By Luis J. Rodriguez, Los Angeles-based writer, activist, former candidate for California governor
Salinas, California may be as far removed as Ferguson, Missouri as a city can get—or from Staten Island or South Central Los Angeles or Fullerton, CA. Salinas is known more for John Steinbeck, lettuce, or Cesar Chavez jailed during conflicts between the United Farm Workers Union and growers.
But what Salinas has in common with those other cities and communities are deeply significant: Poverty amid an area with extravagant wealth, race discrimination (in Salinas mostly against Mexican and Central American farm workers), and violence (Salinas has one of the highest violence rates in the nation). There is also a disturbing trend of police murders involving unarmed residents—five since March of this year.
The highly publicized murders by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, leading to ongoing civil disturbances, or Eric Gardner in New York, are worthy of community outrage—and meaningful government action. Yet few if any commentators have linked these police murders with those that may involve Latinos, as in Salinas, or whites, as in Fullerton, CA.
Blacks in this country have faced a horrendous history of senseless attacks by law enforcement. During the 1960s many civil upheavals were sparked by police attacks on unarmed black men or women. The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising blew up after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Yet historically Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have also been on the other end of the police stick. And there is an increasingly number of poor whites, including among the homeless, such as James Boyd of Albuquerque, shot in the back by police, and Kelly Thomas, beaten to death by officers in Orange County.
If we don’t connect the dots, the police murders in Salinas—that involved Mexicans and Salvadorans—may seem removed, fleeting, unimportant.
Most of the poor and Spanish-speaking population lives in East Salinas, on the “wrong side” of the 101 Freeway. On the west end are predominately better-off communities. Some people call this the “lettuce” curtain. Since March through July of this year, police killed four East Salinas residents who had no weapons, save work tools like a leafing knife, shears, or a cell phone. One young woman videotaped officers with guns drawn against one of those residents; the man appeared scared, disoriented, trying to walk away before an officer shoots him. The dead were Angel Ruiz, Osman Hernandez, Carlos Mejia-Gomez, and Frank Alvarado.
Unfortunately, in October police reportedly tasered and tussled with an alleged drug-addled Jaime Garcia, 35, before he succumbed—reports say prior health conditions and drugs may have led to his death. Yet an hour after Garcia perished, police say his core body temperature was 104.9 degrees, possibly caused by the combination of drugs, health issues and electric shock.
Over the years I’ve gone to Salinas numerous times, talking in schools, colleges and community centers, addressing the gang violence. I’ve spoken and done poetry readings at nearby Soledad Prison. When I ran for governor as a Green Party candidate leading up to the June 2014 primary elections, Salinas proved a great place to find leaders and organizers willing to challenge the status quo for representation, a strong voice, real justice. I also visited the sites where 13-year-old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa, CA had been killed by a sheriff’s officer, and where Alex Nieto, 28, was slain by police on San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, next to a neighborhood I once lived in.
I even marched with around 4,000 people in Salinas last May to protest the police killings.
Now I lend my voice, and forty years of expertise in urban peace, gang intervention and police-community relations, to see an end to police terror and mass incarceration—also for true community political and economic empowerment.
The country is in intense turmoil around the militarization of police, tied to deepening income inequality. All these deaths at their hands must be reckoned with. At the same time, we cannot forget those who fell in Salinas, California.
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