As security risks have mounted at the Galería de la Raza in the wake of repeated vandalism and online harassment, administrators have tried to maintain an open dialogue with young men in the community even when they may have felt threatened.
Unlike the reflex of most — to call the police when there is trouble — administrators have sought to work with violence prevention experts to resolve issues without involving the criminal justice system.
“We’re working within the community to try to de-escalate these kinds of actions,” said Ani Rivera, executive director of the Galería.
One particular incident occurred on the evening of Tuesday the 23rd, during which more than a dozen young men were loitering outside of the Galería’s doors, possibly blocking the entrance.
“I came here on Tuesday and I sat in [the Galería],” said Rene Yañez at Wednesday’s rally. “Somebody came in to complain that the flag had been painted with gay colors. Somebody came to pay compliment. Somebody came in very angry, two persons, and claimed that this was promoting child molestation.”
“I’m very concerned about the staff of the Galería,” he continued. “It’s very intimidating because sometimes there’s 15 people, there’s 20 people hanging out in front of the Galería, it’s very intimidating. They try to bully people walking by. We do need that security. We need that help.”
Vero Majano, an artist with the “Q-Sides” exhibit, said that Rivera called her for some support that evening but that the situation was soon resolved.
“Well, Ani called and said she just asked for some support, like some folks are here to talk to some young guys hanging out in front of the Galería and blocking the door,” she said. “There were a couple of guys looking out because they were heated, but saying it wasn’t around the mural.”
Mediators were then called in and a dialogue begun.
“Where we were coming from we didn’t want the kids arrested,” Majano continued. “We tried to talk to them, ‘This is not a good place to hang out. You are welcome to come in you just can’t be blocking the door. We don’t want the cops harassing you.’”
Though a few undercover police did eventually show up and ask for identification from the few men still standing around, Majano said the intention was not to involve the police.
“That’s not what she [Rivera] wanted to do, call the police. These kids are already harassed. We wanted to use the love and compassion that was talked about yesterday [at the rally],” Majano said.
“They said they had every right to hang out and we agreed, and Ani just reached out to get support with the community instead of the cops.”
Rivera said she would not describe the encounter as an “incident,” and added that she’s happy that the community is concerned for the safety of the Galería but doesn’t want to “demonize the youth.”
“There’s been this conversation that we’ve had an incident with the youth and homies, and there is no incident that’s been reported,” she said. “These young guys, they hang out down at 24th Street all the time. We didn’t call the police, we actually saw that they were hanging out, and by the end of the week we were sharing cupcakes and talking.”
This approach echoes the calls made by many at Wednesday’s rally for a focus on community and restorative justice rather than punishment.
Olga Talamante, director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation and a board member, emphasized the importance of this approach.
“I do think that a community presence is important, that’s what we are talking about, a scheduled community presence. I myself would not call it security because that gives the wrong impression, but it is really more the presence and the support of the community,” she said.
But the importance of the police to protection is still integral to the conversation, Talamante said.
To that end, Supervisor David Campos stepped in and spoke to Police Chief Greg Suhr about the need for a security detail around Galería, a request that was approved, according to Hillary Ronen, his legislative aide.
“We are concerned with the fact that there was arson. It is very, very deeply scary. That is why David immediately got on the phone with Chief Suhr and asked for a security detail,” she said.
“We’ve also reached out to the violence prevention team and they have also agreed to do additional community-based outreach,” which she said involved “walking the corridors, talking to youth” and dissuading people from “getting in trouble or doing anything wrong.”
“I don’t think protection is ever overreacting,” said Majano. “The idea of people’s families and the community’s families — you want protection. Not asking for a big police presence, but they have to just be around and aware. And again the supervisor needs to protect his neighborhood, it’s just what it comes down to. You are threatening people. You first reach out to them and that’s what Ani [Rivera] did.”
Rivera said no decision has been made on whether the mural will be replaced.
“That’s not the priority when we’re dealing with arson,” she said. “Right now our heads are working as healers, as administrators, as protectors of this space. The work will continue, but right now there’s other real problems.”
Galería is planning to host a community forum to discuss the mural and its defacement on July 18.
Lydia Chavez contributed reporting.