Serve the People – Los Angeles (STPLA), as a public community project of the Maoist collective Red Guards – Los Angeles (RGLA), started two years ago (April 2015). In these two years we have seen many changes take place. From chasing people up and down bus stops to hand them a free bag of food while proselytizing politically on the callousness, wastefulness and cold individualism of capitalism, to spreading ourselves too thin in keeping two distributions going (in Hollenbeck Park and Echo Park), to now serving food every Sunday at Mariachi Plaza with a focus against displacement and deportation, STPLA has constantly looked to learn from its mistakes in order to serve the people more effectively. Many things can be said about what we have learned over the past two years, but in this public document we will focus on the biggest aspects and reflect on some of the more recent accomplishments of which we’re proud of. The purpose of this paper is for our work to be scrutinized with the goal of improving it overall. Additionally, we hope our work here in Los Angeles can serve as a lesson (for the good and the bad) to all other Serve the People collectives and programs throughout the U.S.
Off to a bumpy start
STPLA started with a group of individuals who were looking to build community power in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights against a system that literally terrorizes us every single day, but we weren’t completely sure how to go about this. We knew we had to go to the people and find out what the most urgent needs were, and see if we were capable of fulfilling those needs, while moving with those very people toward better, longer-lasting solutions.
In the learning process, which involved formal online and print surveys to informal conversations with people at the parks and street corners, we saw a high-level of food insecurity and created a free food distribution program. Although the community faced and still faces a lot of problems, for example substance abuse and lack of stable employment, we knew we had to start somewhere with the idea that we would eventually grow to handle more responsibilities and meet more needs.
In the beginning, we would go to bus stops a couple of days a week to provide the community — primarily older señoras, their families and loved ones — with mainly warm meals. At the time the only means we had to offer such a service was for our supporters to steal, or reappropriate, the food from their jobs at schools. Perfectly good school lunches were being thrown away almost on a daily basis. Our supporters saw the barbarity of wasting food while others, including the youth outside the walls of the schools, went hungry – especially here in Los Angeles, the world’s third-largest metropolitan multi-billion-dollar economy.
This type of distribution proved to be ineffective as we over and over again failed to speak with people (it was more of a hit-and-run sloganeering), learn from them, build community power, and engage them on political discussions that could be a catalyst to creating a more effective self-sustaining organization with their direct participation.
STPLA moves to Hollenbeck Park, encounters gentrifiers
Soon thereafter we relocated to Hollenbeck Park, started receiving new food donations (mainly fruits and vegetables) from local food banks (we pretended to be a 501(c)3 nonprofit), and stopped serving hot meals. There was a qualitative leap in our distribution, but we encountered many obstacles nonetheless. One of the obstacles was the fact that we would prepare our meals off-site and would then encourage folks to take our bags. Although we built a good rapport with street vendors, many of the families and community members who gladly took a bag rarely stayed long enough to engage in meaningful discussions. Nonetheless, we stayed at the park for approximately a year.
