For several weeks now two incidents have sparked outrage in two countries that are often described in separate news reports. They are, however, inexorably linked.
The incidents: The police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014; and the killing of six students as well as the abductions and apparent murders of 43 students around September 26 in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.
I’ve been closely following both stories. The responsible parties are similar—government forces acting to maintain a status quo where the poor and the dark skinned—the historically disempowered—are kept compliant and terrorized.
Deadly force by police in the United States is carried out more often against the poor and working class of all ethnicities, but at a higher rate for African Americans. The Washington Post on November 25 reported that one study found blacks from 2010 to 2012 were 21 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. In Los Angeles County alone, according to the November 27, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, 590 people were killed by various county law enforcement agencies from January 1, 2000 and August 31, 2014. Latinos made up 50 percent of the victims while 27 percent were black—although blacks make up only 10 percent of the county’s population.
The national and local outrage is justified as the numbers of police officers who get exonerated continues unchecked. The apparent manipulation of the grand jury system by Missouri prosecutor Bob McCullough in the Michael Brown shooting follows the pattern of not holding police accountable. Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the grand jury process appeared to be turned on its head with improprieties like having police officer Darren Wilson testify or presenting exculpatory evidence, as if McCullough were trying the case, which is not the job of a grand jury.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been protesting in Mexico City and in Guerrero state against the disappearances and murders of Ayotzinapa’s students in Iguala. So far bodies have been found in mass graves, and a bag of body remains were removed from a nearby lake. The mayor and his wife as well as police chief fled, but were eventually found and arrested. Guerrero’s state governor has resigned. But more may still happen as there is pressure for Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto to step down.
So far 100,000 Mexicans have been killed and another 25,000 have disappeared since late 2006 when former president Felipe Calderon began a failed drug “war”—with pressure and funds from the U.S. government. The Mexican people are fed up with alleged government ties to drug cartels and other criminal enterprises. Many of those killed were at the hands of police or troops.
This is at a time when the poverty rate in Mexico has been over 50 percent and the gap between the wealthy and poor has widened. A similar process is underway in the United States.
The growing militarization of police in both countries is directed at those people lost in the income inequality gap, frustrated with lack of jobs, home foreclosures, or increasing barriers to education and quality healthcare. This is to control a growing class of “have nots,” the 99 percent.
We are facing the same enemy in the U.S. and in Mexico. This enemy is an economic, political and cultural system, not just a few government officials or capitalists. It is a system to keep people exploited, without power, and vulnerable. It’s time for us—the poor, the laboring classes, both employed and unemployed, regardless of skin color—to come together in our own interests. The protests are expressing our resistance. Now we have to build momentum toward a new system of social relations that aligns our advanced technology to meet our needs. This can only happen when real power and society’s wealth are in our hands.
Iguala and Ferguson are twin features of this struggle.
Salinas, California may be as far removed from Ferguson, Missouri as a city can get. Salinas is known best for John Steinbeck, lettuce, and Cesar Chavez jailed during conflicts between the United Farm Workers Union and growers.
What Salinas has in common with Ferguson and other communities are deeply significant: Poverty amid an area with extravagant wealth, race discrimination, and violence. And there is a disturbing trend of police murders involving unarmed residents—in Salinas five since March of this year.
The highly publicized murder by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, leading to ongoing civil disturbances, is worthy of community outrage—and meaningful government action. Yet few if any commentators have linked Brown’s death 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 violence 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 same end of the police stick. And there are an increasing number of poor whites that are feeling the disdain of power in uniform. Examples include 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, rarities, 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 divide the “lettuce” curtain. From 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 common 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 shot him. The victims were Angel Ruiz, Osman Hernandez, Carlos Mejia-Gomez, and Frank Alvarado.
They were human beings, worthy of life, respect and remembering. Their families deserve compassion and justice.
Unfortunately, last month Salinas police reportedly tasered and tussled with an allegedly drug-induced Jaime Garcia, 35, before he succumbed. Official reports say prior health conditions and drugs may have led to his death. Yet an hour after Garcia perished, his core body temperature was reportedly 104.9 degrees, possibly caused by the combination of drugs, health issues and electric shock.
Over the years I’ve gone to Salinas several times, talking in schools, colleges and community centers, addressing gang violence and community healing. 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 impressed me with its leaders and organizers willing to challenge the status quo. I even marched with around 4,000 people last May to protest the police killings.
