By AMANDA MARTINEZ
Take a stroll down Mission Street and you’re likely to see see police rolling down the street by car, foot or bike. Chances are you have occasionally felt compelled to stop and watch and maybe even hoped to witness an escalation of drama.
A group of four young Mission District residents meet regularly to do just that – watch the cops. And for eight months their weekly ritual has evolved into a commitment they have made to each other and the Mission District community called Cop and Migra Busters.
Far from the stylish Guardian Angels or the beefy Minute Men, the Migra Busters at times seem almost hapless. None of the 20-somethings quite know how to use their police scanner, and the video camera needs repair, but the team of four to seven members meet faithfully twice a week to patrol the Mission District. If they see an immigrant or anyone who needs help with the police, they step in to assist with translation, or if necessary, to document arrests with pictures or video.
“It makes a difference when cops know they are being held accountable by witnesses,” said group member Lacie Johnson, who like the others favors black clothing with a political message.
On a recent Thursday evening they met at the 24th Street BART station to begin the week’s walk. With the police scanner in hand and the video camera still in need of repair, they also had a stack of fliers in English and Spanish that read Know your rights.
The flier warns, “remember you have rights but many police may not respect your rights,” and it offers advice on arrest situations such as “ Say repeatedly I don’t want to talk until my lawyer is present.”
As the group folded last minute pamphlets, changed batteries in the scanner and thought about a plan of action it became clear that the cop and migra busters are also shy.
“I think I will only pass out flyers to those that are at least as tall as me,” said Ralowe who stands more than six feet tall. He was also adamant that others should pass out Spanish language pamphlets. His own language skills, he said, would not get him far.
As they walked, some were quick to hand out a flier, but then quickly kept moving, almost fearful of conversation. “Thank you, I appreciate it,” one man who had just received a flier said to the group after they had left.
Nervous and unsure of their route, the walk turned into a paranoid conversation about undercover cops, capitalism and updates on the number of various activist actions each of the members has planned with other organizations that week. Lots.
When a business owner was seen talking to a cop near an alley, a member pointed him out as a possible snitch, while another quickly noted the importance of building relationships with the authorities.
A combination of events, they said, inspired them to start the patrol: the increase of immigration raids in the Bay Area last fall, accounts of racial profiling, and the shooting of Oscar Grant.
The discussion of police authority could easily turn radical but it also became clear that the migra busters know their stuff. Members, most of whom have already finished college, can effortlessly rattle off details on gang injunction laws, sanctuary policy, and the new hire of Police Chief George Gascón.
At times, their timidity disappeared. They walked into places like Carlos’s Bar, for example, to distribute handouts, but generally a retreat or quiet time followed such moves.
At the end of the hour’s walk Pati Zapatita, a theater teacher at different schools and organizations in the Mission, realized their flier had the wrong e-mail address printed on it. (The correct email is firstname.lastname@example.org)
They’ve had more successful days, she said. In December the group created a rapid response list to notify people via text messages when they saw agents from Immigration Control and Enforcement Agency known as ICE. They signed up 50 people who get their texts.
“We have been lucky that we have not confronted an intense situation yet,” Zapatita said at the end of the walk in a voice that suggested she was both disappointed and relieved.
Other walks have been different. A week earlier, Zapatita and Eddie, who preferred not to give his last name, helped translate when police pulled over a Spanish–speaking recycling truck driver for parking in a red zone near Café de Tazo. With their help, she said, his car was not towed.
And at the beginning of the month a simple walk home ended with Zapatita translating for a man surrounded by 15 cops at the 24th Street BART. It’s a scene Eddie has ready to show on his video cell phone.
“I understand I have a privilege being bilingual and the ability to help out,” said Zapatita. “I have seen situations that could have been worse if we hadn’t been there.”
If the infrastructure of the group appears weak, they know it.
Every week they call for a community meeting and when I attended, I turned out to be the only outsider. No matter. Do you have access to a printer or paper so that we can create more pamphlets, one of them asked.
And when I leave the group after their patrol, “Will you be back next week? We need more members!”
TO GET INVOLVED
Weekly Cop and Migra Busters meetings are being held Friday, 7p.m at Café de Tazo on 16th Street between Mission and Valencia