Police Abuse in America’s Barrios

Los Tres Caballeros by Salomon Huerta.

Growing up on the mean streets of East Los Angeles—Ramona Gardens public housing project or Big Hazard projects—I witnessed/experienced police abuse. For myself, along with childhood homeboys and siblings, it occurred so frequently, where I naively thought that all Americans feared the cops. It first starts as fear; it then morphs into hate. “Hands up.” “Hands behind your back.” “Get against the wall.” “Get on your knees.” In the projects and other racialized communities, in contrast to lily white suburbs, the cops represented (to the present) military occupation forces. Hence, why should we cooperate with them? Why should we inform or snitch on our brown neighbors? This is why we create our own street code—our own mores or morality to survive. Trust and respect must be earned!

It’s all about context. In the lily white suburbs, when something bad happens, the privileged white residents don’t hesitate to call the cops for prompt responses. In the projects or America’s barrios, that’s a recipe for disaster. You call the cops and then you often become the suspect. How is it that for those of us who grew up in the barrio, when pulled over by the cops, frequently “fit the description?” I guess “all Mexicans” look alike.

As a Chicano kid who loved to play sports, where my “gang application” was rejected for being too thin, I remember the first time the cops harassed my friends and I. When bored, we would jump the fence at Murchison Street Elementary to play on the school yard. One day, the cops arrived in several patrol cars, where they forced us on our knees with our hands up for what seemed an eternity. Did I mention that the asphalt was hot! We were just poor, brown kids playing baseball with used gloves and torn baseballs. We weren’t white nationalists “protesting” with tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia. We weren’t white militia (heavily armed) taking over the Michigan Capitol in Lansing. As brown kids, we received a clear message from the state that took me years to figure out, as I gained political consciousness: “We’re treated like foreigners in our own land.”

Hazard graffiti in the Ramona Gardens projects. Photo: Pablo Aguilar, 2005.

On a regular basis, the cops patrolled the projects and hunted brown “suspects.” Just like the abject poverty we experienced, patrol cars and helicopters were omnipresent. Before taking the “brown suspects” to be booked at the Hollenbeck Police Station, the cops would often rough up the homeboys. I guess they couldn’t wait for the courts to inflict bodily and mental pain on the alleged suspects? I guess the legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply to brown bodies? On too many occasions, their cruelty resulted in murder of brown people. If that’s not criminality, like in the case of Eric Garner in New York or, more recently, George Floyd in Minneapolis (among countless others), I don’t know what is? Speaking of particular cases, let’s not forget about the countless Chicanos killed by the cops, like in the case of Jose Mendez, a 16-year-old killed on February 6, 2016, in East Los Angeles. While cop killings of Chicano youth and men don’t get reported and protested at a national level similarly to African Americans—where I’m in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters—the most famous case of a Chicano killed by the cops goes back to August 29, 1970, with murder of the journalist Ruben Salazar during the massive Chicana/o Moratorium protest.

Of the many times the cops pulled me over and harassed me, the closest I got to death was when a cop (LAPD) pulled a gun on me. What “crime” did I commit? I made a rolling stop while teaching myself how to drive the 1967 Ford Mustang my sister Catalina gifted me. While I was nervous looking at the barrel of his black, shiny gun, truth be told, I wasn’t traumatized. Yet, I could’ve easily been killed. What if I made a wrong move? What if I said the wrong thing? What if I started to run out of panic or fear? At the end of the day, I was already desensitized to the state violence or the threat of it in the projects! Even when my Mexican mother Carmen heard the news via the “comadre network” (more powerful than DSL, especially since didn’t have internet back in the day), she didn’t panic or flinch. As I rushed to watch my favorite television program, Good Times, she calmly asked me: “¿Tienes hambre?”

“Untitled” kid being shot by Salomón Huerta, 1991.

Once I left the projects as a 17-year-old math major at UCLA, it seemed like the cops followed me from the Eastside to the Westside. One day, while driving my 1970 VW Beetle with my Chicana/o classmates in West Los Angeles, two cops pulled us over for no reason. “What are you all doing in this neighborhood?,” one cop demanded to know. While we didn’t get “the talk” that black parents have with their kids, we knew the dire consequences of demanding our civil rights, where we peppered our responses with: “Yes, sir; no sir.” After being harassed, we were quickly reminded that we don’t belong!

Years later, once I became a community activist, my younger brother Noel informed me of the terrible news that the cops (Los Angeles County Sheriffs) killed a resident from the projects, Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez. Smokey, a friend of my younger brothers, was 19 years old and unarmed with the cops killed him on August 3, 1991. The killing of Smokey, by Deputy Jason Mann, resulted in a riot. Eventually, apart from a state investigation, the civil rights attorney R. Samuel Paz successful sued and settled on behalf of Smokey’s family for wrongful death against Deputy Mann/Sheriff’s department for $4520,000. Unfortunately, in terms of abuse case (more like cases of brutality!), this legal victory is the exception—not the rule.

Author in front of mural in the Ramona Gardens public housing project. Photo by Pablo Aguilar.

¡Ya Basta!

We must stop systemic police brutality against brown and black bodies for the sake of America’s humanity!

More articles by:

Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).

Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19
Paul Ryder
Here Come the 1968 Mistakes Again
T.J. Coles
Fighting Over Kashmir Could Blow Up the Planet
David Macaray
Haven’t We All Known Guys Who Were Exactly like Donald Trump?
Conn Hallinan
What’s Driving the Simmering Conflict Between India and China
Joseph Natoli
American Failures: August, 2020
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?
Bruce Hobson
The US Left Needs Humility to Understand Mexican Politics
David Rosen
Easy Targets: Trump’s Attacks on Transgendered People
Ben Debney
The Neoliberal Virus
Evelyn Leopold
Is Netanyahu Serious About Annexing Jordan Valley?
Nicky Reid
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost In Portlandistan
Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj
The Power of the White Man and His Symbols is Being De-Mystified
Kathy Kelly
Reversal: Boeing’s Flow of Blood
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Framing Irish Complicity in the Slave Trade
Ariela Ruiz Caro
South American Nations Adopt Different COVID-19 Stategies, With Different Results
Ron Jacobs
Exorcism at Boston’s Old West Church, All Hallows Eve 1971
J.P. Linstroth
Bolsonaro’s Continuous Follies
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Right-Wing Populism and the End of Democracy
Dean Baker
Trump’s Real Record on Unemployment in Two Graphs
Michael Welton
Listening, Conflict and Citizenship
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump Is The Only One Who Should Be Going To School This Fall
John Feffer
America’s Multiple Infections
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Thinking Outside the Social Media Echo Chamber
Andrea Mazzarino
The Military is Sick
John Kendall Hawkins
How the Middle Half Lives
Graham Peebles
The Plight of Refugees and Migrant Workers under Covid
Robert P. Alvarez
The Next Coronavirus Bill Must Protect the 2020 Election
Greg Macdougall
Ottawa Bluesfest at Zib: Development at Sacred Site Poses Questions of Responsibility
CounterPunch News Service
Tensions Escalate as Logging Work Commences Near Active Treesits in a Redwood Rainforest
Louis Proyect
The Low Magic of Charles Bukowski
Gloria Oladipo
Rural America Deserves a Real COVID-19 Response
Binoy Kampmark
Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC
Marc Norton
Giants and Warriors Give Their Workers the Boot
David Yearsley
Celebration of Change