Neighborhoods in the city of Salinas, California have expressed their anger and the amount of pain they’ve suffered in recent weeks after three men have been shot and killed by police in just over two months. These include the deaths of Angel Ruiz (March 20), Osman Hernandez (May 11), and Carlos Mejia (May 20).
The latest of these was the fatal shooting of 44-year-old, Carlos Mejia.
On Tuesday, May 20th, Salinas police state that they were out near the Del Monte Ave and N Sanborn Road intersection responding to a 911 call of a man threatening to break into a house. When police arrived, they found Mejia, a Salvadoran migrant farmworker, holding a pair of “garden shears.” Police state they ordered Mejia to drop his “weapon” in both English and Spanish, while Mejia walked away towards the intersection. Police then claim Mejia “lunged at the officers,” prompting them to shoot him four times at point-blank range.
One witness, however, captured the event on video. In the video, a startled and disoriented Mejia is seen walking away from officers as they followed close behind before fatally shooting him.
“Why the fuck did you guys shoot him!” shouts the witness who recorded the footage, “You fucking idiots, why the fuck didn’t ‘you guys just taser him!...Be smart enough, fucking taser him!...You guys don’t work for shit! [If]we want to die, we’ll fucking call you guys!”
Mejia was then handcuffed after his lifeless body lay on the ground.
The video went viral and the outrage over what was now the third death of a farmworker in just two months sparked protests near the intersection where Mejia was gunned down. Well into the night and into the following day, messages of “We want justice” consumed the intersections as honks of support flooded the streets. Many young residents expressed a longtime distrust with the police by shouting out their frustrations against the increased brutality.
The demonstrators, however, were quickly censured by non-profit organizations such as the Salinas League of United Latin American Citizens (L.U.L.A.C.), Council #2055. They expressed that things were “getting bad in East Salinas” when they described that the Salinas police department was “surrounded by protesters.”
“We need all of our elected officials and community leaders to come out and end this night peacefully,” explained a statement posted through a social networking medium.
A divide in what communities used to channel their discontent with the police versus what local political powers deemed adequate or “respectable” would soon grow. Two days later during a closed press conference at the Salinas Police Department, mayor Joe Gunter, a 32-year police and detective veteran, along with other local political figures appealed for “peace and tolerance” in the Salinas communities.
“What upsets me is that last night, we had people doing a legitimate protest, and they allowed it to get out of control,” stated Gunter, “I would hope that we all learn from this incident, that we want to work together to make this a safer community.”
Assemblyman Luis Alejo jointly urged the affected neighborhoods to remain “patient” while the cases remain under investigation.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of remaining calm, peaceful, and patient while the investigation continues,” added the Assemblyman.
The following day, L.U.L.A.C. would work along with other organizations such as the United Farm Workers (U.F.W.) and Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (M.I.L.P.A.) to continue a campaign for working together in “peace” in the community, however, during other events earlier in the week, some of these organizations additionally “condemned” the people’s “violent” reaction to the shooting of Mejia and deemed them a “disappointment.” There were even reports that “anti-police violence” protestors were not allowed to join these events by the aforementioned organizations declaring their messaging too “violent.”
Some of these organizations’ focus relied on working with local officials to continue pressing for a message of “peace.” California L.U.L.A.C. board member, Carlos Ramos, had previously expressed during a city council meeting that took place the day Mejia was gunned down that the organization has had unconditional support for the police.
“L.U.L.A.C. will always support our men and women in blue,” explained Ramos, “We’ve always done so and we will continue to do so.”
Meanwhile, demonstrations demanding justice over the killing of the three men continued in Salinas streets and statewide support and solidarity with these communities grew vibrant through social media outlets. An action was then announced for the weekend to follow. The event, which was originally titled “Massive March Against Salinas Police Brutality,” would take place on Sunday, May 25th at Salinas’ Closter Park.
At the event, Salinas residents were met with an abundance of supporters from various parts of the state such as Oakland, Fresno, Oxnard, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Los Angeles and Orange counties. Gathered at the park’s center kiosko, other families and supporters brought with them the memory of other police killing victims such as Kenneth Harding Jr. (San Francisco), Andy Lopez (Santa Rosa), Antonio Lopez (San Jose), Alan Blueford (Oakland), Alfonso Limon, Jr. (Oxnard), Robert Ramirez (Oxnard), Alfredo Vargas (Oxnard), and Maria Irma de la Torre (Salinas) to name a few.
As various groups began interchanging words and ideas, however, “leaders” that claimed authority over the event quickly approached some participants and the organizations’ previous “peace-keeping” attempts, soon turned into censorship of ideas. People arriving to the event, which had now been retitled to “March for Respect, Dignity and Justice,” were “reminded” by these organizing members that the event was a “non-violent and peaceful demonstration” and that disruptions of any kind or “vulgar language” would not be “tolerated.” Any supporters who were deemed “inappropriate” were soon handed flyers containing a strict “Code of Conduct” for the event.
