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Power Not Panic: Information & Fear Among Oakland’s Latino Immigrant Community by Madeleine Bair

Originally published on Medium

When Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced impending ICE raids in Northern California last month, she landed in the national spotlight over the question of whether she abetted criminals by tipping them off to law enforcement plans.

But here in Oakland, the controversy over her decision centered around one issue: panic. Did the announcement cause more of it among the city’s immigrants? How can it be avoided? When Mayor Schaaf spoke to the press, she addressed the concern directly: “No quiero crear pánico” (”I don’t want to cause panic”) she said, explaining that sowing fear in immigrant communities is one of ICE’s tactics. “Es importante que todos se preparan” (“it is important that everyone prepare themselves”).

Graphic  shared by immigrant advocates  to fight ICE with “power, not panic.”

Graphic shared by immigrant advocates to fight ICE with “power, not panic.”

Within 24 hours, local immigrant advocates sprang into action on email, social media, and in protests, sharing information immigrants can use, such as what to do if ICE officers knock, and what number to call if anyone sees them. “Power not Panic” is a motto activists have embraced in responding to reports of ICE raids — whether they are unverified rumors from social media or announcements from the mayor. Despite these efforts to fight fear with information, as one advocate told the LA Times about the announcement, “The main reaction that people have had has been fear.”

For politicians and activists, as well as journalists and newsrooms, the response on the ground raises one central question: How can news and information empower rather than cause panic?

For many immigrants, the feelings of fear, confusion, and misinformation are constant. In Oakland, one in five residents speaks Spanish at home, and a growing number speak indigenous Mayan languages. As a group, Latinos earn the lowest wages in the costly Bay Area, and for many Latino immigrants, reports of ICE raids are only one source of panic among a barrage of possibilities: an eviction notice for a family just making ends meet; a workplace injury for someone who lacks legal status; a teenager pressured to join a gang. How do residents find information to help them navigate these personal crises? How do they share their stories so that government officials, direct service providers, and the wider community can take action?

Interviews with more than a dozen community leaders indicates that quite often, they don’t.

Información Para Inmigrantes Latinos

For 6 years, I used video evidence to document human rights abuses around the world, so that advocates and policy makers could have the information they need to take action. Turning my attention closer to home, I wanted to understand why my own immigrant neighbors and relatives often lack the information they need to make decisions. So last year, with the support of the Listening Post Collective, a project of Internews, I set out to learn how Oakland’s Latino immigrants access news and information, and how journalists can better serve them.

In a listening session, one participant wrote that she wants “more information on everything.”

In a listening session, one participant wrote that she wants “more information on everything.”

For nine months, I met with church leaders and librarians, grassroots organizers, leaders of health clinics, women’s empowerment groups, and legal advocacy agencies. I attended “know your rights” trainings, neighborhood forums, and citywide town halls, and talked with many of the residents I met there.

What I found were residents hungry for news and resources that will help them be safe, healthy, and engaged in their community, and who are frustrated by just how difficult it is to find that information. In basement meetings and on phone calls, grassroots organizers and faith leaders work long hours to connect residents to relevant information. With limited resources, they are faced with communicating the constant and often dire policy changes coming from the Trump administration.

Residents and community leaders told me that the handful of bilingual newspapers distributed in Oakland are not reliable sources for information they need. In reporting on the mayor’s announcement last week, Univision and Telemundo spoke with advocates who reminded residents of what to do if ICE officers knock on the door. But for a large part, TV news was described as too superficial and sensational to be truly informative. As one community leader said, “I want news that helps me take action rather than leaving me feeling defeated and helpless.”

The observations I heard from Latino immigrants by and large echo those captured in recent studies of news consumers. Yet rarely do those studies focus on immigrant communities, and rarely are solutions developed by the journalism industry designed for non-English-speaking audiences. By collaborating with the Listening Post Collective, along with leaders, organizations, and residents, to map the information needs of Oakland’s Latino immigrants, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of how news outlets and others can provide information that engages and empowers this community.

This is the first in a series documenting our efforts to map the information needs of Oakland’s Latino immigrants. Next up: How we collaborated with community organizations to research what sort of news and information residents want, and what we learned in the process.