In October of 2015 as we were arriving one Sunday to distribute food and clothing, we saw a group of white artists dressed flamboyantly – some on rollerskates, some dressed as paleteros (ice cream vendors) – singing, strolling casually through the park with a camera crew and small audience following closely behind. Later we would find out the group was called Hopscotch, a mobile alternative opera project of the Los Angeles arts nonprofit The Industry – with tickets being sold for as a high as $125. Our immediate reaction was disgust and worry, that this cultural performance by these white artists was another tour project to highlight Boyle Heights as a desirable place for affluent, mainly white people to call home. In other words, we saw them as gentrifiers arrogantly coming into our hood, our barrio, whether consciously or not, with the potential of displacing residents – the very same people we serve. It was with this in mind that we confronted them, told them to get out, that this isn’t their community. We interrupted their performances, shouted at them, lured the ducks with bread crumbs to disrupt their performance. We did all we could without much preparation. This began to take on a pattern every Sunday, as Hopscotch used Hollenbeck Park as a stop in their mobile tour of Los Angeles. Eventually, Hopscotch grew tired and scared of our tactics and hired a security guard who was recommended by Joel Garcia, director of programs and operations for Self-Help Graphics & Art (SHG), the historic eastside arts nonprofit that has promoted gentrification by excusing artists, including the new art galleries on Anderson Street and Mission Road in the warehouse district of Boyle Heights. SHG also has on its board of directors Alfred Fraijo Jr., a real estate agent currently working on redeveloping the same area the art galleries happen to be in. We don’t think it is coincidence; we agree with our comrades in the anti-gentrification Defend Boyle Heights coalition that this is the perfect marriage of liberal nonprofit careerists and gentrifiers working hand-in-hand to benefit off of gentrification). But little did Joel Garcia know that the security guard was not going to simply do a job for a paycheck. The security guard immediately contacted us and informed us of Joel Garcia and SHG’s involvement with Hopscotch, such as the designing of the ice cream cart used by the white actor portraying a paletero. Additionally, the guard kept us updated on the times Hopscotch arrived, who was with them, how many, etc. That all came to an end on Nov. 22, 2015, when we got a message from the security guard that students from Roosevelt High School’s marching band was confronting Hopscotch. The band had used a stage in the park for band rehearsal but were being denied the use of it due to Hopscotch’s performance and occupation. We immediately mobilized and got to the park within minutes. The students, with the help of community organizer and co-founder of Defend Boyle Heights, Zacil Pech, were shouting down Hopscotch and forcing them out of the park. When we arrived we assisted and intimidated the performers, film crew and audience. That was the last time they came to the park.
And then just under a month after, we were receiving messages that a new group of mainly white urban planning students from the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, were planning a cultural tour of the 6th Street Bridge and parts of Boyle Heights. We immediately saw this, again, as another threat by potential displacers of the current community. But this time we couldn’t say they were being ignorant, since their educational background was in urban planning and development; in other words, they have an invested interest – as mainly outsiders – to show-off our hood and barrio as prime real estate. We contacted the organizers and asked for a meeting. We sent a representative of STPLA, as well as some supporters, to meet. At the meeting, the organizers of the event agreed not to step foot into Boyle Heights and just go as far as the downtown arts district and bridge. But a day or so before, organizers were publicizing that they were going to cross the bridge into the warehouse district of Boyle Heights, formerly known as Aliso Village. The organizers claimed that it was not a residential area so no one would be there to potentially be displaced. Little did these students know but tenants have been calling houses and apartments home for years in the warehouse district right off of Anderson Street and 1st Street – just a few yards away from the 1st Street Bridge. We informed them that we would have to show up and share our disappointment with their careless decision.
And so on Dec. 13, the day of the cultural tour, organizers were publicizing where they were, what their route was, and so we simply walked around the same area and waited for a point to confront them. We found them approximately halfway on the 1st Street Bridge. It was approximately 40 people on their side and less than 10 bandana-clad supporters on our side. We told them our concerns and instructed them to leave. We escorted the group into the LA River and told them they are not welcomed into Boyle Heights.
Looking back, we have to say that these two events were a turning point for us as an organization. We got a taste of what it means to dare to struggle and to dare to win – a popular revolutionary slogan. The lesson was clear: direct action works.
Taking lessons from Echo Park to Boyle Heights
While the fight against gentrification was becoming more militant, on the other side of the river in Echo Park, a once working class community of color, a chapter of STPLA was launched. From the beginning they had participation from the community because they put into practice different tactics. Instead of preparing meals off-site, our members took the food to the park, prepared the meals on site, and got the community to participate. It was a huge success, but a logistical nightmare to us as an organization; too often we would not have enough members show up, we would not have enough members able to drop off food at the locations, and meetings were often delayed due to the time it took to commute from one park to the next.
