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.

Migra buster Pati Zapatista works the scanner
Migra buster Pati Zapatista works the scanner

“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.

patron at Carlos Bar on 24th Street and Mission reads a pamphlet
patron at Carlos Bar on 24th Street and Mission reads a pamphlet

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

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!”

Weekly Cop and Migra Busters meetings are being held Friday, 7p.m at Café de Tazo on 16th Street between Mission and Valencia
Phone. 1.877.878.7721



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  1. Thanks Lydia!

    Please feel free to call me to find out about the work of our Marijuana Offenses Overview Committee at City Hall, I just re-applied for my seat.We monitor compliance and confront violations of the Lowest Priority Ordinance, a little known local law, that basically makes it illoegal for cops to harass, cite, admonish, detain or arrest cannabis users, whether their are mediacl cannabis patients or “adult” (as in recreational) users.
    You can smoke weed in public, as long as you remain 20 feet away from public entrance (as for smoking tobacco), and would can carry 1/8 of dry weed on you (as long as it is not in separate, smaller portions, then you can get busted for sales).
    and Hear This : you can cultivate up to 25 plants in separate pots at home !

    Let people know !
    The MOOC commission also centralized citizens compaints against SFPD violating this ordinance, or you can call Idriss Stelley Action & Resource Center Bilingual Spanish Hotline to report such misconduct, and I will pass it on to the commission.

    Compliance with the ordinance by all SF precincts is monitored on one of ISARC sites:

    In Unity & Respect
    mesha Monge-Irizarry

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  2. The comments at the end of this article saddened me a great deal.
    Copwatching is not about funny skits, controvertial artwork and antagonizing/

    It is about true community policing, whatever you may want to call it, protecting and serving e4ach other against abuses from the “authorities”. against racially biased policing and upholding our constitutional rights.

    When I launched SF_COPWATCH, in September 08, we grew the m
    embership at large to 91 members. SF Copwatch ev

    entually merged with Mi
    gra Watch and became an independent collective from its founding entity, Idriss Stelley Action & Resource Center.
    We donated the scanner and Copwatch wallet size cards produced by the NLG ande sponsorship of SF Head of the Public Defenders Office, Jeff Adachi.
    Univision Flavio Lacayo followed our route at night on Mission Street.
    To read that the team has dwindled to 4 members is saddening news. I sincerely hope that SF CopwatchMigraWatch will regain momentum and proceed to productive outreach.

    It would make sense to meet with Gascon, and clearly define what SFCopwatchMigraWatch truly stands for.

    I feel that challenging bad police work should go hand in hand with commending good police work, even if complaints exceed kudos.
    As you may know, my only child driss Stelley was executed by SFPD in June 01, but ISARC is not “anticop”, but anti police misconduct and brutality, and challenges violations of SFP departmentatal procedures.

    WE PROVIDE A 24hr Bilingual Spanish hotline, (415) 595-8251
    individual counseling and support groups, court accompaniement and referrals to pro bono civil rights attorneys, and foster socialization and support/resources sharing among survivors.

    We also moderate over 150 yahoogroups for our client families. Services are free and confidential.

    Copwatching is a stepping stone, not an end product. It should be the premise of a much larger network, a safety net, working in close collaboiration with concerned community members and victims, survivors and thrivers, and It is critical that the larger community does not perceive Copwatchers as agitators.
    In Unity & Respect
    mesha Monge-Irizarry
    Idriss Stelley Action & Resource Center
    and co-director of SF Education Not Incarceration
    Redstone Building, Suite #209, SF CA 94103 (ISARC), (ENI_SF)

    *SF MOOC City Commissioner
    *FORWARD Board member (services for Families of Parolees)
    *James Jeyes for SF District 6 supervisor Campaign Team
    *Hurricane Relief Board
    * Roger & Cheryl Onstead Healing Foundation
    * SF Bayview National Black Newspaper reporter

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    1. Thank you for your comment. We look forward to more thoughtful discussion of this topic. Best, Lydia Chavez, ME

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  3. What this article doesn’t include is a full image of the crude drawings on the front of their flyers of crying pigs in cop uniforms being blown apart into pieces. Do these people advocate cop killing? Or is that just a metaphorical wish? And the “pig-as-cop” thing – don’t they have anything new in their bag of metaphorical tricks than this old saw?

    It is ham-handed (pun intended) dogmatic tactics like these which hurt, rather than help, progressive and liberal causes. I first saw their flyers at L’s Cafe on 24th street a few weeks ago, which was surprising as I’ve seen the local beat cops go there for lunch break, and didn’t think the owners would be supporting such advocacy against police officers. Many of the small businesses along 24th street have been clamoring for beat patrols and more police community involvement for at least a decade, to better defend them against gang-related protection rackets, vandalism, robbers, murderers, etc.

    One of their flyers crudely depicts another pig in a cop uniform, with a “Ghostbusters”-style circle-slash through him, and four images of humans “zapping” the pig cop. One was a infant(!). One was a female who looks like she is an archetypal white suburban school teacher. One was a postal worker(!). The last was a… wait for it… firefighter! On this flyer they say, “We are trying to do what we know, to defend our community against the police and ICE!” Truly bad art, both aesthetically and politically.

    Nice article, overall, though! 🙂 Good depth and nice observations.

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  4. Perhaps they should hand out directions in Spanish on
    the quickest route back to their own country.

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  5. hopefully, should any of these concerned citizens require police assistance for anything real, the cops would be there for them.

    if i was a cop, however, i would politely allow them to exercise their rights to be mugged, and respect the needs of the mugger.

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