This Code of Conduct contained an extensive set of “rules” that “prohibited” people at the march from participating in many forms of activates such as “verbal violence,” or “hand signs or vulgar language,” against police officers. It also restricted any “verbal abuse” against a “person of authority, meaning the captains conducting the march.” The list continued and limited nearly any form of expression that didn’t fit within the organizations’ messaging or benchmarks. These included activities such as:
- Do not provoke any response from people who might not agree with the march
- Do not respond any language or provoking by people passing by or on the sidewalks
- No use of profanity or distasteful language in poster or flags
- Do not bring your own signs, the only signs used in the march will be those passed out by the march organizers
- Obey the march captains at all times
The “Code of Conduct” concluded that if participants did not agree with the “rules,” they were requested to “not participate in the march.”
While neon-green vested “captains” continued to further evaluate attendees’ eligibility, the event program, which began early with an ancient traditional Mexica ceremony, continued and speakers including some of the victims’ family members went shared some words in front of the masses.
“I have heard in the news that Hispanics in political positions have asked their community to have patience and wait for the results of an investigation that is taking place,” explained a speaker, “Patience for what? To see the next person get killed? Do we really believe that the police investigating the police is going to bring us the results that the community wants? Do we really believe that justice will be served? I don’t think so!”
“This is an injustice,” expressed a relative of Osman Hernandez, “I have my children and my family. I go out everyday, and now, I go out with fear that if one day I’ll get stopped by an officer and he will harass me - or he will shot to kill. That’s not right for the community and for all the people.”
“I’m really nervous but really excited to see so many people here,” shared Reyna Vargas, sister of Alfredo Vargas, who was killed by police in August of 2013, “His case has been kept closed off. They [police] washed their hands by saying that they thought - ‘We thought, that he had something.’ That’s what’s going on, they’re ‘thinking’ that people are reaching for something. Please, the people can’t be dying off like this…We all have the right to life, no one should to take life away from us!”
Once the lineup of speakers was complete, the event took shape as the group advanced out of the park and into the neighborhoods of Salinas. Armed with banners, flags, and victims’ pictures, the massive group gathered a strength of over one thousand people while the chants for justice roared through the streets and passersby honked in support. The group also made stops at the locations where some of the people have been killed. At each of the memorial spots, the group shared prayer and recited each of the victims’ names while adding, “Estamos aqui, y no nos olvidamos de ti,” or, “We are here, and we haven’t forgotten you.”
The unanimity of the march, however, would continuously be interrupted. March captains remained attentive and continued surveillance over several groups and individuals whose words did not fit the organizations’ code of “peace.” Now-common three-letter adages such as “F.T.P.” were considered a threat and some groups even reported being told not to wear red shirts, a traditional color of the U.F.W., which replaced their customary red and black flags for white ones. Yet, political “leaders” and government officials such as Assemblyman, Luis Alejo, did not face any problems carrying their own banners that weren’t “passed out by the march organizers.”
Some chants would occasionally be eclipsed by what “captains” deemed more suitable mantras, and continual “enforcement” of the “rules” shouted over megaphones would overshadow the people’s voices. One captain even requested vehicles to “stop honking” on several occasions.
Yet, many groups and supporters that had traveled from various parts of the state avoided altercations and continued on their motives, which many described was to demonstrate support for the Salinas community. They assured the Salinas residents that were are not alone in their growing fight against police brutality and that their dedication and solidarity would remain for “the people” of Salinas, not the politicians.
The support continued later that day during a rally that took place at the Salinas Police Department. Local media dismissed the action as a“small group of protesters” that “broke away” and “sprayed graffiti” while “hundreds marched for justice in East Salinas.” Instead, several dozen rallied in front of the police building and chalked, rather than sprayed, messages exhibiting the names of the victims that have been fatally gunned down by Salinas police.
Later that evening, in a seemingly attempt to appease growing anger throughout the region, the Salinas police department published a “Frequently Asked Questions” page on their website focused on “Officer Involved Shootings In Salinas.”
On the FAQ’s, the Salinas Police Department maintains that Mejia “attacked” the officers before being gunned down.
“When you slow down and zoom in on the cell phone video,” states the release, “you see that the officers did not shoot Mr. Mejia when he was walking away, they shot him when he turned and attacked them with the shears
It adds that “police are trained to stop the threat, both to themselves and members of the public. We can't at this point know exactly what the officers' judgment was, but it's common for police to shoot multiple times to stop a threat.”
In regards to why officers were within such close proximity to Mejia when they shot him, the statement concludes that, “To stop a violent person with a weapon, police have to gain physical control of him, typically by putting him in handcuffs. They start by ordering the person to drop the weapon and surrender, and then need to get control of the person as soon as possible so they can prevent harm to members of the public.”
As demonstrations are planned to continue, some community members along with supporters have grown weary of local non-profit organizations working or collaborating closely with the police department. The distrust with the police has been apparent amongst many residents who express a fear for the lives of their loved ones. They have described a pattern amongst police agencies of “shoot first, ask questions later.” A pattern of racial profiling amongst underprivileged neighborhoods, especially in migrant communities. And a pattern of a system that justifies the killing of their loved ones at an increasing rate. For these communities, their strength has grown in building a network of support across their counties and around the state. Many of these have pledged a loyalty to the mantra, “No justice, no peace.”