Distribution in Echo Park was great, but it was a logistical nightmare and we spread ourselves too thin. Because most of our political work and agitation was being done in Boyle Heights, especially through Defend Boyle Heights, we decided to combine both our distributions to Mariachi Plaza, a lively plaza in the heart of Boyle Heights. The main physical and political location of a lot of struggles was and is Boyle Heights: immigration, displacement, police violence, poverty. Each distribution starts off with volunteers and members involving the community residents in directly preparing the distribution set up, including bagging food and arranging clothing. Afterward at approximately 4:30 p.m., we do an introduction to the organization, talk about certain current events or announcements and do a community-building exercise for volunteers, members and others to get to know each other and work better with one another. Occasionally, we will have a tenants and homeowner lawyer from the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA) with us to talk with people. After distribution, before we break everything down, we have a debrief with everyone reflecting on how the distribution went, examining the shortcomings, including personal ones, and highlights.
Our organization is not a charity. We work with the people in solidarity to transform our realities, to build a strong, unified, sustainable and independent community with better values inside the bigger exploitative and oppressive system that only cares about money. We call this community power. This is the vision of STPLA. We exist to support the community in their endeavors and to push for more radical solutions as opposed to dead-end reforms. For these reasons, we are intentional with everything we say and do. In other words, our politics are always primary. Although a project of RGLA, and there are Maoist members in STPLA, our organization is open to all. Anybody from the community can join so long as long as they agree with our points of unity, participate regularly and are willing to engage us in meaningful discussion.
Our goal is to win over community members to see the necessity of combating capitalism which treats us and our families as disposable bodies. Our goal is to learn from the community and struggle with them as we look to shape our future. Strategically, communities like Boyle Heights are best for this type of organizing because people are already suffering from gentrification, from ICE deportations, from police brutality/killings, from corrupt politicians and sellout so-called community leaders, from unemployment, and the list goes on. People in communities like Boyle Heights see the injustice within capitalism probably more clearly; the community sees the hypocrisy and are ready to defend themselves and their families.
STPLA exists to be side by side with the community. We work toward and want the community to take ownership and command of this organization (it belongs to the people); we want STPLA to combat all aspects of capitalism as it affects the community; we want STPLA to facilitate the creation of a self-sustainable community not dependent on inside or outside forces that wish to exploit it. This is the necessity because there are no heroes coming to save us; we can only save ourselves from this oppressive system.
Where and specifically why it’s important
Boyle Heights has a beautiful and vibrant history of resistance, and this is still true today. Currently, as a predominantly working class immigrant and Chicanx neighborhood, Boyle Heights leads the way against gentrification in this country. Even so, the battle is not close to over and many of our supporters and volunteers fear displacement on a daily basis. The fear amplifies when one understands that being displaced is more than just looking for another home; it means every aspect of your life having to change. Being displaced means having to move your children’s schools, saying goodbye to friends, family and loved ones, finding new ways to get to work through public transportation, being displaced from a community that had your back, and more; everything changes.
Furthermore, many of our supporters have had families picked up by ICE and fear their families being forcefully separated. Not only does losing a loved one like this take an emotional toll on all family members, but the brunt of the physical and emotional burden usually falls on the mothers, who have to take on even more work to make due.
These cases are true when dealing with LAPD too. Our community members face police repression on a daily basis and some have paid dearly with their lives. Last year, five community members in Boyle Heights were unjustly murdered by LAPD. Jesse Romero, a 14-year-old boy, was among those victims. He was murdered after running away from the police. His crime? Tagging. In March of 2017, Fred Barragan was murdered in Boyle Heights by LAPD. The consequence for running away was a barrage a shots that ultimately killed Fred.
These injustices are faced by the community on a daily basis and all overlap with one another in this system. We draw inspiration from other organizations in the past, like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, that confronted the racist police and capitalism; the Black Panthers were the best example of a revolutionary organization creating and maintaining a Serve the People program. We draw inspiration from current groups, like the Turkish DHKP-C (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) that combats gentrification, drug dealers and have even kicked out the pig-police from their neighborhoods like Istanbul. But most importantly, we draw inspiration from the community of Boyle Heights that face these injustices head on and pave paths of survival for our communities struggling to breathe. We will struggle and build a better world!