During the campaign, 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 stayed in.
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. This is necessary for true community political and economic empowerment.
The country is in intense turmoil around the militarization of police in the midst of deepening income inequality. All the deaths at the hands of law enforcement must be reckoned with. In this reckoning, we cannot forget those who fell in Salinas, California.
“It is in our self interest to wake up, speaking for ourselves from our own authority”
These words came from L.A.-based community, arts and women’s healing activist Trini Rodriguez during the California Network for Revolutionary Change gathering she co-chaired on October 18. With around thirty leaders, thinkers, students, teachers, writers, labor organizers, politicians, poets, indigenous speakers, and artists, the meeting was held in the Salinas barrio of Alisal (East Salinas), one of the most violent, poor and educationally challenged communities. It is also a community on the rise, especially after police killed four residents since March of this year.
Earlier this year some 4,000 people marched across Salinas to protest the murders of these unarmed people (except for work tools or a “cell phone”), including three farm workers and a young man who had been trying to get his life together after being paroled.
Shadowed by the media coverage of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, these deaths in Salinas are nonetheless tightly linked to a militarized police presence among the poor and working class across the U.S.
The Cal-NRC meeting drew from the hundreds of supporters who stepped up after the Luis J. Rodriguez campaign for governor. Many who could not be there sent greetings and well wishes, interested in the continuing connections.
Frank Alvarado Sr., father of one of the persons police recently killed, spoke for the first time. He said, “I’m glad to be here—it’s time we organized for justice... for my son, for the whole community.”
This network aims to fill in the gaps facing those individuals, independent organizations, nonprofits, churches, labor groups, community centers, and artist collectives responding to the deepening economic and political crisis in the country. We need a network from which the practical and conscious leaders can interact, dialogue, strategize, learn, teach, and provide technical assistance when needed as more and more people lose jobs, homes, healthcare, educational resources—and are subject to mass incarceration, poisoned environment, police terror.
“We don’t need to replicate or duplicate other efforts,” said Anthony Prince, community lawyer and co-convener. “We are not just about creating a coalition or a support group for other struggles, although these aspects may be included.”
In essence, the NRC plans to be the connective tissue between the scattered and isolated persons and groups who understand there must be deep systemic and comprehensive change in how the economy is organized and the country is governed. Increasing numbers of people are aware how governance and industry is predicated to protect and uphold the private property demands of the 1 percent—the wealthy capitalists, corporations and financiers ruling this country.
It’s time, as Trini says, to assert our own authority, to rule ourselves, in our interests, for the benefit of everyone.
Present at the gathering were Latinos (Mexican, Central American, Colombian), African Americans, Asians, whites, LGBT, indigenous, disabled, elderly, young, middle-aged, and more—representative of California’s embattled populations.
As Triqui native man from Oaxaca said, “Somos completo ya” (we are now complete).”
Please go to www.canetworkforrevolutionarychange.org to keep up on our future gathering and organizing efforts. Please donate and lend your name to this growing unity-in-diversity organization.
On September 23, 2014 I retrieved a phone message from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who called to say I’ve been chosen as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. The Mayor picked me from four finalists, which in turn came from more than 30 applicants. I’m the second poet laureate in L.A.’s history, which involves a two-year appointment, honorarium, many events, readings, festivals, and talks.
The official announcement is today, October 9, at the Central Library with the Mayor, other dignitaries, the media, some family, and friends.
For a few days I’ve been humbled, reflective—this is an honor and a great responsibility. L.A. poets are many and amazing. I hope to represent them well—along with the whole city and its many voices, stories, colors, languages, and flavors.
We are a singularly enriched city because of this.
For me poetry is deep soul-talk, a transformative energy, one of the most powerful means to enlarge one’s presence in the world. Now I will join with the mayor in a new and imaginative journey to make Los Angeles a livable, welcoming and artistically alive place.
It’s been a long personal journey as well.
When I was a teenager, I was in a gang, in and out of jails, using hard drugs (huffing toxic sprays, dropping pills, smoking reefer, shooting up heroin). At 15, I dropped out of school, got kicked out of the house, and briefly ended up homeless, mostly in downtown L.A. I slept in abandoned cars, alongside the L.A. River, church pews, behind Dumpsters, in shuttered warehouse buildings.
