Meet the Grassroots Organizers Who Stood Up Against ICE’s 7-Eleven Raids

Charles Davis January 25, 2018

Organizers with Koreatown Popular Assembly and other immigrant rights group rallied outside a 7-Eleven when Immigration and Customs Enforcement began raiding the stores in search of undocumented workers. (Koreatown Popular Assembly)

The knock­ing began just before dawn, star­tling the sleep­ing fam­i­ly inside this home in Kore­atown, a neigh­bor­hood in cen­tral Los Ange­les where a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion was born out­side of the Unit­ed States.

¿Quién es?” a fright­ened woman asked from behind the door. The bang­ing only got loud­er, two mus­ta­chioed law enforce­ment agents shout­ing, Police! Open up!”

But these men were not police — they were immi­gra­tion agents, who often claim to be police—and the door remained closed. Inside, anoth­er fam­i­ly mem­ber grabbed a phone and, pan­icked, dialed a num­ber she’d seen on a fly­er. After a few rings some­one picked up.

Hel­lo, this is the Rapid Response Net­work.

For­tu­nate­ly, the agents — and their out­sized mus­tach­es — were fake: This was just a skit, part of a Jan­u­ary 21 train­ing ses­sion at the Pilipino Work­ers Cen­ter led by vol­un­teers with the Kore­atown Pop­u­lar Assem­bly, a grass­roots neigh­bor­hood coun­cil found­ed after Don­ald Trump became pres­i­dent. On this par­tic­u­lar Sun­day after­noon, around 30 peo­ple spent near­ly four hours learn­ing how to become first respon­ders — not to put out fires or con­duct CPR, but to pro­tect their neigh­bors from Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE), an orga­ni­za­tion that, in the first nine months of Trump’s pres­i­den­cy, has arrest­ed 43 per­cent more peo­ple than in the same peri­od a year before.

Our goal,” as one slide put it, is an ICE-free com­mu­ni­ty, so if ICE shows up we want to be there to encour­age them to leave.”

The response net­work only launched this year, but about two weeks in the promise was on dis­play. On Jan­u­ary 16, word spread that ICE was raid­ing local 7‑Eleven con­ve­nience stores in search of undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers. The net­work sent out a blast alert, and Irma and oth­er vol­un­teers rushed out to a near­by loca­tion they heard was being tar­get­ed, join­ing oth­ers mobi­lized by groups such as the Coali­tion for Humane Immi­grant Rights of Los Ange­les and the Kore­atown Immi­grant Work­er Alliance, which advo­cates of behalf of the neighborhood’s low-wage employees.

At this point, the intent pri­mar­i­ly is to doc­u­ment and inform; to gath­er evi­dence, in the form of video and inter­views with eye­wit­ness­es, that can be used both in court and to influ­ence the court of pub­lic opin­ion, and to remind peo­ple they have rights — even as immi­grants, and even under Trump.

Calls to the KPA 24-hour rapid response line are answered by one of 40 dis­patch­ers. After some basic ques­tions, and a reminder not to open the door until one sees an actu­al war­rant signed by a judge, that dis­patch­er then sends a text alert out to these vol­un­teer first respon­ders, who rush to the scene to con­firm that an immi­gra­tion enforce­ment action is in fact being car­ried out. Once con­firmed, anoth­er alert is sent out to a broad­er list with the intent of mobi­liz­ing the broad­er community.

When Trump got elect­ed, a bunch of us were freaked out — scared,” says Irma, a KPA vol­un­teer who declined to give her last name. A 17-year res­i­dent of Kore­atown, she said she heard about the KPA thanks to a call put out by the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work, which host­ed train­ings for com­mu­ni­ties across LA on set­ting up demo­c­ra­t­ic, neigh­bor­hood assem­blies. The con­sen­sus in Kore­atown, she said, is that its many undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents need­ed pro­tec­tion from the fed­er­al government.

They want­ed to be able to alert peo­ple when things are hap­pen­ing,” she said.

David Abud, an orga­niz­er with NDLON who helped lead Sunday’s train­ing ses­sion, says he’d like to get to a point where we can be inter­ven­ing and stop­ping depor­ta­tions and dear­rest­ing people.”

It’s impor­tant, he believes, to have a mod­el that peo­ple can repli­cate, so peo­ple can see we’re doing this here and doing it with very lit­tle if any funding.”

But he’s more ambi­tious than that. The ulti­mate goal,” he says, is to stop rely­ing on the instru­ments of vio­lence that we’re told are the things that keep us safe — so like the police and ICE — and to be able to say, You know what? We’re actu­al­ly going to devel­op our own ways of respond­ing to the emer­gen­cies that are hap­pen­ing in our community.’ ”

Indeed, the intent is not to repli­cate what tra­di­tion­al left-of-cen­ter non­prof­its and immi­grant advo­ca­cy groups have done, says Sebas­t­ian Sanchez, an attor­ney with Bet Tzedek, which pro­vides free legal ser­vices to low-income indi­vid­u­als. Those groups do valu­able work, he said, help­ing draw media and polit­i­cal atten­tion to the demands of immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. KPA’s rapid response net­work, by con­trast, is focused on direct action from the bot­tom up.

We’re focused more on your neigh­bors being attacked,” Sanchez explains. We want to be there to sup­port them, and we want to orga­nize block by block, apart­ment by apartment.”

Immi­grants are not pas­sive ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this work, either. They are its leaders.

In Mex­i­co, we’re used to abuse of pow­er. That is [what] we are born into,” says Arman­do, a vol­un­teer, who declined to give his last name because even legal immi­grants with this gov­ern­ment — we are very vul­ner­a­ble.” There are, he said, two ways you can respond: You can go with the sys­tem and say, Well, that’s Mex­i­co,’ or you can oppose it and try to change it.” He elect­ed to oppose.

You make net­works,” he said. Back in the day, I’m talk­ing about the 80s, we were using bells or whis­tles [to say] there is a raid going down; we’d just whis­tle to let the bar­rio know that peo­ple are com­ing for us. … Now, we can do it with cell phones.”

We came to Amer­i­ca,” he con­tin­ued, and even­tu­al­ly things evolved into this, which is very sim­i­lar to Mex­i­co. How­ev­er, we learn how to oppose it — basi­cal­ly, you find the cracks.”

It’s not much, per­haps, but peo­ple film­ing immi­gra­tion enforce­ment actions — iden­ti­fy­ing agents; putting them on notice that their actions are being mon­i­tored, and that their pres­ence is unwel­come — is a lit­tle dent in their armor,” Arman­do says. He hopes it will lead to the expo­sure of ICE as a force of intim­i­da­tion,” ruin­ing lives to score polit­i­cal points with racists. If ICE is rec­og­nized as that, and even­tu­al­ly dis­man­tled, that would be our goal.”

Charles Davis is a jour­nal­ist pub­lished by out­lets such as Al Jazeera, The Inter­cept, The Nation and The New Repub­lic. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @charliearchy.
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