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LGBT Youth Leader Fights Assault Charge

by Heather Cassell
Saturday Dec 22, 2012

LGBT community members, along with close friends and family, are rallying around Latina queer youth activist Elvira Zayas as she faces trial on an assault charge.

A respected LGBT youth rights leader in the Bay Area, Zayas is facing a battle different from the one she normally wages.

On August 29, Zayas, 19, was arrested in the Mission. Alleged gang members Fidel Amezcua and DJ J. Cambridge were also taken into custody.

Zayas was charged, detained, and later released from jail but her legal ordeal is not over.

Her case, along with those of Amezcua and Cambridge, will go before a jury sometime in January, according to Alex Bastian, spokesman for District Attorney George Gasc-n's office. The individual cases are moving forward together.

Zayas has pleaded not guilty, but if convicted, she could potentially serve up to a year in jail.

On Friday, December 14 community supporters will come together for a dance party benefit produced by Queer Qumbia to help Zayas raise the estimated $10,000 to cover her legal fees.

Zayas's family hired defense attorney Autumn Paine because they didn't feel that she was receiving culturally sensitive representation.

Family, friends, and community activists are close to reaching their goal. As of press time nearly $8,000 has been raised with 18 days until the campaign closes.

Sang Kil, co-founder of Queer Qumbia, fully supports Zayas and is against gentrification and the upper- and middle-class' "sanitized perception of the Mission."

"We think that gentrification is tied to police actions that criminalize youth," who in the Mission tend to be people of color, poor, and possibly queer, said Kil.

Wrong place, wrong time?

When she was arrested, Zayas faced three charges, two of which were felonies, and a $1 million bail.

Superior Court Judge Raymond J. Arata dropped two of the charges against her and reduced the assault charge to a misdemeanor. He then immediately released her on her own recognizance September 25.

In spite of the reduction in the charge against Zayas, she still faces trial for the misdemeanor assault charge. Assistant District Attorney Rema Breall and San Francisco police claim that Zayas participated in a gang-related attack on a man.

That man, whom the Bay Area Reporter is not identifying, filed a protective order against Zayas. She has been ordered to have no electronic or third-party contact with him or to come within 150 yards of him, according to court files.

Breall and police claim that Amezcua and Cambridge believed that the man was a rival gang member and assaulted and harassed him when he attempted to call for help on his cellphone on August 29. The two men took off with his cellphone. The victim chased the two men who split up, with one of them running down the street one way and the other running into Zayas's brother's house. Zayas was visiting her nephews, said her mother, Elvira Zayas - who has the same name as her daughter - and her girlfriend of three years, Labora Harrison.

It was then that Breall and police allege the younger Elvira Zayas came running out of the house, attacking the victim.

Officers arrived on the scene of the incident and arrested Zayas. She was charged with assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury and being associated with a street gang with the intent of assisting with criminal conduct by gang members, which are felonies. The DA's office also charged her with a third count of dissuading a witness from reporting a crime.

Throughout it all Zayas, her family, and community activists have maintained her innocence. During the preliminary hearing, police testified that the red and blue Cuban flag tattooed on Zayas's arm is evidence of her gang affiliation.

There was "nothing linking Elvira with a gang," Paine told the Bay Area Reporter outside the Hall of Justice after a pre-trial hearing in late September.

The police statements about Zayas aren't consistent and the investigation wasn't properly done, Paine continued. The accusations against her are simply "based on assumptions."

Zayas declined to speak to the B.A.R ., even with her attorney present.

Paine declined to comment further about the case due to the pending trial.

The wrong woman?

Zayas's supporters claim that she is a prime example of an innocent person being caught in a web of gang injunctions, police surveillance, and racial profiling.

The city attorney and the San Francisco Superior Court have imposed injunctions on known gangs in certain neighborhoods of the city. In the last several years there has been a significant drop in gang activity in the city, according to the San Francisco City Attorney's gang injunction website.

Zayas is an award-winning queer youth activist and an aspiring tattoo artist enrolled at City College of San Francisco, according to Jodi Schwartz, executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, and Zayas's mother. She was awarded the San Francisco City and County Youth Warrior fellowship for her work with LYRIC. In addition, she has been active as a peer mentor and youth programmer of Bay Area youth organizations such as the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Brown Boi Project.

Schwartz and Erica Woodland, the field building director for the Brown Boi Project, who have both worked with Zayas, praised her for her work for LGBT youth, in particular youth of color and immigrant queer youth.

"LYRIC will continue to support Elvira through the legal process," wrote Schwartz in an email. "[We] will continue to provide her the support of the LYRIC community and one-on-one support provided by our youth advocacy staff."

"She is an innocent gay woman," the elder Zayas told the B.A.R. outside court in September. She claimed the police were telling lies about her daughter.

"She's gay. I'm proud of my daughter. I know that she is innocent and that she did not do nothing bad," said the elder Zayas.

The dance party benefiting Zayas will take place December 14 at 10 p.m. at 3372 19th Street. Donations are welcome or they can be made online at

Peter Hernandez contributed to this article.

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