By Hannah Esqueda
Photos by Alyssa Castro
Merced, Calif.– It was a compelling scene last Thursday night in South Merced’s Sacred Heart Church community hall; nonprofit organizers, residents and city youth assembled at the first ever Live Free Community Summit to discuss ways of improving relations between the community and local law enforcement.
Dozens of audience members gathered together to plan out a brighter future for Merced while across the hall an entire row of chairs reserved for city representatives sat vacant. Each of the seats was labeled with the name of a local city, police or sheriff’s department official who had been specifically invited to the event.
“We’d like to highlight how all local law enforcement officials were invited here tonight but none of them bothered to show,” said Vanessa Zaragoza, 15, a youth activist and master of ceremonies at the Live Free event.
“I guess they have other priorities tonight,” she continued. “Honestly, it sucks that they don’t take us seriously. They just see us a s a joke.”
Several messages were left asking for comment from all local law enforcement offices invited to the Sept. 29 event as well as the office of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse, but only the Los Banos Police Department responded to media inquiries. A representative for Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee confirmed the department had received an invitation for the event on Sept. 28 — the day before the summit — but had already scheduled an event which conflicted with the Live Free community forum.
Event organizers however say they were never contacted by local law enforcement officials in response to the invitations, and were therefore not aware of any conflicts preventing attendance at the event.
The absence of any formal city or law enforcement representative struck a sour note in what was otherwise an empowering and frequently passionate display of community advocacy.
“I’m here tonight because I don’t like the way this city is treating our youth. I don’t like how my daughter has to walk to school on roads without proper sidewalks,” said Jesse Ornelas, one of several candidates running for Merced City Council District 1 this fall.
“I also don’t like knowing that my two stepsons, who are black, are four times more likely to be arrested than their peers,” he said. “We always say we will focus on youth, but it’s time the city follow through and make some real changes.”
Victoria Castillo, community organizer for Live Free, agreed and said many of the issues brought up during the night’s event have been ingrained into Merced’s culture for far too long. She and her 13-year-old son, Jeremiah Castillo, both talked about the negative impact local police practices have had on the family.
“After [police] arrested my dad, kids at school who’s parents are cops said things about him that I know aren’t true. They talked about him like he was trash,” Jeremiah Castillo said. “I know that’s not true. He is a good father and a good man.”
Since 2013, Castillo’s father has been held at Merced County Jail while he fights charges of evasion. His detention and mistreatment behind bars sparked Victoria Castillo’s involvement with Live Free, a division of the faith-based group Merced Organizing Project (MOP) which itself is a part of the PICO California network.
The multi-racial group currently represents more than 17 congregations and 7,000 families in the Merced-area and helped investigate Merced County’s police and incarceration practices as part of a nationwide study conducted in partnership with researchers Rutgers University.
The results of the study were released this summer and Victoria Castillo said Merced County has the lowest health grade of any of the 19 counties included in the report.
“We got an ‘F’ y’all. It’s unfortunate but these researchers were able to confirm what many of us families in low-income communities have felt for years,” she said. “We’re not holding our law enforcement accountable and there are no citizens oversight or review boards.”
Castillo said the report also found that since 1985, the local jail population had risen by 16 percent, with African-Americans making up a disproportionate percentage of those imprisoned or detained compared to their representation in the overall community.
“We’re disrupting our society and our community by tearing our families apart,” she said.
After presenting all the data, summit leaders emphasized the need to invest in youth programs and for the city to adopt community-friendly police practices in order to end the cycle of mass incarceration.
Currently, the city of Merced allocates $13,000 a year to local youth programs — about $0.36 per young person — a price tag that is unacceptable to many.
“In our streets the police officers are abusing our youth,” said Mary Lou Torres, a lifelong educator from the Merced-area. “Our city’s youth are suffering. They are not taught to be proud of who they are in school. Their path is blocked.”
Torres also mentioned how the city currently has no resources for those recently released from jail or prison, leading to higher recidivism and an overall sense of hopelessness for many within the community.
“There are changes coming to the police practices with VIPER and other programs, and it’s going to hurt our community,” she said. “In this town, in this county, I need to see an opening of doors — not more being closed.”
Funding for the Violence Interruption Emergency Response (VIPER) program was a common concern throughout the summit, with many criticizing the preemptive power it will give law enforcement to profile and arrest people of color through predictive policing.
“A lot of the money being spent is going to surveillance. There is no trust in the community right now, unfortunately. We want to build that trust but [law enforcement] need to include citizens in these decisions,” said Gloria Sandoval, a local activist and community organizer.
“We are not against police, but we are against police brutality,” she continued.
Castillo agreed and said she hopes the summit will serve as the first step in organizing the people of Merced to make their voices heard regarding youth investment and police practices. By holding the city accountable and exercising their voice at the polls this fall, she said it’s within the community’s ability to fix these problems.
That feeling of empowerment was echoed in a chant she later ended the summit with, encouraging the crowd to repeat: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other!”