POMONA - Thursday, August 21 2008
Pomona Speaks/Pomona Habla, a coalition of community groups, held a forum to discuss police checkpoints and formulate an action plan.
Pomona Speaks/Pomona Habla was formed in response to the checkpoints, which have resulted in hundreds of cars being impounded, in most cases, due to the driver's not having a valid driver's license. Many of the city's unlicensed drivers are unable to receive a California license due to their immigration status.
The most egregious checkpoint was held earlier this year on May 3, when police set up a four-way roadblock at the corner of Mission Boulevard and San Antonio. The massive operation required the support of the Los Angeles County Task Force and police from neighboring cities. In response, hundreds of Pomona residents and supporters marched on city hall to denounce the excessive police presence. City councilmembers Cristina Carrizosa and Paula Lantz both witnessed the police action and made comments at the council meeting the following Monday. Carrizosa commented that the use of force reminded her of film depictions of the Nazi Gestapo, while Lantz characterized the events as "disturbing." During the city council meeting's public comment period, five people spoke in opposition of the checkpoint. According to the minutes
, the speakers "expressed concern with the over reach [sic] of power by the Police Department, the affect [sic] on the children of the community, the undue burden on the business in the immediate area, the use of outside agencies and the loss of trust for law enforcement." Commentary in the media criticized the checkpoints for unfairly targeted the Latino community due to their timing (which coincided with the Cinco de Mayo holiday) and placement (near a Cinco de Mayo celebration.)
Carrizosa's comments proved controversial, and she was criticized by police chief Joe Romero, who called her comments offensive. The fallout continued the following week, when the president of the West Covina Police Officers Association defended checkpoints and further criticized Carrizosa for comparing law enforcement to the Gestapo. The comment also angered Paul Koretz, executive director of the Western Region of the Jewish Labor Committee, who criticized the comparison for "diminishing the real horror" suffered by the Jewish people.
Since the May 3 checkpoint, the coalition has been pushing for clarification of the city's policy and adherence to the law. The forum was held to give people a chance to express their frustrations and feelings regarding the checkpoints and to offer suggestions.
The forum was held at the Centro Promesa de Dios, a Catholic church in Pomona's historic arts colony. Attendees began lining up prior to the announced 6:30 start time to sign in and receive a copy of the meeting's agenda and the coalition's demands.
Two hosts, Mari Cruz and Raúl, welcomed us to the forum and then introduced Father Guillén, who led us in a bilingual prayer. Following the prayer, Al, a member of the Inland Valley Council of Peacemakers, sang an indigenous song, accompanying himself on a drum, to invoke the spirit of friendship.
Angela Zambrano, an organizer with the coalition, followed the song. She began by thanking the church and its youth group for helping to organize the forum and then recognized the coalition's member groups: Latin@ Roundtable of the Pomona and San Gabriel Valleys, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Pomona Latino Chamber of Commerce, Gente Unida, the Inland Valley Peacemakers Council, Mexican-American Political Association, Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, Brown Memorial Temple, and Saint Madeleine's Catholic Church. She then reviewed the agenda and asked if any amendments were needed. Next, she reviewed the demands of the coalition, among which are the inclusion of coalition members in the city council's subcommittee on checkpoints. At the end of her review, an audience member asked if she could speak in English. "Yes I can. But--but the problem is that we're gonna be-- it'll be-- we're gonna be here till midnight." She then summarized her speech in English and offered copies of the demands in English to non-Spanish-speaking members of the audience.
Zambrano was followed by José Calderón-Zapata, a professor of Chicano studies and sociology at Pitzer College in neighboring Claremont who also presides over the Latin@ Roundtable and has been active in the local immigrant rights movement. Calderón, translating for himself, summarized the coalition's achievements, including a commitment from the Pomona Police Department and a recommendation from the city council that checkpoints not be carried out prior to nine p.m., that they not be carried out in residential areas, and that the checkpoint of May 3 be investigated. He emphasized, however, that these gains were only a partial victory and that much work remained to be done. Professor Calderón then raised the issue of an appellate court's ruling that the section of the vehicle code requiring the 30-day impounding of vehicles of unlicensed drivers unconstitutional and the Legislative Legal Office's subsequent recommendation that suspects be allowed a certain amount of time to find a licensed driver to remove their vehicles from the scene rather than have them impounded. He also proposed pressuring the city not to renew the grant from the Office of Traffic Safety that funds Pomona checkpoints.
