By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
The residents of Barrio Cypress in Orange refused to let the DA’s office slap a gang injunction over their neighborhood without a fight
At about 7:30 on the cool morning of Feb. 23, Emmanuel Gomez arrived on the doorstep of Yvonne Elizondo’s office on Batavia Street in Orange. The shy, baby-faced high-school sophomore with a habit of dressing in collared shirts and pressed slacks didn’t know where else to go. He clutched a 6-inch-thick stack of documents under his arm and sat on the curb.
Before sunrise that day, police had jolted him awake with whacks on his front door. A pulse-pounding commotion had followed, with blinding flashlights and a din of deep voices. His name was called out, and then the daunting packet was dropped into his hands. His mom was crying. She was asked to sign something; Gomez told her not to sign anything.
Elizondo arrived at her office around 8:30 that morning. The community activist remembers that Gomez was groggy, frustrated and “all pissed-off.” She wondered what the cops wanted with him: soft-spoken, hard-working, gang-tattoo-free, with no violent criminal convictions on his record. He had a few misdemeanor charges from when he was younger, but those were dealt with. He wasn’t on probation; he’d made the honor roll in his alternative-education program and often talked with Elizondo, his case manager at the Bridge—the non-profit she works for that serves at-risk, low-income young people—about his dreams of becoming an engineer.
“Then the rest of them started trickling in,” says Elizondo. “They were confused and asking, ‘What is this?’”
Soon, the small conference room was crowded with teens and parents, all clasping the same fat packets, telling of similar SWAT-team scenarios and pleading with her for an explanation.
More than 100 people received that same rude awakening that morning from teams of gang-unit specialists, police officers, sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys. The preliminary injunction against the Orange Varrio Cypress (OVC) gang had been served.
Law-enforcement gang units and the DA’s office say that when serving these special lawsuits, they plow in like they’re doing a drug bust because the defendants are people whom they’ve determined to be active, potentially violent, criminal gang members. The goal is to surprise them with the suit, lest they plan any retaliatory attacks, skip town or, worse, reach for a weapon.
In this case, many instead reached for Yvonne Elizondo. Part den mother, part feisty provocateur, Elizondo came of age in Orange in the 1970s and has a long track record of youth advocacy and outreach.
Flummoxed, Elizondo leafed through the packets—and then looked into the pleading faces, many of them Bridge regulars whom she often affectionately refers to as “my kids,” “my girls” or “my guys,” and delivered the bad news.
“I said, ‘Well, as far as I can tell, they’re suing you guys,’” she says. “They said, ‘For what? We ain’t got no money.’ I said, ‘No, no. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to put you on a gang injunction.’ They said, ‘What’s a gang injunction?’”
Everyone spoke at once. She felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach: She knew many of their stories intimately—how they’d busted their butts to go back to school, get their degrees, beat their addictions, volunteer, secure full-time jobs, turn their lives around.
“You know they’re doing well, you know they’re going to school, you know they’re going to college, you know they want to change their lives, and they say, ‘God, Yvonne, see? Now we can’t do it,’” she says. “And this is why.”
Elizondo knew these people. She knew that Erika Aranda, a young single mom who had frequented the Bridge, had never been convicted of a crime. Aranda had an uncle who had once been involved with the gang, and she knew some kids in the neighborhood whom the Orange Police Department alleges are gang members; those were the reasons given in the court documents for why Aranda was deemed a gang member.
She knew that the three De Herrera brothers—who are in their 30s and 40s—were too busy taking care of their ailing parents and their young kids, as well as volunteering at a local boxing gym and at church, to be participating in gang activity. She knew Gomez was on top of his homework and grades and that Miguel Lara worked full-time to help his mom and was excited about attending Santiago Community College. There were dozens more like them: people she worked with directly or had known for decades whom she knew were not actively leading criminal gang lives and terrorizing residents, as the lawsuit alleged.