Enter Trump, Smash Fascism – Los Angeles is created but struggles to continue
Before Trump was inaugurated as president in January 2017, STPLA and other concerned organizations and individuals began brainstorming the creation of a resistance. We knew things were going to get harder, especially for the persecuted communities such as undocumented immigrants and Muslims. STPLA dedicated a lot of time to strategizing a response with RGLA in the form of the Smash Fascism – Los Angeles (SFLA) coalition. RGLA drafted a letter detailing the historic rise of fascism in Germany, how a weak leftist movement was unable to stop Hitler and how the role of well-meaning liberals actually supported the rise of fascism. The letter was sent to many groups for the purpose of creating a coalition with representatives of different groups. Once we got some signatures and commitments from organizations, we began meeting regularly. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of experience in starting an anti-fascist coalition so we made a lot of mistakes, but also learned a great deal.
From early on, individuals unaffiliated with any organization were invited by STPLA members and volunteers. This was a concern but we didn’t want to dis-invite certain individuals because they had a high-level of experience in fighting fascists. We kept moving the discussion of what to do with unaffiliated individuals to the next meeting. This pattern continued for a while. STPLA agreed with the SFLA idea laid out by RGLA – that it should be seen as a coalition made up of representatives from different organizations. The main reasons for this were: 1.) to have the person be held accountable to a collective, which could vouch for a person’s character and commitment, as well as democratize the coalition workload (a collective can do more work than an individual), 2.) to pull in a higher number of individuals to actions and events, since a person would be acting as a delegate for many, and 3.) without an organization to vouch and vet people, we had no real structure in place to stop or minimize infiltration by the state or agent provocateurs. The reality is that organizing against fascists, in and out of the state, is dangerous work and so we argued that a high-level of discipline and security was needed.
We had semi-public meetings where we invited other activists and collective members. We strategized creating anti-fascist response teams as well as rapid response network for undocumented immigrants. We researched and met with different places of worship who committed in offering sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and others seeking refuge. We were making strides in organizing in different sectors such as with day laborers and the faith communities.
But little by little representatives of the organizations in SFLA stopped attending the weekly meetings. Some where inconsistent, others just dropped out completely. And some said they couldn’t commit to being part of a steering committee but could be relied on as supporters. The SFLA meetings were mainly looking like STPLA meetings, with only one or two unaffiliated individuals. In this way, then, the SFLA coalition was looking more like an actual collective of individuals. The sub-committee meetings were becoming more open to friends or other activists of unaffiliated individuals.
We discussed ways to improve this, while still keeping a secure coalition structure. But there was pushback by unaffiliated individuals who wanted SFLA to work more as a loose, informal collective for direct action. STPLA was in complete disagreement, but certain people of our membership had a more accommodating and sympathetic position. Internally, STPLA was spreading itself too thin again and the members taking the lead in SFLA had allowed for the coalition to stray away from its centralized structure.
We organized a handful of actions, none of which we are at liberty to discuss in full detail.
So then after much discussion it was decided to put to a vote for the future of SFLA, whether it will remain a coalition but with different levels of membership to account for organizations who couldn’t commit regularly or to make SFLA a collective of unaffiliated individuals with little-to-no representation of organizations. Unfortunately, the vote won by one to get rid of the coalition structure of SFLA. The sad irony in this is that it was STPLA volunteers who voted this way, as they did not agree with our vision (some were so new that they had only recently attended one or two distributions – and they admitted to not having a lot of experience in political organizing, but nonetheless their vote was equal to everyone else’s). STPLA decided shortly thereafter to pull completely out from SFLA due to security risks and a fundamentally different vision of organizing against fascism. We agreed to continue the rapid response network work for undocumented immigrants and to forge stronger ties with local antifa groups – both of which we are currently doing.
We as an organization take full responsibility for this because we didn’t take time to struggle over different ideas with all volunteers and members more regularly and outside of SFLA meetings. We didn’t act more disciplined in the early stages; we should have disinvited unaffiliated individuals after we clearly but firmly laid out what the vision was for SFLA; we should have created a support member category for organizations that couldn’t attend the weekly planning meetings.
