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South Bay | Immigrant Rights | Police State and Prisons

New Youth Activists Emerge From Spiraling San Jose Violence
by PNS
Wednesday Mar 10th, 2004 5:41 PM
Police shootings, random murders and Homeland Security deportations plague a Silicon Valley city already hit hard by a faltering economy. But a new breed of young organizers may lead San Jose to better times.
New Youth Activists Emerge From Spiraling San Jose Violence
Special Report, Raj Jayadev,
Pacific News Service, Mar 09, 2004

Police shootings, random murders and Homeland Security deportations plague a Silicon Valley city already hit hard by a faltering economy. But a new breed of young organizers may lead San Jose to better times.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Once touted as the centerpiece of the Silicon Valley dream, San Jose now seems to be collapsing from the inside. In the past few weeks: a father was mistakenly killed downtown by a state drug agent, a Sikh man killed three other Sikhs in a park, longtime Bay Area families were threatened with deportation, and growing reports of abuse came out of our Santa Clara Juvenile Hall.

I just heard that a man, an ex-DJ and drug counselor, was killed downtown by police last night, within a block of where I am writing this. The police say the man committed "suicide by cop."

Perhaps no other tragedy speaks to the chaos more than the killings of Hari Singh, 65, Satnam Singh, 70, and Kulwant Singh, 45, who were shot to death while playing cards at Overfelt Gardens in east San Jose in late February. Had it been a hate crime, we would have had some framework to understand the tragedy and target our outrage. But when the shooter is also Sikh, who can we march against?

Still, despite the confusion, and amid the silence of local city officials, young grassroots leaders are emerging to lead the city out of this morass. Emerging from their jobs selling phones at the mall, or from studying for their next big final, the victims of the chaos have turned into overnight community organizers. While most of us have been keeping our heads down, bracing for more budgets cuts and continuing unemployment, they have fueled movements here that no one saw coming, but we all knew we needed.

A Daughter's Tale: Regina Cardenas

The last time I saw Regina, at her father's vigil, she was a mixture of shock, loss and fury. Rudy Cardenas, a father of five, was shot downtown by a state drug agent who mistook him for someone they had been staking out. The agents chased Rudy and shot him in a back alley.

It was just two days after her father's death, and Regina already sounded part media spokeswoman, part grieving daughter. "I had never been to any rallies or vigils or anything before this, but I need to start," she said softly with a slight smile, before walking away to console another relative.

Like many 25-year-olds, Regina's life was in transition. She was in the middle of moving in with a girlfriend in mid-town San Jose, and had recently picked up a new job as a materials coordinator at a Milpitas medical company. But her life since her father's death has been about arranging and attending meetings. She meets with lawyers about lawsuits, community organizations about rallies, funeral homes about costs.

Several days after the vigil, Regina is speaking with me by cell phone minutes before a strategy meeting. She has hooked up with a neighborhood association to organize a march to the federal building. "We just can't let the awareness die, we need to be constantly in the media for the community to be energized." Regina hasn't taken a break raising awareness or organizing since the shooting.

"I feel like I have to be strong for the family. Of course I have breakdowns, but I don't do it in front of others." When I ask her how she does it, she says she gets help from friends and family, but her strength surprises even her.

She's getting a call on the other line and has to go; it's about the upcoming meeting. As I stumble through another offer of condolence, she interrupts me to make a pitch for my attendance at an upcoming meeting she has organized, on how to hold law agents more accountable. "Bring anybody, it doesn't even have to be people who know about my father's case, but just people for the cause. We want to have a big turnout."

With family members, Regina organized a vigil with over 150 people, only a week after the first. In the corner, wearing a baseball cap pulled low, Regina raised money for funeral expenses by selling cookies, and shirts with Rudy Cardenas's image and the words, "In Loving Memory."

Weapon of Mass Mobilization: Dale Cuevas

Last December, after Dale took his last final at De Anza Community College, his mother showed him a letter from the Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. It told his family they had 70 days to voluntarily deport themselves to the Philippines. The U.S. government had rejected his family's appeal for green cards.

"Since that moment it's been like a dream I can't wake up from," says Dale. The voluntary departure day has come and gone. But Dale says he's too busy saving his family to be deported.

Dale, 23, has lived in Fremont for 19 years, since his parents and two sisters fled political turmoil in the Southern Philippines. He's about as Bay Area as you can get -- he's slightly hip-hop, knows more Spanglish than Tagalog and makes car payments. He studies business management at San Jose State and is a cell phone salesman.