The floor was then opened up for testimonies from attendees. During the introduction to the open forum, somebody in the back yelled out that police were harassing forum attendees just outside. Then Professor Calderón framed the struggle against excessive checkpoints in the historical context of the fight for civil rights.
Hecklers in the back began yelling statements such as "Driving without a license is a crime!" A woman, unintimidated, took the floor.
She forcefully denounced racial profiling on the part of the Pomona police department. "It's not just the checkpoints. It's also the motorcycle cops who stop anyone they see who looks Latino to them," she said in Spanish. She went on to discuss the financial burden her family has suffered since her husband's car was impounded.
She was followed by Douglas C. Pierce, a Pomona resident who requested that his comments be translated into Spanish. Pierce supported the idea of checkpoints to counter drunk driving, but insisted that they also be carried out in the wealthier areas of the city. He also recommended that agencies specify the exact location of checkpoints. He also recommended that undocumented immigrants be issued a "B Social Security" card and pay $10 quarterly into social security. He further suggested that undocumented people be granted drivers license. Finally, he addressed the language issue, citing the first amendment as the legal basis granting people the right to speak whatever language they desire, and expressed his hope that conditions improve next year. His comments were then translated.
After Pierce, a man named Ramiro shared his feelings that the Pomona police department seeks only to protect all the city's residents, regardless of the race or color. He then expounded on the evils of drunk driving, mentioning a recent incident in which a Pomona police officer was hit by a drunk driver at three o'clock in the afternoon. "As long as we have people that are drinking, driving, under the influence, none of us in this entire room are safe," he explained. A translator then summarized his comments in Spanish.
Rosa then spoke, informing those gathered of the statistical likelihood of having a car impounded at a checkpoint, explaining that it was greater than the likelihood of being hit by a drunk driver. She also insisted on the importance of resistance and of refusing to be intimidated.
Rosa was followed by a woman who appeared to be African-American who questioned the use of the word "coalition" by the event's organizers. "As a citizen of Pomona, I'm trying to understand what's going on, OK, because it says 'coalition,' alright? I feel left out, because I'm a citizen of Pomona, I have subjected to these checkpoints as well, OK? 'Coalition' means 'We do this together.' I'm --I cannot offer my support if I do not know what's going on, and I really feel excluded in this meeting because of the language issue, OK? However, I am a concerned citizen. I believe in helping anyone's cause if it's a just cause, but I don't really understand what this one is."
She continued: "When I first got my driver's license, I was told, 'You have to have your driver's license with you at all times when you are driving.' OK? Now, I vote religiously, every election, alright? We vote laws in, and it is voted by the general public. And when we vote a law in, the police officers have an obligation to enforce that law. And the law says, if you drive without a license, you go to jail. Ok, now, I understand about the hardships and all, but we can avoid the hardships if you just have your license with you." She summarized: "I think the cause is misconstrued. OK? I don't understand the cause. I feel, actually, I feel like I'm being profiled. Because, you know, we're speaking Spanish, and I don't understand it, I wanna support, how can I support something I don't understand? I've lived in Pomona for 36 years. I wanna be a part of whats going on, but 'coalition' mans we're all included. OK? Thank you."
At that point, Zambrano announced that the woman would be the last speaker, but then, realizing that the translator was approaching the microphone, allowed the translator to speak.
After translating the comment, the translator herself commented in response to the last speaker. "The driver's license laws in California are a racist persecution of the community because people who are undocumented do not have the right to a driver's license." This comment was booed by several minutemen in the back of the church, who interrupted the speaker. "It is not possible to enforce a racist and unjust law in a good way."
She then translated her own comments. While doing so, she was interrupted by a man yelling in the back. I couldn't make out what he was saying but the general feeling was that it was somebody from the pro-checkpoint/anti-immigrant element that attended the event. "I think everybody has a chance to speak. You have to stand in line," responded the speaker.
Her suggestion was that Pomona devise alternative strategies for ensuring that people were driving safely in ways that would not penalize people for driving without a license, such as allowing them to provide proof of driver training. Again, she was interrupted by yelling hecklers.
At that point, Arturo Jiménez, a leader in the coalition, approached the group of hecklers and spoke to them. People in the audience began to pay attention to the confrontation rather than the speaker. People began yelling anti-immigrant and anti-minuteman slogans, and a man who appeared to be white held up a sign. I heard somebody yell, "He's a cop!"
