Stop Stealing Our Cars, New Documentary, Shows Santa Ana's Fight Against Unjust Impound Policies

Working-class immigrant residents of SanTana have been beneficiaries of new, fairer vehicle impound policies since October 1, 2011, when activists scored a solid grassroots victory. Stop Stealing Our Cars, set to premiere this Saturday at El Centro Cultural de Mexico in the city's downtown, is an inspiring bilingual documentary that tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a community came together to effect positive change.

Spurred by supposed DUI checkpoints in the city that in reality netted more unlicensed drivers–particularly undocumented immigrants who are disallowed from applying in the first place–than borracho ones and imposed draconian impound fees, the Orange County May Day Coalition (OCMD) and the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO) began working together in order to halt profiteering that totaled $40 million statewide in 2009, according to a California Watch and UC Berkeley investigation.

Their efforts culminated in policy changes that allows for an unlicensed driver at a checkpoint to call a licensed driver to retrieve the vehicle within 20 minutes, roughly the same amount of time it takes for a tow truck to arrive on scene. Thirty-day impounds, whose heavy costs exceeding over $1,000 hit working-class immigrant residents hard, were also modified and could only be authorized in the case that a driver has been previously cited once in the previous nine months, or twice in the past three years. Costa Mesa-based filmmaker José Luis Gallo of La Causa Films was there all along the way with camera in hand to document the local movement of a greater statewide issue.

The roots of his first full-length documentary began with the 2006 May Day immigrant rights march in SanTana that drew tens of thousands to the streets. Gallo had wished he could have filmed the historic moment then, but the desire to use his camera for the cause remained when he met Gema Suarez of OCMD (who narrates the film) years later; she introduced him and his brother to El Centro. Activists at the alternative space were prepping for last year's May Day march where one of the demands was the end to unjust towing of cars in the city–an issue they planned to take to the city council the very next day.

“I was thinking about it as a weekend project,” the Ciudad Juárez native and UTEP graduate says. “Little did I know that it was going to turn into this full-feature documentary. It was very organic, the project grew as the movement started growing.”

Stop Stealing Our Cars begins at El Centro, where activists create the artistic and musical aesthetic of their message in the days leading up to the march. The documentary's title itself comes from a vibrant orange and red protest sign that would later be hoisted up along the route of the demonstration. The May Day action, smaller than previous years, but no less spirited carried with it a demand that will spell out the activism of the coming summer months.

The day after the march, the scene shifts to the Santa Ana City Council. A protest puppet of mayor-por-vida Don Papi Pulido is rested against the wall with a “For Sale” sign around its neck as speaker after speaker make their case against the existing impound policy. The drawn-out struggle shifts to Public Safety Commission meetings where council members Claudia Alvarez, David Benavides and Sal Tinajero meet with activists and law enforcement officials, including Santa Ana Chief of Police Paul Walters and Deputy Chief Carlos Rojas. They appear to be amenable, make promises, but impounds continue as Gallo films a checkpoint stop outside of El Fogón on Edinger Avenue. A tow truck driver shares a laugh with a police officer as a car is later whisked away from a female unlicensed driver unable to do anything to stop it. “I think that's one of the most powerful scenes in the documentary,” Gallo says of his film.

The drudgery of hammering out the eventual changes in subsequent meetings over several months could, but does not translate into on-screen boredom, a testament to the skillful editing process and the fact that this is a rare activist documentary that doesn't overwhelm with despair but chronicles the hope of an inspiring victory. Stop Stealing Our Cars excels in charting the transformation of a protest sign into a new reality through hard work and dedication.

“The premise for the documentary was that we wanted to show what the community can do when it comes together and fights for a common cause,” Gallo remarks. “I really hope people take away from it that we can actually accomplish something and change laws and policies to make them more fair.”

Theresa Dang, an Orange County May Day Coalition member and executive producer of the film she's featured prominently in, has a unique perspective of looking back on the footage. “We had folks who had never appeared at a public meeting to make a statement,” she says. “When I watch it now, I'm proud of the young people who took on leadership roles.” As activism on the issue of impound policies continues in other communities–LAPD Chief Charlie Beck came out in favor of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants just yesterday–Dang sees potential in taking Stop Stealing Our Cars out of Santa Ana and into places like Los Angeles and San Diego for future screenings.

“It's a good tool just to show people how we did it so that they might be able to craft their own solutions.”

Stop Stealing Our Cars premieres Saturday at El Centro Cultural de Mexico, 313 N. Birch Street, Santa Ana with screenings at 6 P.M., and 8:30 P.M., with a Q&A session after the second showing. The event is free and open to the public.

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