When I first met Dale at a community forum in a coffee shop in Union City, he was already comfortable with a microphone in his hand. "Our family's coming forward may inspire other families to stand up too," he tells a packed audience of media and immigrant rights organizations. The professional advocates at his side are left with nothing to say; the young man on whose behalf they were to speak is doing just fine himself. Dale lays out plans to put pressure on Sen. Dianne Feinstein to sponsor bill to allow his family to stay, then vanishes into his sea of friends. They look like young Filipinos you usually see at a break-dancing competition, a buzzing of Obey T-shirts and Van Dutch trucker hats. These are the foot soldiers in Dale's immigrant rights movement.

From the start, Dale has been placing his family story in local and national publications, making the press calls himself. "I saw how the lawyer's public relations guy did it with the San Francisco Chronicle, then started calling every media outlet I could think of." Dale has, in a way, already been trained in community organizing. "I am able to speak comfortably with people because of my sales background." He explains to me that there are two types of salesmen: the "bait-and-switch kind," who say they are going to give you something and then don't, and "the ones with integrity." Dale says he's been "telling it like it is," speaking on the glaring contradictions of Homeland Security policies that are threatening to deport hard-working families, to whomever will listen. "I mean, come on, my family is not making weapons of mass destruction," he says.

The possibility of being deported has brought Dale closer to his Filipino identity. "I always had all kinds of friends, and never really saw the point of getting together with the Filipino organizations." But in the past two months, Dale Cuevas arguably has done more to spotlight the plight of Filipino immigrants than any other voice in recent history.

Outside Agitator: Fernando Campos

At 18, Fernando Campos looks at least 20 years younger than everyone else sitting at the meeting of Civil Rights for Children in Tutti's bar and restaurant in South San Jose. He is not a parent, but an ex-detainee who joined the group that fights abuses within the Santa Clara Juvenile Hall as soon as he got out.

Fernando is busy folding a stack of flyers while the parents are exchanging stories of recent assaults they have heard about from sons and daughters. Norm Towson, the founder, booms, "I just want them to stop beating up our kids and calling them assholes!" Fernando strolls by my chair and says calmly, "Don't worry if it gets a little loud, people here are just passionate because they're talking about their own kids, you know?" Fernando was incarcerated for seven months and was both witness to and victim of abuses and insults during his stay inside. The Santa Clara Juvenile Hall, once claimed to be the best youth detention center in the country, is now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for abuses of its detainees.

Fernando has no obvious obligation to try to change a system most would try to get away from as quickly as possible. He has a good job at a medical equipment assembly company, which will help him pay for college. He is helping his family pay automobile and home bills. But, he says, "When I was inside, my mom starting going to these meetings. I was impressed that there was a group like this. Nobody else seemed to care about us."

Civil Rights for Children has been a vocal critic of the Hall. They have protested in downtown San Jose, brought media attention and investigations, and are now pushing for a "Juvenile Justice Monitor" program to inspect the institution regularly.

Scanning the room, Fernando says he met most of the sons of these parents in the Hall. "It was like we had our own little group in there, cause we had parents that were talking about us to each other." Fernando knows he brings something more to this group than just another pair of hands to fold flyers. "When the parents see me here, see that I'm staying out of the system, I think it gives them hope because they can see their kids in me."

Fernando did go back inside the Hall a week later -- to attend a meeting between Civil Rights for Children and top juvenile hall administrators. Dressed in a suit, he got off work early to represent the group with his mother. Once again, as tensions flared and voices grew louder, it was Fernando who asked everyone to calm down, speak in turn and respect each other.

The Return of Community Organizing

Tragedy often breeds activism. But within the context of harsh unemployment and budget cuts that have hit San Jose harder than most California cities, most people are scrambling just to get by. This is what makes the emergence of this new generation of San Jose leaders so surprising -- they just shouldn't have this much fight left in them.

The new activists aren't funded by foundations, don't have nonprofit tax ID numbers, and don't ask for permits for their marches. They use bars and coffee shops to hold meetings, sell cookies to fundraise and at times are as much support group as advocacy organization. The return of organizing in Silicon Valley is simply about everyday folks finding that they are stronger together than alone.

PNS contributor Raj Jayadev (svdebug [at] pacificnews.org) is the editor of http://www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.

http://news.pacificnews.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=209ba85c6c6d672b84d8a2db58933f66