Zambrano asked that people not yell, and explained that since people still wanted to talk, she would extend the forum for ten minutes and asked the remaining speakers to take no longer than a minute each. She then set the groundrules: "The people that cannot respect the rest of us, we're going to ask you to leave. And if you don't leave, we're going to ask someone to take you out."
A young man from Upland, speaking in Spanish, began recounting his experiences with the law, but people in the back continued to shout, rendering his story unintelligible.
The next speaker warned the crowd against "falling into provocations." Zambrano then announced that the provocateur was a police officer. Some people started chanting "Justicia," and a man was ejected from the crowd. (video
) Forum attendees later identified the man as off-duty Pomona police officer Alemán. Commotion ensued, with activists squaring off with minutemen-types and apparently, other off-duty police officers.
Once order was restored, Professor Calderón returned to the microphone to encourage people not to give in to provocation, because that would accomplish the detractors' goal of shutting down the forum. While he was explaining this, Arturo Jiménez asked a group of four youths to step outside with him, asking them if they had used foul language or been rude to the minutemen.
Zambrano then announced that the remaining speaker were to offer suggestions.
The first was Adriana, a young woman who denounced Officer Alemán and accused him of harassing her mother just prior to to the actions of May 1. She also wondered allowed how people could be expected to follow the law when there was no avenue for them to do so. She also said that she was sure that the meeting would have been better-attended if people weren't so afraid to drive. She was heckled by Ramiro, the speaker who had earlier defended checkpoints, interrupted her. "I'm not gonna go that low to argue, OK? I'm here to unite my race
, OK?" At that, the woman who had earlier spoken about feeling excluded stood up and shouted aloud, appalled. Adriana continued her comments, urging unity amongst participants.
Guadalupe then spoke about losing her car and the hardships she has faced since then.
She was followed by Jeff Pomroy. In heavily-accented Spanish, he shared his experience of being hit by an unlicensed, uninsured driver. While his family has recovered physically, the driver has not been punished, and he has not received any compensation for the damage to his truck. He emphasized that the checkpoints were not just for DUIs, but also for licenses. He then translated for himself. In his translation, he added that the coalition was misdirecting its efforts. "If you want to change this law, you need to change it at the assembly level, to say that it is a right to drive, and that you can drive without a license."
A middle-aged Mexican man then suggested that Mexican licenses be accepted.
Next, a woman told the story of her daughter being stopped for attempting to avoid a checkpoint, and then being harassed.
The next speaker, Hassan Alyassin, read aloud the fourth amendment to the Constitution. He informed the audience that there are strict regulations governing checkpoints, and accused the police of not following them. "Some of the checkpoints in Pomona have been against what the OTS grant because each checkpoint is to be conducted at a location that is the area of high-traffic collisions. Some of the checkpoints conducted in Pomona have not been in areas of high-traffic collisions." He then announced that he would run for mayor in Pomona, and that ending checkpoints was part of his platform. His comments were then translated into Spanish.
Father Guillén then argued that the law was just, but suggested that it be enforced without profiling Latinos. He also cautioned against municipal forces overstepping their jurisdiction to enforce immigration law. He touched on the "language issue": "The fact that we have people that speak Spanish, should not be something to be frightened of. Americans, when they go on vacation to other countries, they have to adjust to the language there. And I think that its important for us to be more compassionate or thoughtful about the language barrier. I think we can work through that, and it only takes a generation and a half to really overcome that if we're just patient, also civil, and respectful."
He ended with a warning against "politics of division." "They divide us into groups. [...] You see Hispanics and Anglos, you see African Americans. And I think this is a country that we've said we're 'Unum expluribus
,' one country made up of many different people. Diversity is here to stay whether we want it or not."
He was followed by a man who stated that no official should be above the law. He compared the current abuses to the civil rights violations of the 1950s.
Next, a young man argued that barriers such as the lack of drivers license prevent people from reaching the "American dream." He then suggested that people alert one another of checkpoints through a network of text messaging.
An older man spoke on the importance speaking out and of unity for future generations.
Finally, a woman who had just returned from a visit to Utah related her experience passing through a checkpoint there: "There, there was a checkpoint too. And the police asked us, 'Have you drunk? Do you have any drugs? You haven't taken drugs?' No. That was all. They didn't ask us for licenses, for insurance, nothing. So we need to do this the same way in Pomona. We have to fight for this."
Calderón summarized the suggestions, which he had been noting on an easel pad. Then we were invited to join hands in a circle and sing De Colores
The next meeting was planned for September fourth at seven p.m. and the meeting was adjourned.