‘How I Almost Got Arrested at City Council,’ by Alicia Rojas — A Santa Ana Story

[Ed. Note: This piece first appeared at “Santanero Zine,” where you can go to find photographs of the events from Andrew Galvin.  Reprinted by permission of the author.]


By Alicia Rojas

Alicia Rojas in Gallery

Alicia Rojas with some of her paintings.  She went to a Santa Ana City Council meeting to help the homeless, but stayed to help the First Amendment.

I went to the Santa Ana City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 7, to support the homeless shelter. I wanted to make a public comment on agenda item 85b. Instead, I almost ended up getting arrested.

Agenda Item 85b was a proposed discussion on the shelter where an amendment could be passed to put a moratorium on the already zoned site. I was disappointed to see Councilman Sarmiento introduce the item to try to pass a moratorium, since he had already voted for the zoning last year.

It troubled me that the City would reconsider the zoning for the shelter because of the “community” concerns that it would bring in “thieves, drunks, drug users and perverts,” words I heard being thrown during an August town hall meeting near the shelter site. The criminalization and generalization of the homeless population breaks my heart because in the America we live in today most of us are two paychecks away from not having a home. Also there are many young homeless people fleeing abusive homes, intolerant parents because they are homosexual, and immigrant families. I personally got to know some of the homeless community in the Civic Center during the Occupy movement and I felt the great need to speak up for them.

A moratorium or amending the city’s shelter ordinance because of the perceived characteristics of potential occupants is, by definition, discrimination, and according to state law, illegal. So I felt compelled to speak at the podium once again even though sometimes I feel like you are talking to empty seats up there.

I was rushing to get to the Council chambers because my boy had an orthodontist appointment that ran long. I was worried that I wouldn’t make it in time to turn in my public comment form.

I am not a physical resident of Santa Ana, as many like to throw in my face when I do some kind of advocacy or activism — “you don’t even live here.” Well my heart does, my friends do, my art has for the last decade and I am a Santanera because Santana for me is where I found my art and where my immigrant family came first upon arriving to California, where I feel welcomed and accepted, a place I call home. So, haters, deal with that.

As I rushed in around 6:00 PM I realized that the meeting had not started. Usually meetings start at 5:45 PM. I saw many people there and organizations all getting settled with their public comment forms, said hello to all my friends, went inside the chambers, greeted the City clerk Maria and handed my form.

I found a seat in the already packed chamber and started writing an outline of what I wanted to say regarding the shelter. There were some young girls sitting behind me with notebooks and I started chatting with them. They were high school students there for a class assignment on local civics. What do you know this was their first experience at a City Council meeting! They were eager and asking me questions about how the agenda works, what to expect, how public comments work, what’s the role of the Council, etc. Then finally the Mayor and Council walked out of their private chambers and they all proceeded to be seated.

Then Mayor Pulido said and I am somewhat paraphrasing here: “Please don’t turn the TV cameras on yet. Before we officially start the meeting, there is a gentleman right here that is wearing a hat that its offensive to our police officers and he has declined to remove it. So can you all please empty the chambers so we can remove the gentleman and then everyone can come back inside to start the meeting.”

People started getting up and leaving. Some were yelling, “Don’t leave! It’s his right to wear the hat, freedom of speech!” About 30 people remained inside. I decided to stay at that moment, didn’t know if I would leave at a certain point yet but for the time being I was staying I thought. I felt scared for the kid wearing the hat. What would happen to him if we all left him there with over 20 cops surrounding the chambers? The recent FBI investigation of the SAPD for police brutality came to mind and I felt genuinely scared for the kid in the “Fuck the Police” hat. I noticed that the high school girls behind me also decided to stay.

The Mayor and Council came back in and asked the remaining citizens to leave the chambers within 30 minutes or risk arrest and this is how the intimidation got started. Other people started leaving. I noticed the high school girls were trying to decide what to do. I advised them to leave because they were minors and their parents were not present. They did decide to leave but not before some good discussions they had with each other about the First Amendment and their own rights at that moment. I thought well I guess this is not going to be a total waste. These girls’ report back to class is going to be exceptional!

