As civilized society evolves, perceived negative labels have become fundamental to organization and the divvying of resources, allocation of time and effort, etc. Too many seem to have become accustomed to and are comfortable with accepting these life-altering labels as justice for the greater good. These labels may describe extreme poverty (homeless, vagrant referring to homeless doing illegal activity); those with violent propensities (aggressive, gang member/gang-affiliated, domestic abuser); people who break any law, from drug use to theft to murder (criminal); those with unusual behavior (mental illness), et al. Such labels, however, oversimplify the human condition.

To address the so-called undesirable acts and behaviors, labeled people are offered programs and services that may be beneficial to some but not all or simply fail to produce long-lasting results for many others. When those in authority can’t get the outliers to complete classes or programs, the labels become more or less permanent and a sort of hopelessness sets in. Rather than choose to question the labels and treatment, it seems the status quo is harsher punishment, stricter programs, more pharmaceuticals and even institutionalization. We think we have found solutions that will apply to a handful of labels that fit everyone, but neither the solutions nor the labels address the complexity of the issues.

Take, for instance, the Oxnard gang injunction, which was deemed unconstitutional in 2018. It had a pretty low bar by which an individual would be labeled as gang affiliated: gang-related tattoos, attending gang-related gatherings, making gang-related gestures, associating with other known gang members. Now, imagine a tight knit community where family and friends blur the lines of those who appear gang related and those who are actually in gangs. The gang injunction court order limited a person’s freedom of expression and mobility in the community and possibly harmed future opportunities for work (should the gang injunction issue become known).

On Dec. 22, Oxnard Police Department announced that 362 people would be released from their court-ordered gang injunction in the new year and so would be able to carry on with their “normal” lives. But how does one simply carry on after being labeled and limited for so long?

Oxnard’s gang injunction isn’t the only example of a possibly counterproductive label. It has been par for the course on the recent slaying of an officer by an undocumented/illegal immigrant.

With the arrest of Gustavo Perez Arriaga of Mexico for killing Cpl. Ronil Singh of Stanislaus County, up went the red flag for a problematic person worthy of deportation: an undocumented immigrant who had been arrested twice for driving under the influence. Because of California’s sanctuary law, the police were limited in their ability to work with ICE to deport him. Sheriff Adam Christianson referred to Arriaga as a “laborer” who worked at several dairies, noting that he had gang affiliations and multiple Facebook pages with different names. So to be clear: If an undocumented immigrant has worked as a laborer, has multiple Facebook pages with different names, has gang affiliations (no details) and has been arrested for DUIs, then that means the next person who checks off those boxes may also be a cop killer and should be immediately deported. That seems extreme, given that there are numerous people who may fit that criteria. And what about those who fit those same criteria but are U.S. citizens? It seems as though we have an unreasonable knee-jerk reaction in the hopes that it will promote civility and a nonviolent society. Arriaga’s decision to kill was his and his alone and the labels meant nothing in the scheme of things. Consider this: if Arriaga was instead a white U.S. citizen, he would be labeled as a lone wolf.

For 2019, we urge the general public to look past the labels that have minimized people and humanity into categories of hopeful and hopeless cases and focus on individual beings as complex, multilayered, sometimes impulsive, committed to survival, who are not defined by heritage, status, gender, condition, etc. It’s a productive way to right the wrongs and promote a better balanced and civilized society.