enforcement, anyone in power, to hear them admit 30-40 kids saying the same thing can’t be a lie. So we’ll look into it. We’ll address this issue, and then we’ll take accountability for what we do.
We started getting the neighborhoods together and allowing some of the older individuals in these communities to take a leadership position. Our idea was to say we need to take accountability for what we do. So how can we address this between ourselves? The problem we found was that when we tried to network with each other, to discuss what issues are impacting us without getting law enforcement, the DA, or anyone else involved, but try to clean up our own house, we have all these things going against us because we’re not afforded the same rights as everybody else. Every time we got together we had to do it in secret, because if we made it publicly known that we’re getting together, [the police would show up] and you’re looking at gang enhancements, you’re looking at conspiracy charges, you’re looking at young individuals being targeted. The way law enforcement sees it, we can’t possibly be getting together because we want to change anything. We must be getting together to commit criminal activity or to organize. Why should we have to do it by hiding? Anyone looking in from the outside reasonably asks why we’d have to meet in secret? Then again, we have to think, I don’t want to go to prison forever just because a cop thinks we’re meeting for a negative reason. That’s been one of our biggest problems. It’s been difficult to show transparency to the whole community. The community isn’t getting the full story.
Some of your kids have been involved in crimes. Most notably, one of your employees, Ray Macias was arraigned last week. It makes some people think you must be criminals.
The problem is that we are dealing with kids that are high risk. We’re not going to be able to save everybody. Even when that kid is committing crimes out there, some of these kids are getting services from CADA [Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse], some of these kids are getting services from the CAC, some of these kids are getting services from Teen Corps and other organizations. But when they commit a criminal act, all of a sudden the fact that those kids are going through those programs two or three times a year doesn’t matter. All they see is that those kids are part of Palabra. Whenever those kids do something positive, everybody seems to take credit and say, “Hey, they’re part of our group.”
With Raymond, they didn’t find anything in his house. The only reason Raymond is facing these charges is because of conversations he had with certain individuals in the community. As far as his case goes, that’s all I’m going to say about that until it’s done.
Let’s go back a step then. Explain to me what you do.
CCF was tailored to be a mentor program, taking a few trips here and there and having conversations with kids. When I took over the program, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to have more interactions with the individuals we were working with. I wanted to see whatever real services were out there in the community. I wanted to have some sort of real accountability that if I referred a kid out to a certain program that he would actually be getting those services. Then we shifted from doing that to focusing more on mediation. We were really trying to change the gang environment in the communities as opposed to waiting for things to happen and coming afterward. We wanted to train individuals in those neighborhoods to take a leadership role. At the time, we were trying to get more training to them. I wanted to get them certified so that they knew what they were doing.
Is there a program you modeled yourself after?
When we started, no. The model we were going after was the way the gangs do it. … By teaching kids, you already have all the skills you need to survive in the world; you just need to tweak them to where you’re doing something positive for your community that’s going to have a much longer impact. Once you empower them in that way, then you can see the whole neighborhood start to shift.
Fast-forward two or three years later, I started to realize there were other programs throughout the nation that were ahead of us. You take a program like Cease Fire out of Chicago. When I watched a video about them, I said, “That’s exactly what we do.” So I started looking at, how were they keeping track of incidents, how were they documenting everything, how were they going at their funding, how were they able to coexist with law enforcement? When I started researching Cease Fire, the organizers said they never shared any information with law enforcement, they were out there responding to incidents before violence happened.
One of your issues is that you are sometimes at the scene of a crime faster than law enforcement.
We all got calls when incidents were happening in the community. We weren’t getting a call at 10 at night and then waiting until eight in the morning to call people up. We were out there in the middle of the night mediating. Sometimes there were two or three incidents where one of the guys from our program was a victim, and when he gave a statement to law enforcement, they were upset that he wasn’t able to give them more information. Then all of a sudden he goes from being a victim to being a suspect. Again, it goes to our issues with law enforcement. How the fuck can I give you information if I don’t know what the fuck is going on with myself?
My responsibility and my loyalty are to my community. Whenever I’m dealing with any of these kids or their families, I’m not going to screw them. With some of the kids that have been lost — either killed or that are incarcerated — I still see the families. I’ve never told anybody, “Don’t rat, don’t talk to the cops.” That’s not my place. At the end of the day, the major thing we tell them is that you’re a big boy now. You’re a man. So you need to make a decision that is going to affect your family in the best way possible, and you need to ride with consequences. That’s why we have that misunderstanding with law enforcement. They feel I should be telling kids to cooperate with them.
Following on that, some kids choose to get jumped out of gangs. Some kids just gradually move away. Where does Palabra advocate?
For me growing up in the neighborhood, I got schooled by a lot of older individuals that helped me and guided me through that whole process. There were a couple times when I talked to the older homies and said, “I want out. This isn’t for me. Everything is changing.” The homies took me aside and said, there’s other options than getting jumped out. You don’t want to be separated from your own community. You can still be around in this capacity. Nowadays, there is nobody in the neighborhood that you can call an older homie. Most of them are locked up. There’s nobody there to guide the kids on showing them different options. Out there on the streets, there’s rats — informants — and then you have law enforcement, and then you have young homies that don’t know the way things work completely.