My refuge was the Central Public Library, where I’d go during the day and spend hours reading books. I loved books. In the end books saved my life. I eventually returned home, re-enrolled in school, received my diploma, painted murals, and began a lifelong political and cultural life.
Despite setbacks and missteps, by age 20, around the time of my first son’s birth, I became gang-free, crime-free and drug-free. Then after the 1993 release of my first memoir (“Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.”) librarians told me this book turned out as one of the most checked out—and one of the most stolen.
Full circle, I’m now going to have an office at that same Central Library.
This is enchanting—something one can’t predict, but which can happen any time, anywhere, when one aligns their personal genius, inspiration and discipline to social needs, revolutionary vision, significant ways to impact and shape the world.
I’m most grateful for this opportunity. I thank Mayor Garcetti, the Department of Cultural Affairs as well as the panel looking through the applications—and the abundant possibilities inherent in this great city. I’ll do what I can to help bring forth the beauty and bounty that poetry and all the arts can elicit in people, families and communities.
When the Luis J. Rodriguez for Governor campaign ended after the June primary elections, we met with leaders throughout California to begin the process of creating a California Network for Revolutionary Change, uniting leaders, thinkers, writers, activists, organizers, and artists to envision and strategize for a caring, cooperative and just world. After several conference calls and three meetings, we plan to convene on October 18 in Salinas CA. If you are interested, please go to www.rodriguezforgovernor.org or write [email protected] You can also write at PO Box 328, San Fernando CA 91341. Or leave a message at 818-898-0013. Here is the call:
Challenging Times Call for Connecting Leaders
—Call For California Network for Revolutionary Change Conference
All across the United States, intense challenges are calling forth determined leadership. Increasingly more homegrown leaders are standing up to realign reality to new possibilities: Whether in response to increased police shootings and incarceration; or the denial of basic shelter and healthcare; or the absence of true education and democratic choices; or the privation of dignified livelihoods and healthy surroundings.
We can do better as a country, a powerful example for the world.
The Luis J. Rodriguez Campaign for a New California tapped into this new energized leadership. Now leaders who want to bring about systemic change have begun moving forward to build a California Network for Revolutionary Change.
This is a call for innovative, solution-based thinkers—people from all walks of life to join this network of practical, grassroots leaders, activists, writers, artists and more to unify our common goals for deep and broad environmental, social and economic justice.
This network's backbone is comprised of established leaders in their respective diverse communities linked by common concerns requiring unified actions. Their vast experiences, knowledge, and continuous study of current events happening here and around the world provides the framework for "the other" Fresno, Merced, Oakland, San Francisco, Salinas, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, and other California cities and counties.
If people have lost family and loved ones to police brutality in your community—we're looking for you.
If the "poverty octopus" slides within your community—we're looking for you.
If people in your community are being stuffed into the unjust, bloated prison-for-profit system—we're looking for you.
If you would like to contribute to the creation of non-violence platforms—we're looking for you.
Join with us at our California Network Convention:
Date: October 18, 2014
Time: 9 am
Address: Salinas CA
Contact info: [email protected]
I was recently asked to write a message to the city and people of Salinas CA. Today, August 14, there is a town hall meeting there to address the police killings of four residents (two Mexicans and two Salvadorans) this year alone. With the current unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after police killed teenager Michael Brown--and the highly publicized recent police murders of Eric Garner in New York City, 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa CA, Alex Nieto in San Francisco, and homeless Kelly Thomas in Fullerton CA--we must all speak up. Here is my statement:
To the City and People of Salinas:
For a few years I’ve come to Salinas to speak at high schools, colleges, and other venues, including once sponsored by the John Steinbeck Museum. I address how best to work with youth, about gang intervention, and the powerful means of mentorship, rites of passage, the arts, treatment, and restorative justice practices. I’ve also spoken at Soledad Prison a few times over the past 20 years.
Recently, I’ve spent time in Salinas as a Green Party endorsed candidate for governor. Although the primary elections are over, my platform continues to be: 1) End Poverty; 2) Clean and Green Environment for all; 3) Transform the California Prison System; 4) Free & Quality Education for Everyone; 5) Free & Quality Healthcare; 6) Access to Art, Writing, Dance, Theater, Murals, Festivals, and more in every neighborhood.
