Muckraking at Subversity

by Daniel C. Tsang © 1997

As a radio host cum reporter, I try not to remain aloof from the communities I cover. I believe in advocacy journalism, having written for alternative media for several decades (and now for the OC Weekly). As host of Subversity, a weekly public affairs interview program that has tried, since 1993, to present on KUCI voices that are otherwise not heard, each week I go searching for interesting guests to be on the show, often relying on your tips.

I see my show as exposing official wrongs and empowering the disempowered. While public affairs shows at KUCI span the political spectrum (from left to right), we all try to present an alternative to mainstream, commercial media. While you may think of KUCI as primarily an alternative music station, in fact many of us toil each week to try to bring you hopefully informative yet provocative public affairs programming. For Subversity, Joey Karam is its weekly indefatigable engineer, and the one system. On recent shows, I've interviewed a young former-inmate about L.A. County Jail's gay ward, 13-year-old Randy Hyatt, who's organizing a petition drive to create Rancho Santa Margarita's first skateboard park, and Jeff Streed and John Murphy, the high school students who created Multi-Anti, a political zine that has been banned at two south county high schools.

Sometimes, I find out about potential guests by sheer luck, due in part to my own activism in AWARE, the Alliance Working for Asian Rights and Empowerment, which has been educating area youth about their rights when they are stopped by police in the streets.

A recent Subversity show featured one high school student (out of three) involved in a police harassment incident. What happened to them is, unfortunately, indicative of what is likely to still happen to youths in many Orange County communities, where fear of crime has permitted authorities to target certain people, especially youths who do not "fit in." Crime suppression is welcomed by many, but one must ask, at what cost? In California, more money is now spent on prisons than on higher education.

Irvine, touted as one of the nation's "safest," in terms of FBI violent crime statistics, is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary as a master-planned community. But one Korean American high school freshmen, who with his two friends were ironically on their way to the Harvest Festival last October to participate in the anniversary celebrations, found their journey rudely interrupted by Irvine's Finest.

The fourteen-year-old boy, a freshman at a local high school, unfortunately was wearing baggy pants near the 99 Ranch Market, a local Asian hangout. He also had a maize M emblazoned on his cap, together with Korean and Chinese characters on it. His attire aroused the suspicion of two members of Irvine's latest anti-gang manifestation, an undercover unit called simply the Special Enforcement Team.

Touted as a new community policing effort in a police department press release in April, the unit, formed two months earlier, seeks to spy on every gang member's activities in the city. But who's a gang member? Who can tell? That's where baggy pants and baseball caps come in handy; police gang manuals routinely and misleadingly name them as indicia of gang membership, along with cigarette burns and tattoos.

According to one of the Korean Americans stopped, the two undercover cops lifted the youths' shirts to look for tattoos (finding none) and wondered why one boy had burns on his hand. Instead of patting him down, one police officer (badge no. 122), is said to have inserted his hands into the youth's pockets, and also to have rummaged through his wallet, despite Federal case law that prohibits such searches of a wallet except for identification.

Unfortunately for him, the youth searched had a piece of paper in his wallet with the words "Asian Pride". The cop who found it, a Latino, far from expressing any solidarity with another person of color, instead wanted to know if Asian Pride was a gang name. The youth was also interrogated about his cap, his lighter burn, and why he enrolled in high school (was it to hang out with Asian gangs?). The cop also found a tiny knife in the youth's pocket, and eventually arrested him, charging the minor with a misdemeanor possession of a switchblade. Later at the police station, after his mug shot was taken, he was released to his mother. His friends were not arrested, although they too were interrogated about any gang affiliations, which they denied.

When I appeared before Irvine City Council last year to protest earlier reports of Irvine police stopping UCI students driving Hondas and photographing them for their gang-tracking computer system, Irvine Police Chief Charles Brobeck told the council UCI students were happy with the police and this was a "non-issue." After all, he said, he's received no complaints. In fact, the UCI Ombudsman had forwarded a written complaint from a UCI Asian American undergraduate who was followed by undercover vehicles, then pulled over by police on the 405 freeway and photographed despite his initial protests.

In another incident a few weeks before the Asian Pride interception, a new Latino UCI graduate student in history, Freddy Heredia, on his first evening on campus, was jogging on Campus Drive to Starbucks, to meet with a professor. He also was intercepted by police, asked why he was running, and if he had ever taken peyote.

Interestingly enough, the Irvine Company house-organ, the Irvine World News, has covered none of this, instead regaling its readership (the paper is delivered to free every Irvine residence) with the exploits of the Special Enforcement Team. It touted the new unit in a front-page headline as "keeping tabs on gang activity in city," benignly observing that the undercover police "don't look like cops: They often wear jeans and jackets instead of police uniforms." IWN reporter Cheryl Woolard's report continued, "Their immediate priorities: Stay close to the 154 known gang members living in Irvine and nip in the bud any gang activities in the city." In October, Woolard reported on the SET's successful undercover mission to nab a family accused of stealing from the till of a local sports booster club. But police harassment of local youth? Not a whimper from this rag that supposedly covers the Irvine world.

If you listened to KUCI's Subversity program recently, you actually heard one of the youths speak, live, about what happened to him and his pals. You weren't able hear him on any other radio station, or to read it in Irvine World News, or the other mainstream papers that supposedly cover our communities. For an alternative, progressive look at Orange County and beyond, tune in (and call in).

This article originally appeared in the KUCI program guide for Spring, 1997. Copyright © 1997 Daniel C. Tsang.