For everybody in the community, they think it’s only one of two choices. You either get jumped out or you become a rat. There’s more options than that. There’s different ways of doing things. When you’re in the community and you’re gangbanging, then all of a sudden you have kids and you’re working all the time, there’s a couple of weeks when people are like, “Yo homie, you’re not kicking it, you’re not around.” But when you’re constantly working, you’re already down the road. They don’t come after you. They don’t do all this shit that law enforcement claims. You have a lot of these individuals who have moved on from that lifestyle. They have different priorities now. For us, that’s just the way it is. You’ll always be part of the neighborhood, but you’re not here making decisions anymore. You move on; there’s nothing wrong with that.
With the gang injunction however, you’re taking a lot of these guys who have already moved on and you’re putting them right back in neighborhood and putting them back at the front of the line, and you’re willing to prosecute them for shit that they haven’t even done yet. Now you’re making the neighborhoods aware of “Oh yeah, we forgot about so-and-so. What’s up now?” You know what I mean? Now you have people looking at doing time for shit that’s not illegal. So what options do I have now? You just reminded individuals that I’m out here now. You’re putting me in a spot where I wasn’t gangbanging anymore, but thank you law enforcement. You brought me right back into the lifestyle.
There’s a debate about whether kids choose to join gangs or whether they are obliged.
There’s a little bit of truth to both of them. You know when cattle are being moved from the barnyard and you’re branding them? You’re opening certain gates to guide them in certain directions? That’s how it is in our communities. There are certain choices available to certain kids. If you go left or you go right, it’s a limited choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless. Our kids are making a choice based on the information they have and based on the opportunities that they see in front of them.
The other thing is that, you know what, you do come from an environment where [gangs have] always been around. I believe that most of the kids that do join the gang are pretty much fed up and they want to fight the system. They just don’t know how to fight it, and this is the only way they see to do it. For me personally, I did make a choice to get jumped into a gang because I liked the violence. I came from a violent home. If I was getting my ass kicked at home, I wanted to be in a place where I could pass that ass-whooping to somebody else.
Also, I had a younger brother that was taken away from us by Child Welfare. He was taken away when he was two or three years old. I was living in the projects in Goleta at the time. Somebody made a complaint that [our parents] were abusing us. Child Protective Services came one day and knocked on the door. I was 7 or 8 years old. I looked through the peephole and didn’t answer, so the cops left. When they came back, they kicked in the door. I hid my brothers and sisters in the closet and threw clothes on them. I could hear the cops saying, “Come here, we have candy.” One of my little sisters ran out of the closet, and that’s how they found us. They came after my little brother for whom I was caring at the time, and they took him. When they took him, the cop gave me his card and said, “When your parents come home, tell them to call us.” I remember sitting home and thinking, I’m going to get my ass beat because I let them take my brother. I remember just sitting there in the living room looking at the door off its hinges. … That incident brought a lot of hate toward the cops. After that, I would always see that cop. He would always say, “Where’s your brother at? Oh, you haven’t seen him?” He would always talk shit like that.
For me, it was like fuck these fools. So whenever cops came around the neighborhood, I would scratch their cars, slash their tires. For me, it was like it’s me against you now. It was only so long before I saw the older homies and it was like, I’m down, and I got kicked in. The gang was the natural choice for me to make.
Looking back as an adult, I can say that was a very stupid mistake. But it was a choice that I made. So now that I have to continue with the bad choice I made and make the best of it. I can see both sides, but a lot of people saying these things are adults. They’re not putting themselves in the mind of a 14-year-old. They’re thinking, it’s obvious. Well, it’s obvious to you now. It wasn’t then. That’s why I think we forget that at the end of the day, they’re kids who are going to make mistakes, especially angry kids.
It’s frustrating because on one hand, they’re willing to punish them as adults, gang members, the worst pieces of shit, and then with the same breath, they’ll say they are wannabes, they’re idiots, they’re insignificant. It’s like, dude, you can’t have one or the other. If people looked at these kids the way they look at their own kids — that’s the way that I do things — I look at a lot of these kids as if they were my own personal kids.
You have three? I see three tattooed on your arm.
I have three. I know my kids don’t always make the best choices, but they’re going to have to learn from those choices. I wouldn’t want my kid to make a bad choice and then have to be incarcerated for life or tried as an adult.
Before we end this interview, what do you want people to know about Palabra?
I want a lot of those people that believe what we are doing is illegal to contact me and volunteer with us. As long as they’re not cops, they are more than welcome to come through our programs and interact with a lot of the kids. I think most people genuinely care about the community, and if they really knew what the kids go through, they would be the best advocates to change the system. We’re never going to be able to incarcerate our way out of this. Growing up, I thought I was going crazy. I thought I was going fucking crazy. I would say, dude, people cannot not be aware of what’s going on in this community. That’s why I thought everybody was racist until I met some white people, and they just didn’t know. They didn’t know what was going on.