We still have an amicable relationship with SFLA, which no longer uses the name, and support them when we can, with some members and volunteers continuing to attend meetings and actions. SFLA, as an antifascist organization, is needed under a Trump presidency, under increasing mobilization of white supremacists and ICE raids. We hope in the near future to re-open discussion on how to re-create a stronger, more disciplined and united SFLA.
What we do
As STPLA, we do various things:
- STPLA has weekly free food & clothing distributions (along with books, shoes, and anything else we can get donated) every Sunday at 4:30pm @ Mariachi Plaza (but we’re there from 4 to 6 p.m.). Here we distribute food, engage the community in things happening around the neighborhood/city, learn about any grievances they may have and see how we can best address those grievances, invite them to community events, and provide legal services with the help from our friends at the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA).
- If you would like to donate anything, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Find us on facebook, instagram, & twitter: Serve the People Los Angeles
- Or call: 323.356.7218
- But we’re also always looking for volunteers:
- Volunteer on Sundays
- Volunteer for food pick-ups
- Volunteer for events/programming
- And more!
- We are co-founding members of the coalition of Defend Boyle Heights. In this coalition, we work diligently with our comrades in defending our communities against displacement and gentrification. Our success has mainly materialized through our direct action against gentrifiers and their apologists, and other forms of resistance that have proven to be effective. We have kicked out one gentrifying art gallery and dozens of gentrifiers.
- We are currently building a rapid response network with a focus in Boyle Heights open to people and organizations interested in combatting ICE and deportations that will relentlessly fight xenophobic laws through direct action. We have members ready to provide transportation for people who live in fear due to being undocumented and have friends willing to provide housing/sanctuary for such people.
- STPLA also works closely and is very thankful to the Ovarian Psycos, an all womxn-of-color bicycling collective and coalition member of DBH. We admire and respect our comrades who have regular community-based programming, such as monthly free health clinics, women’s self-defense, screenprint classes, know-your-rights workshops, etc., based out of their headquarters, La Conxa. We hold them in high regard and are thankful to them for letting us use La Conxa, a dope radical space that’s about the community while providing much-needed services throughout Boyle Heights, including allowing us to host our events, fundraisers, and community forums.
- We’re also thankful to LACCLA. This crucial program provides free legal services to tenants and homeowners facing evictions/displacement and/or unjust rent increases. They work side-by-side with the community and build community power with people from all over Los Angeles, while at the same time winning court cases against slumlords.
It takes a village
A big thank you to all organizations and people who have provided all kinds of donations and volunteer services to STPLA over these past two years. A special shout out to:
- The good people from the food bank housed out of Assumption Church (even though the church wanted to kick us out – how y’all doin? :-))
- Ovarian Psycos
- Revolutionary Autonomous Communities
- East Los Angeles Brown Berets
- Our supporters who have risked their jobs to gather the necessary resources needed to maintain this project.
- Union de Vecinos
- Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action
- Defend Boyle Heights
Recurring obstacles that continue today
- One of our biggest problems, probably the biggest problem as an organization, has been our limited capacity. Over the past two years the capacity of STPLA has fluctuated, mostly depending on the ability of our most committed members. For various reasons many volunteers have not been able to be fully active in our organizing. Fortunately, many of our smaller recurring problems have been resolved through rigid organization and discipline.Through our practice and growing experience we’ve been able to develop a better understanding of how to engage with the community while expanding our organization through training new volunteers.
- One of the reasons our capacity has been low has been our low volunteer retention rate, especially for volunteers from outside the Boyle Heights area. We believe that one of the bigger reasons for having low retention rates has been because of a combination of many of our volunteers identifying as revolutionaries and not being from the community. We speculate that because of this contradiction they believe in fighting to create a better world, but they do not see the necessity of doing so in Boyle Heights; this point has been especially true for our white volunteers. We’ve since restricted volunteering to be done primarily be Spanish-speaking Boyle Heights or East Los Angeles residents.