I feel vested in Salinas as I do throughout California.
Therefore, I condemn the police killings of four residents this year alone. The community deserves a thorough and meaningful investigation, true accountability, and a perceivable change in the Salinas Police Department and its rancorous relationship with the community.
It appears to be normal in Salinas and elsewhere for police to kill people for having mental illness, being drunk, discourteous, and/or talking back. None of these are cause for murder. The Salinas police chief at one press conference suggested that one of the victims may have smirked at a police officer—although the victim could have been exhibiting the effects of being tasered. This man was shot in the face, although he was on the ground and not a direct threat to anyone at the time.
The community demands an end to these killings. A citizen’s council should be enacted. An independent investigation made. And the names of the police officers involved must be made public.
Police hiding behind their badges while holding the power of life or death over the community must end. Everyone knows there are tried-and-true ways to deal with any and all people and incidents. Deadly force is not only a last resort—it can only be applied in clearly dangerous situations to officers or people. Not, for example, when someone is on the ground, tasered, and “smirking.”
The Salinas Police Department needs to be transformed from the ground up.
I’m connected to other communities who have also lost loved ones to unwarranted, blatant police killings. The recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City are a couple of the most publicized police killings, indicating a growing national tragedy. In California alone we have the deaths of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, Alex Nieto in San Francisco, Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, and others. I’ve been involved in these struggles for 40 years—in my teens, I lost four friends to police, although these victims were unarmed.
This is not the community, state or country we should settle for. We deserve the best, including among our police officers. I have family members who have been in law enforcement. I’m not against police officers per se—many are hardworking, patient and needed. We simply cannot allow these shootings to be “normalized” so we get numb when another person is shot for not “acting right.”
With others in a burgeoning California network of community-based leaders, organizers, thinkers, writers, and politicians, I’m willing to offer positive, meaningful and lasting proposals to end these killings once and for all.
Luis J. Rodriguez
I'm pleased to announce the beginning stages of a California Network for Revolutionary Change after a meeting this past Saturday, August 9, at the Spanish American Baptist Church in the Alisal barrio of Salinas. We had two cars from Los Angeles drive five hours that morning to attend as well as two separate cars of people from the Bay Area and a number of Salinas leaders. We laid the groundwork for a possible statewide convention in October, a new website, and a presiding committee to push forward this long but important process--of creating a unified, but diverse, network of leaders, organizers, thinkers, writers, teachers, and more for study, strategizing, and short-and-long-range organizing.
This process grew out of the 2014 Luis J. Rodriguez campaign for governor. Members of the Green Party took part (I became the officially endorsed Green Party candidate for the June primary). We aim to become the connective tissue of mostly scattered, isolated and often suppressed struggles for deep changes in the three pillars of a healthy and thriving society--the environment, the economy and social justice (peace at home and abroad is the fourth pillar).
Salinas is an important community since its a confluence of working class/poor issues--where the wealth is held in the hands of the few, and residents face environmental disasters, economic deprivation, and a long history of social injustice. In the past six months, Salinas police have killed four residents: two Mexicans and two Salvadorans, three farm workers and a parolee. This is the city that John Steinbeck made famous (although when published, his "Grapes of Wrath" was banned in Salinas).
Please keep reading my blog for more information as we move forward. Thanks to the many statewide supporters of the Rodriguez for Governor campaign and all those who helped organize this meeting.
Despite going against corporate control of political races, where only those with big money can play and be heard, such as Governor Brown with a $20 million war chest, I was able with a grassroots effort, going up and down the state 11 times, and hardly any money, in the primary to become 6th out of 15 candidates, and first among third party and independent candidates. I received around 67,000 votes (as a Native American friend said, "we won, since we measure victories different than the general culture").
We plan to continue the "Imagine a New California" campaign at least through the November elections. The issues are still with us and must be fully addressed, regardless of who's on the ballot. The Rodriguez campaign articulated these issues as 1) ending poverty 2) a clean and green environment for all 3) ending the bloated and failing state prison system as we know it 4) free & quality education for everyone 5) free & quality healthcare for everyone 6) and access to arts, dance, music, murals, theater, literature, festivals, and more in every neighborhoods.
Please join with us.