(NOTE: PART 2 COMING THURSDAY)
In late March of this year, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed an injunction against a gang known as Orange Varrio Cypress, or OVC, a group that generally claims territory in the traditionally Mexican American area of the city Orange known as Barrio Cypress. It is the sixth such injunction filed in Orange County in the last 2 1/2 years.
Unlike some of my fellow liberal friends, I am not against gang injunctions per se. They are a tool, and at times a very useful tool in giving a community breathing room when gangs are running roughshod. But as with a hammer, whether the tool of gang injunctions is used for constructive purposes or as a clumsy bludgeon, depends on the skill with which it is wielded.
In the case of the OVC injunction it appears that the tool is being wielded discouragingly poorly.
Functionally, a gang injunction works like a restraining order. But, instead of barring contact with an individual, it bans certain activities by purported members of a particular group named in the order.
The OVC injunction demarcates a 3.8-square-mile area the DA has designated as the Safety Zone. This section of Orange, which amounts to 16 percent of the city, is located mostly in Orange’s downtown sector, west of the 55 Freeway. In the Safety Zone, alleged gang members are not allowed to be in the presence of anyone else who is allegedly a gang member, or to drink alcohol, or to be nearby to anyone else who is drinking alcohol, or to wear “gang attire, ” which is a woozy term that means certain brands and certain colors. In addition, those named in the injunction must obey a 10 p.m. curfew.
And there are other prohibitions. Among the most bizarre is the rule that alleged OVC gang members named are forbidden to stand in front of a famous local mural painted by the highly respected artist Emigdio Vasquez. It seems that the police have deemed the mural as OVC’s gang “flag.”
If those named in the injunction violate any of these restrictions, they face six months in jail and a hefty fine.
With previous Orange County gang injunctions, there had sometimes been minor protests, but they had come to nothing.
This time community members and activists seemed far more determined in their objections, saying that the police at the DA had cast an absurdly wide net that amounted to racial profiling. It was, they said, making the lives of the innocent people named to the list….. simply impossible.
Among the problems with poorly calibrated gang injunctions is the fact that, when mistakes are made, they are extremely difficult to rectify. If one is not a gang member, but is wrongly named in the injunction, there is no way off the list short of hiring a private attorney to contest one’s inclusion. And even if one can afford an attorney, there is no guarantee that contesting will work, as one is stuck with the task of having to prove a negative.
One of those named on the OVC list was Erika Aranda, a 21-year-old single mother who lives with her family and her young daughter in the so-called Safety Zone, but says she has never claimed gang membership, or participated in gang activity. She has never been convicted of a crime. She has, however, grown up around those who are admitted gang members and has sometimes, according to police, been seen talking on the street with these childhood friends who still live in the neighborhood. Plus her uncle—a drug addict— is a old time OVC gang member who lives with the family intermittently, “whenever he’s not locked up,” she says.
That was enough for the DA, who named Aranda as a gang participant, thus subject to all the restrictions. For instance, this meant that the young mother, who had recently been laid off from her job at the Dairy Queen, would be unable to continue with the job training classes she had been attending at the The Bridge, a non-profit also located in the Safety Zone. It seemed that, among its services, The Bridge counseled and provided classes to at-risk youth, some of whom were listed in the injunction. So just by being in the building, Aranda would be in violation of the order.
Nor could Aranda ask a neighborhood friend to drive her to a job interview (she doesn’t have a car), if that friend happened to be on the list or had a family member on the list.
And, if the police wanted to push things, it meant she could not use public transportation if someone on the injunction list was also taking the same bus.
“Because I live and shop in the Safety Zone, I will become a prisoner in my own home even though I am not on parole or probation,” Aranda wrote in a statement protesting her inclusion in the injunction. “I fear that I will be targeted by the police and will be accused of violating the terms of the preliminary injunction by engaging in routine, day-to-day activities.”
Given the flimsy “proof” of gang membership the DA had compiled to justify her listing and that of some of the others who claim they were named wrongly, Aranda’s fear doesn’t seem outlandish.
As if to validate her anxiety, on Easter Sunday, police arrested a teenager named in the injunction for nothing more than standing with a friend (not named in the injunction) outside the apartment building where he lived with his mother, which happened to be located right next to the forbidden Emigdio Vasquez mural.
At their wits end, the community group went to the ACLU, which finally agreed to represent five of the people named in the injunction, Aranda among them.
“The ease with which the District Attorney’s Office embraced this sweeping approach is troubling, and should make the public very nervous,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, one of the two ACLU staff attorneys who would be working the case. “This haphazard, catch-all approach to cracking down on gangs ensnares innocent victims and threatens to take away their most basic freedoms — associating with family and friends.”
Photo of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from the OC Weekly.