- More recently we have been getting more volunteers and they have been from the community. While not self-identifying as revolutionaries, these community residents see the necessity of the program because they live it. In other words, most aren’t simply students who have learned about inequality in a book; most live it and see the necessity of being able to have food on the table, clothes on your back, shoes on your feet.
- Even though we have received more volunteers from the community recently, our volunteers have only come to our distributions. We love that and hope that they continue coming, but in order for this program to work better we will need to have a much higher capacity of volunteers. We have to continue working toward retaining and training local Boyle Heights residents so that they become STPLA members and directly participate in growing and expanding the program. This is our top-priority. Ultimately we believe that most of these volunteers are going to have to come from the community, but we will gladly accept committed genuine people willing to organize for the cause who currently do not reside in this area – just as long as they agree that the community of Boyle Heights is what will have the final say in its fight for survival. In the future, we hope to be able to adequately expand to other parts of the city with enough support and people.
- Storage has always been a problem.
- For food: Storage becomes a problem when we do not have enough refrigeration. The food we can give out is essentially limited to our fridges’ capacity. This becomes a bigger issue because the power bill shoots through the roof and we do not have enough funds coming in on a monthly basis.
- For non-perishables: This has been a problem as well because thanks to the folks that support us we have received tons of donations in clothes, shoes, books, etc., but at times we have not had enough space to have everything neat and organized. There have been times where we haven’t been able to do donation pick-ups because we just don’t have enough space.
- Sometimes the food we get is not the best quality so have to dig through the food to make sure everything is good. At times, because the food is not good quality, and we obviously want to give out good quality food, we go to the grocery store and buy food ourselves for distribution that day. This tactic, although useful, is unsustainable to our small organization and is another obstacle that we will have to overcome.
Knowing your rights, but the necessity to go beyond
Since the last presidential election we have begun to frequently hear more about “Know your rights” (KYR) workshops, and we understand how important it is for the community to know what their rights are, but we have to go beyond just knowing our supposed legal rights. As people of color we have been the target of the police that has always criminalized and killed us, but now under a growing fascist administration, we see an increase in the hatred and criminalization of people of color, womxn and immigrants. If you find yourself in an interaction with the police, and especially if ICE arrives at your home or place of work, knowing what to do, to say or not say, is something that we have recently added to our distribution program. However, we believe that that’s not enough. It is not enough to be informed but to also respond, to take action, when there is an urgency, as we have noticed in recent months in our neighborhoods. Members of the community are being kidnapped by the migra (ICE). We are preparing and organizing to support our comrades and our community with the creation of a rapid response network (RRN). It was through the outreach of the RRN that Leticia Fernandez, the mother of Saul Cervantes who was taken by ICE on May 11, reached out to us. We’ve been supporting her and her son since, raising money for Saul’s $15,000 bail and working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Immigrant Youth Coalition in advocating on his behalf as well as other undocumented immigrants detained by the state such as Claudia Rueda (who was just released!).
(We still urgently need to raise money for Saul! Please donate what you can, or at the very least help spread the word – https://www.youcaring.com/saulcervantesysufamilia-822570)
The RRN is being made up of individuals with differet capabilities and resources. Due to the nature of the work and the administration the work is occuring under, we must also be sure to be disciplined and reduce security risks as much as possible. But it all boils down to STPLA’s RRN’s slogal: “Fight deportations by any means necessary!”
Build with STPLA!
Join us! You can find us every Sunday at Mariachi Plaza @ 4:30 p.m. Donate food, clothes, or money! We are always in need! You can contact us at:
- Find us on facebook and Instagram: Serve the People Los Angeles
- Or call: 323.356.7218
- Go to: http://servethepeoplela.org/ and http://www.servethepeoplela.wordpress.com.
“Our duty is to hold ourselves responsible to the people. Every word, every act and every policy must conform to the people’s interests, and if mistakes occur, they must be corrected – that is what being responsible to the people means.” – Mao