Brightly painted yellow and red signs danced down the streets as a mass of protesters made their way through the avenues of Santa Ana during a May Day protest last year.
Larger than life puppets, carried on the shoulders of over half a dozen demonstrators, represented students and workers. The most notable image — a large photographic cutout of Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, with a sign, reading “For Sale: Santa Ana,” beneath him.
The protest was just one of the actions documented by Orange County independent filmmaker Jose Luis Gallo in Stop Stealing Our Cars.
On Saturday, over 130 attendees viewed the bilingual documentary during two screenings at El Centro Cultural de Mexico in downtown Santa Ana.
The film is about the struggle of activists attempting to change a DUI checkpoint tow policy. Members of the community argued the checkpoints were found to not be netting drunk drivers, and were instead towing the cars of unlicensed drivers and charging massive fees.
The film featured activists from the Orange County May Day Coalition who fought against a policy they said unfairly targeted low-income and Latino families in Santa Ana.
The documentary, a nearly yearlong effort depicts a tightly-knit group of determined activists tirelessly pushing for change at Santa Ana City Council meetings and attending multiple Public Safety Committee meetings late into the night.
Many activists spoke out at meetings, telling the council the DUI checkpoints were ineffective at catching drunk drivers, and the high fees for towing were a burden for undocumented immigrants, who, by law, cannot obtain drivers licenses.
State law requires the vehicles of unlicensed drivers to be impounded for 30 days, which can cost the owner of the car over $1,000 in fees.
In the film, one woman speaking at a city council meeting said she was charged upwards of $3,000 to get her car back. She said she was unable to take her children to school, go to her ESL (English as Second Language) class and buy groceries as a result of her car being taken away.
Another scene in the film shows a different woman holding back her tears as her car is being towed away, offering a deeply humanized look at the effects of the policy, which activists said left families out in the cold after their cars were taken away. Throughout the film, community members demand a fairer policy from their city leaders.
“When you take away the policy, what you have is men with guns taking away our property and money,” activist Scott Sink is shown telling the Santa Ana City Council at a meeting last year.
A 2010 study by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley with California Watch found that, in 2009, Santa Ana netted 112 DUI’s through the checkpoints and impounded 504 vehicles — more than any other city in Orange County that year.
According to the study, for every one drunk-driving arrest that the Santa Ana Police Department made in 2009, it impounded 4.5 vehicles. The study also found impounds at checkpoints generated $40 million in towing fees and police fines, which is divided between cities and towing firms. It also found that police officers received about $30 million in overtime pay for the DUI crackdowns.
The study stated that cities where Latinos represent a majority of the population are seizing cars at three times the rate of cities with small minority populations, and sobriety checkpoints were frequently placed to screen traffic within, or near, Latino neighborhoods.
A new policy went into effect last October, culminating the effort that took almost a year. The new Santa Ana Police Department policy instructs officers to give an unlicensed driver 20 minutes or more to call the vehicle’s registered owner or another licensed driver to drive the vehicle away. A 30-day impound can be authorized when a driver has previously been cited for unlicensed driving at least once in the past nine months or twice in the past three years. Before the law passed, it was once in the past year or twice in five years.
Theresa Dang is the executive producer of the film, volunteer at El Centro Cultural de Mexico and activist with the May Day Coalition, which consists of multiple community and activist groups in Orange County. She said the policy change was the biggest victory in her 12 years since she started working with El Centro Cultural de Mexico, although it was not perceived that way at first.
“We never had a celebration because we didn’t consider it to be a victory. We didn’t get everything we wanted,” said Dang. “We wanted 100% of what we recommended and we wanted that to be the new policy … we didn’t think we had cause for celebration. We are four months into the new policy, and because the number of impoundments has dropped so dramatically, now we have cause for celebration.”
According to the film, impounds have dropped 75 percent since the new policy was enacted in October.
The Q-and-A session after the screening included viewers giving praise for the documentary. Madeleine Spencer, an Occupy Santa Ana activist, commented on the unique and uplifting message the documentary was for grassroots activists.
“There’s not a whole lot of documentaries that show the complete process of a community effort from start to finish, especially with showing accomplishment at the end,” said Spencer.
Jose Luis Gallo was the director and producer of the documentary. He said he took days off from work in order to edit 25 hours of footage for the 75-minute film.
“We wanted to show what the community can accomplish when they come and work together,” said Gallo. “I hope that was the message that was projected from the documentary. If that was the message that was portrayed, then I think we succeeded.”