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.