Another police officer, a woman, also threatened the rest of us there with arrest after the Mayor and the Council left. I also noticed that the City Manager was trying to pick and choose people that remained there and speak to them individually, pleading with them to leave. I wasn’t one of them. More people left; there were just 10 of us remaining inside the chambers. I guess at that moment everyone individually made the decision to stay and risk getting arrested

As all of this drama unfolded cops began filling up the back of the chambers behind the glass doors and there were about 20 or more inside the foyer with handcuffs ready to move in when ordered. Some of the cops were still wearing their motorcycle helmets, which made them look even more threatening to me.

I started feeling really scared and I kept asking why would we be getting arrested? What law or laws were we breaking to merit an arrest? After all, this was a public space during a public meeting and no one in there was acting threatening only defiant to the intimidation the city mounted on us.

We kept getting no response from anyone from the police or the City regarding a reason for why we would be getting arrested. At one point the City Attorney came out and she spoke only to Albert from Chicanos Unidos. He then told us all that she was asking everyone to leave just through the glass door and come back in. Of course we knew that the guy with the hat would not be allowed back in if we did that. We stayed, but there was no coordination or attempted effort in the people remaining to organize or make a collective decision…we just did it individually and it felt empowering because at that moment I was starting to feel more intimidated to leave, and scared.

I am a mom and I was worried about me not being able to come back home for the night. I then decided to stay anyway because I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for not standing up for freedom of speech, and what I felt was happening was a great injustice to our constitutional right to freedom of speech. I yelled out loud then that I thought that freedom of speech was our ability to express our discontent any way we choose without fear because that is how it’s supposed to work. I have to allow the stupid Tea Partier to scream crazy shit cause its their right even though I don’t like it or agree with it. I will stand up for the right to just fucking do so. I suddenly felt peace and I sat down awaiting my impending arrest as I looked back and saw even more police officers with cuffs on hand.

After about 40 minutes passed the Mayor and Council came back to the chambers. They all took their seats. For a minute I thought okay they are giving up! We are going to finally start this meeting it was almost 7:00PM by then. But no that’s not what happened.. They Mayor said “This is last warning to leave the chambers, we will go to recess again and if you don’t leave I will cancel the meeting.” Then he and all the Council and staff left the room again. It was like a play, a theatrical performance of characters coming and leaving the stage.

As they exited to go back to their private chambers someone yelled “You want to get re-elected Puldio? This is what Santa Ana looks like”

Also someone else yelled “Councilwoman Martinez tell us what we are doing wrong, help us, stand up for us.” She then stayed back, and a back-and-forth took place with some of the remaining citizens. She then asked the guy in the hat to please remove it. She said “It’s disrespectful to the chambers, it’s disrespectful to our police officers, it’s disrespectful to people who are watching this show.”

To which an activist with CopWatch yelled back “it’s disrespectful to our community when a SAPD officer beats a community member and now the DOJ and the FBI are investigating this civil rights violation,” to which she had nothing to say and exited the chambers.

I was about to text my 13-year-old boy that I would not be coming home…

About 15 minutes went by, I just sat there silently waiting for the arrest. I put my backpack on and held my purse and started texting friends and family members that I was possibly going to get arrested and asked them to please bail me out soon! I was about to text my 13-year-old boy that I would not be coming home and that I was going to text his dad to come by to pick him up. But as I was writing my text the Mayor and Council came back they all took seats and he adjourned the meeting. We were free to go and he had just canceled a public meeting over the guy in the hat.

As we left the chambers and went outside we were greeted with applause from some of the community that was waiting outside to re-enter for the meeting. I yelled aloud that the Mayor had canceled the meeting.

An impromptu news conference started with the members of CopWatch talking about their personal experience with the SAPD and read their mission statement. They also asked the public to stay engaged as they will be returning to the next Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Some of us decided to go to Diego’s Open Mic after all of this and in the end that was the best thing of the night — being able to share a space freely with fellow artists, advocates, activists, the underground community that still has a pulse and could be heard loudly on Open Mic at Diego’s.

This is probably one of those days you don’t forget easily. So I hope to see everyone occupy the Council Chambers Tuesday the 21st 5:45PM so we can have our 3 minutes and address what is important to us as a community. Let’s just hope the Mayor and Council are able to hold a meeting even with the voice of dissent talking to them.

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