The murder of a Black man at the hands of the police is not new. The abuse, beating and murder of people of color is an old story. It’s gone on for generations and police have gotten away with it — more times than not.
While omitted from our US history books, the racism and cruelty that drives this injustice is ingrained — grounded into our nation since Plymouth Rock.
In Los Angeles, in 1943 there were the Zoot Suit Riots. In 1965 there were the Watts Riots, in 1992 the Los Angeles riots over the acquittal of police officers on trial following the police beating of Rodney King.
During the Rodney King beating and now George Floyd, police brutality was captured by a concerned citizen on video tape.
The biggest difference this time: a powerful global social media network shared the video of George Floyd’s last words, telling officers, “I can’t breathe,” and his cry out for his deceased mother went around the world. We saw a large, young white community raise a protest fist, too.
This time the incident can’t be hidden and swept as easily under the rug as one city’s problem. It’s caused a nationwide and international uprising.
The video, recorded by a 17 year-old-girl, allowed people around the world to see for themselves what goes on in the United States.
However, for many people, it was the first time that they saw for themselves that you can cooperate with police, be handcuffed and still be victimized, subjected to police cruelty and worse.
They saw what Black people and Latinos know and experience. When a Black man or any person of color is confronted by police, it can be their very last day on Earth.
For them and us now, when a policeman stops you, it may go well or you may be disrespected, harassed or worse. You breathe a big sigh of relief when it’s just a ticket and the police cruiser drives away.
In Black and Brown communities, police lining up young men against a fence or ordering them to sit down on a dirty curb is a common scene. You pass by it and wonder if there is really cause, or just another day that Brown and Black boys and young men are stopped by police on a whim.
Parents have to have conversations with their children that white parents never have. As their children become teenagers, they have to instruct them how to react if confronted by police. They’re told to always have their hands in plain view, and ask for police permission before carefully reaching into their pocket to retrieve their identification or into the glove box of a car. They teach them to answer a question submissively, and overcompensate with extreme politeness, so that they can be viewed as a “good one,” and hopefully that officer is in a good mood and they’re allowed to go on their way.
This training for submissiveness is carried into adulthood to navigate a world where you aren’t quite allowed to be your complete self. In the course of your life, you’re told not to come on “too strong,” out of concern that you may be viewed as “aggressive”; “too funny,” or you may be viewed as “cocky”; or if you don’t speak much at all, you can be viewed as “uncooperative.”
It’s a lot to navigate and painful to explain to a child who you want to have a carefree joyful life, free of this burden.
While often less publicized, there are incidents — too many to count — of police harassment, beatings, and officer-involved shootings in Latino communities. The lucky ones have lived to tell of them.
In the City of San Fernando, a family still reels from the fatal shooting of their family member, a veteran with a history of mental health problems. San Fernando police, responding to a call at a San Fernando apartment building, rammed the door open when the man refused to let them in. As officers entered, an officer says, “knife” and police kill the man in his own apartment. At no time was a call made to ask for a crisis intervention counselor or did SFPD use crisis deescalation techniques to urge the man to come out.
This incident was captured on videotape.
Also In the City of San Fernando, a Latino homeless man “armed” with a tree branch was shot and killed, and a jail-hanging of a Latino has never been properly explained.
Minerva Garcia will never have peace from the death of her closest friend, actor Vanessa Marquez ,two years ago. The frail, 95-pound woman was awakened by police in her apartment who broke into her apartment for a wellness check that was called in by a lovesick fan. Police insisted Marquez go to the hospital by ambulance, but unable to pay the cost for an ambulance or a hospital stay, she refused. Distraught they would not leave her apartment, she made the ultimate mistake of producing a stage prop gun and was killed instantly.
University professor Dr. Roberto “Cintli” Rodriguez is still traumatized by the near deadly beating he took by LA County Sheriff’s deputies years ago. He was a reporter at the time for an Eastside publication and recalls the horror on the faces of people who passed by in cars who saw how badly his face was bloodied. While unprecedented, he successfully sued the department.
A Whittier family watched helplessly as several policemen wrestled their 27-year-old mentally ill son Jonathan Salcido to the ground and piled on top of him. They had called police for help to get him psychiatric care. But instead, police used “control holds” and, his mother said, police killed him right in front of her. The family was told that their son died of asphyxia.
There are many incidents that don’t cause “uprisings.” Families quietly suffer the injustice. Too few incidents of police brutality are prosecuted.
What was different this time?
We saw people who were so outraged that after sheltering themselves from a pandemic, they risked exposure and put on their masks to take to the streets.
We saw the court of public opinion take action. We saw the organized work of Black Lives Matter able to network with other cities and utilize the power of social media alerts.
We saw protests broadcasted around the clock that documented journalists being arrested while live on the air. We saw police deliberately aim and deliberately hit journalists with rubber bullets after they clearly identified themselves as “press.” We saw police approach a reporter to spray him directly in the face with pepper spray. We saw journalists shoved and denied their right to cover this important story.
We saw that there are still police who can’t contain themselves. We saw an officer shove a young girl so hard she hit the back of her head to the ground and is now facing a lifetime disability.
Across the country we saw police without provocation shoot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators and cause serious injuries and more deaths. We also saw opportunistic looting and fires set in communities that up to now, previously went untouched by unrest.
We saw people open their homes to protestors so they could wash the pepper spray out of their eyes. We saw police officers join protestors to take a knee, although some wondered if it was more than a planned media event.
We saw an out-of-touch President reported to be hunkered in the White House bunker only to surface to clear protestors with tear gas so he could take a photo holding a bible in front of St. John’s Church to the outrage of clergy, who accused him of using the backdrop as a prop.
There will be many stories that this generation will pass on about this most recent uprising. Just as historically the attacks on Brown communities in Los Angeles have been passed on from the memories of grandparents to their children to “keep trucha” (watch out).
Our older generation has recounted their recollection of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, and in 1951 during the Battle at Chavez Ravine when Mexican Americans were forcibly removed from their homes by Sheriff’s deputies to make way for Dodger Stadium.
In 1965 during the Watts “riots” which was then and still is a Black and Brown community. We saw during the Chicano Moratorium when police attacked a very peaceful demonstration organized to protest the large numbers. Chicanos put on the front lines and killed in Vietnam.
In 1991, we saw it documented for the first time on video tape in Lake View Terrace when police violently beat resident Rodney King beating, and we see it now.
Over the years Latino and Black activists forming Chicano and Black Movements have done the work to pat down racism so that their children could have a better life. They paved the way by fighting for voting rights, for better schools, improved communities, college admissions, jobs and against police brutality and injustice. But they’ve also seen that history repeats itself.
In this country these gains slip and slide, and after each major uprising there are a multitude of promises from the powers-that-be to “do better.” But, over years, it’s been one step forward and two steps back.
What each generation has learned is that you can’t pat the ground down and hope it stays down this time. You have to prepare your children that it may not get better and teach them how to fight back and stand up too.