NYPD’s arrest of activist shrouded in mystery

Yajaira Saavedra at a press conference inside La Morada on Jan. 14. Photo: Rachel Rippetoe.

The co-owner of La Morada Mexican restaurant on Willis Avenue and her lawyer say she was unlawfully detained by NYPD undercover detectives last Friday evening after police saw her videotaping an alleged sting operation next door. 

Yajaira Saveedra, who has co-run the restaurant with her mother, sister, and brother since 2009, has earned a reputation in recent years for her outspoken opposition to FreshDirect’s relocation to Port Morris and other major local developments. La Morada has been acclaimed for traditional dishes such as its provincial mole, and has been deemed by the New York Times and the New Yorker to be a flagship for local anti-globalization and gentrification activism. 

Saveedra said that she still doesn’t know what the charges against her were. After she was detained at the 40th precinct for three hours, her case was dismissed. 

A spokesman for the NYPD confirmed that Saveedra had been arrested, but declined to comment further, saying that her case was sealed. He would not comment on the alleged sting operation next door. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill did not immediately respond for comment. 

Saveedra and her family held a press conference at La Morada on Monday morning to recount the experience and warn about the dangers they say over-policing poses to the neighborhood during a period of economic change.

“We’re still in shock,” said Saveedra. “If all human rights matter, then why did I feel like my human rights were taken?”

The incident started, she said, when she noticed men who were not in uniform, arresting people next door. She added that she began to film from inside the restaurant because she was concerned that her neighbors were being unfairly targeted or profiled. 

While she was recording, three undercover cops were already inside the restaurant, and they didn’t take kindly to her filming.

“One of them demanded my brother to shut down the restaurant and to serve him a glass of water,” she said. “I honestly thought it was one of those gentrifiers that was disappointed that we didn’t have avocado toast. I was like, ‘alright let me deal with this.’ And it ends up being an undercover cop.” 

When Saveedra asked the agent if he had a warrant, she said he flashed his badge and told her, “I have a gun. I don’t need a warrant.” When she refused to shut the restaurant down, Saveedra said the agents left briefly, came back to take pictures of the restaurant, and then detained her without cause. 

“What happened to Yajaira is an outrage,” said Rose Weber, Saveedra’s attorney, adding that they will file a federal lawsuit against the NYPD for violating Saavedra’s civil rights.

“They came in here. They slapped her in handcuffs. They held her against her will for three hours and then they simply voided the arrest as if it never happened, which is as close as NYPD will ever come to admitting that they did something with absolutely no probable cause,” said Weber. 

Saveedra said the experience was especially harrowing because she is an immigrant enrolled in the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). She migrated to the US from Oaxaca, Mexico to join her parents when she was four years old. Her sister Carolina, who is undocumented, was almost detained as well. But she had a panic attack during the arrest and was instead placed in an ambulance and allowed in, the family said. 

“This place, La Morada, is home to a lot of us,” Carolina Saveedra said. “And now there’s fear; fear that was never here before.”

In recent years, several news sources have linked an increase in 911 and 311 calls to economic change in a neighborhood, which can often result in racial profiling. Yajaira Saveedra said she fears that economic change in the neighborhood, accompanied by a new station-house for the 40th Precinct on 149th Street, will result in more incidents like this one. 

“Just during this press conference, I’ve seen five police passing by,” she said Monday. “I am afraid for my neighbors. For those folks who were arrested with me, who were detained with me. We have to look out for each other.” 

You can watch a portion of Saaveedra’s arrest Friday evening on La Morada’s Facebook Live here.