“Lord, help the voices of the people be heard,” says Pastor Danny Correa at Placentia's Well of Life Church on a recent Monday night, as people bow their heads in silent prayer. “We trust in you, Almighty Father.”
Under a humble gray cross, the faithful voiced their concerns about new gang injunctions filed in the city's historic Mexican barrios, Plas and La Jolla. Well of Life, a warehouse space transformed into a sanctuary, lies in the middle of the neighborhoods and has become common ground for the communities. The two are now getting to know each other better as they unite to fight a common enemy: the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA).
That night, residents made plans for a peace vigil and outreach at Placentia's upcoming Tamale Festival. They talked strategy about how to show the rest of OC that the areas don't need any prosecutor overreach, that their homes are safe from the problems the OCDA claims infest Plas and La Jolla. “I have family from both neighborhoods,” Theresa Smith says. “We need to get a good message out for why we're against the gang injunctions!”
Those filings by DA Tony Rackauckas mark the first time the office has targeted two gangs at the same time in the same city. “It comes from the grassroots up, where people in the community are wanting us to do something because they're scared,” says OCDA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder. “These so-called activists, we did practically the same thing in San Clemente, and it seemed to make the community better. Isn't that what they want?”
But if Rackauckas thinks he can just file an injunction in a divide-and-conquer strategy and be done with it, he just doesn't have his ear to the ground. Although the La Jolla and Plas gangs are longtime rivals, the fight against the injunctions is slowly bringing the communities together. Within a month, neighbors recruited organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Chicanos Unidos and the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition to help educate residents about the injunctions' ramifications. And more actions are in the works
Long ignored by the rest of Orange County, Placentia's barrios have a history of activism and resistance worthy of a chapter in a Chicano-studies textbook. Residents fought in the Citrus War of 1936, and veterans came back after World War II and began desegregating schools. Jack Aguirre became one of OC's first Latino council members in the 1950s; in 1972, La Jolla residents rioted after the city razed an apartment complex where many orange and strawberry pickers made their home. Residents fought development projects in the city's Santa Fe neighborhood for decades. And in 2003, Chicanos teamed up with good-government Republicans not only to stave off a railroad project that threatened to gentrify the downtown, but also to expose city corruption that led to the voting-out of nearly the entire City Council.
Placentia residents have a long memory and can recall when Plas and La Jolla had no beef against each other, citing 1970s community programs such as Casa Placentia, which took care of youth. “The problems started when funding for Casa Placentia stopped,” says Ana Castro, who grew up in La Jolla.
So when news came out about the gang injunctions, community activists quickly started going door to door. Smith, who became an activist after Anaheim police killed her son Caesar Cruz in 2009, began to organize immediately. “My daughter knew this young man who received some paperwork, and they didn't know what it was,” she says. “He brought me the paperwork, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was a gang injunction.”
Activists eventually invited those affected to talk about the issue in late October in a basement classroom at Cal State Fullerton, a neutral place away from the injunction zones, so as to avoid any trouble. Plas residents sat together on one side of the room, while La Jolla on the other. But after that get-together, the groups set aside their differences at the Nov. 3 Placentia City Council meeting.
At that meeting, residents from both neighborhoods took turns at the podium for two hours. Everyone from homeowners to an Afghanistan War vet said they felt safe in their barrios and didn't need or want Rackauckas' gang injunctions. The OCDA dismissed them, describing the commotion as the work of outside activists roaming from one gang injunction to the next. “Placentia is a beautiful city with a lot of history and with good families that have a right not to be terrorized by gang members,” Assistant District Attorney Tracy Miller says. “A lot of the people who spoke at the council meeting do not live or work in the safety zones.”
But not on the same page, at least initially, was Mayor Chad Wanke, a Republican. He took notes throughout the night, listening intently during his constituents' comments. “I was concerned about their concerns,” he says. “I don't like how the process happened, but from what I've been told by the DA, the gang injunctions are really just going to impact the people that are specifically mentioned in them.” He said his position is powerless to influence the injunctions one way or the other, but Wanke is willing to hear them out.
The council meeting was all preamble, though, to Nov. 16 hearings in the courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson. Those who couldn't fit inside Wilson's tight quarters waited in the hallway for support. “There is no need for an injunction,” resident Carla Banuelos says. “We are safe!”
Wilson noted that he received a letter with hundreds of signatures from Placentia residents echoing Banuelos' sentiment. Between hearings, anti-gang-injunction activists took their protest outside.
“In a lot of ways, this is an unprecedented amount of community involvement,” says Sean Garcia-Leys, a law student working with the American Civil Liberties Union and UC Irvine Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic. “This more tightly connected community has folks whose families have been here for generations.”
Filing back in the courtroom, residents attempted to pack the seats, but they were physically barred by police officers from filling the seats behind the prosecutors. Wilson granted a preliminary injunction for Plas, giving a stay to alleged gang members who showed up or are currently jailed, just as he had for La Jolla. Calling the gang injunctions “complex cases,” Wilson handed them over to Judge Kim G. Dunning, who'll hear them out on Jan. 19, 2016. Residents are ready for an even bigger turnout on that date.
“It was amazing to see the people from Placentia go early in the morning to support the ones from La Jolla, and then people from La Jolla staying to support the ones from Placentia,” Smith says. “That was historical.”