Police brutality in Salinas and the Uprising in Ferguson, Missouri

Written by Workers’ Voice / La Voz de los Trabajadores
Friday, 03 October 2014 00:04

On the 25th of May of this year, there was a protest against police brutality held in the city of Salinas that drew nearly 1,500 people. The mobilization was one of the largest since the massive pro-immigrant marches of 2006 in this important city in Northern California.

This mobilization was the response from the Latino community to a string of murders of workers by the police. In just two months, three Latinos were brutally murdered. But when the police officers brutally killed Carlos Mejia – the most recent of the three- the passivity of the population was broken. As officers pursued Carlos Mejia for several blocks, everyone could see -through a video recorded and put on YouTube- that he was just carrying scissors to cut grass. This was before he was cornered and shot several times. Furthermore, this was all while making no offensive gestures. The indignation and fury of the inhabitants was felt in the streets of Salinas that same day- in the hours of the night- when a group of young people gathered at the place where the murder occurred in order to protest. This protest culminated in a confrontation with the police, where a young man died and several were arrested.

The mobilization of May 25 was initially scheduled to end in front of the building of the police department. However, the routes were later changed to visit the different places where the three people were killed. The sentiment of the people was to end in front of the Police Department. Nonetheless, organizers feared the march would have ended in a confrontation. A group of young demonstrators had spontaneously gone to protest the day before against the Police Department and the protest nearly ended in clashes.

The following day’s mobilization had the crowd agitating demands for an independent investigation by the federal government on the Salinas Police Department; the immediate resignation of Sheriff Kelly McMillin; disclosure of the names of the officers who committed the murders, and the initiation of legal proceedings to pay for their crimes. To this date, none of these demands have been met. Sheriff McMillin continues in office, the names of the officers involved in the killings were not disclosed and none of them have been processed. Furthermore, they still haven’t established the liability of the police officers for their excessive use of force. It’s important to mention that after the completion of the demonstration on May 25th, another Latino, Frank Alvarado, was killed by police in Salinas because police officers assumed that Frank was pointing a gun at them. This was even though all he had in his hands was a cell phone.

The murders of Latinos happen in Salinas and in the Bay Area

Just in the last year, the murders of Latinos by police has escalated in the Bay Area. These have been answered with some important local protests. Nonetheless, there has been little progress in the coordination or creation of a mass movement that links them all. The largest protests outside Salinas were in Santa Rosa when Andy Lopez was killed. A Latino boy of 13, Andy was shot several times by an officer while playing with a toy gun.

After many protests, marches, and demands of justice for Andy Lopez, the officer was acquitted of all criminal responsibility. Another killing, this time of day-laborer Antonio Guzmán, took place on February 25th when he was shot twice in the back by Sergeant Michael Santos, near the University of San Jose. The reason for his murder remains unknown and the crime remains unpunished.

In San Francisco, Alex Nieto was murdered by the police and there has been no punishment to the murderers. His family has filed a lawsuit to the city, but still, no justice has been served. Yaira Serrano García, a Latina girl of 18 years who was mentally disabled, was killed by police in Half Moon Bay. To these, can be added many other cases that remain in silence due to the inability of their families and friends to make them public for fear of reprisals by the same officers and police department.

The teachings of Ferguson, Missouri and the fight against police brutality in Salinas

We all know what the reaction of Black people in Ferguson was after the cold-blooded murder of Michael Brown by the police. It was two weeks of constant struggle in which the majority of the black population of the city went out to challenge the state of siege, the police repression, and the National Guard.

The struggle of Black people in Ferguson was not only able to attract the world’s attention on the fight against police brutality in America, but this fight also brought to light the systematic imposition of fines for traffic violations on the Black population as the second largest source of revenue for the city.

The murder of Michael Brown was just the drop that broke the glass that led to a real insurrection against all the abuses of the white authorities, especially the police, who are clearly racist. The struggle of Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri unnerved not only local authorities but also the federal government. President Obama was pressured to make statements that are sympathetic to the struggle and even delegated a federal prosecutor to investigate the murder of the young African-American.

Furthermore, many Democratic Party members, including Obama, wanted to take political advantage of this struggle and some even visited the city to try to gain sympathy within the struggling population and others. Others, like the future white presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, simply remained silent, complying with the white tyranny in the country. Today, the people of Ferguson are still waiting for the results of the investigation into the murder of Brown with the hope that the officers involved are brought to justice.

Nonetheless, the teachings of the struggle have led to the raising of independent political demands regarding on who should govern the affairs of the Black minority. They claim the right to choose their own authorities, have their own police, and in this way, enable the people to exercise popular democracy. Many Latino activists fighting against police brutality in California should assess their experiences in light of the recent events in Ferguson, especially those who have been struggling in Latino communities to face police violence and the abuses that Latino immigrants are subjected to by the racist authorities in Northern California.

Salinas: A city with deep social differences

Salinas had a population of 150,441 inhabitants in 2010, according to a census conducted in the United States. The Latino population there was 112,779 inhabitants or 75% of the population. Those who identify as whites, who were 90.3% of the population in 1970, are now only 45.8%.

The vast majority of Latinos work picking fruit and vegetables. Salinas is the center of a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry, where lettuce, strawberry and grape are primarily grown. The agricultural industry in California manages a capital of US$ 43 million a year and is driven almost entirely by undocumented Mexican immigrant workers. The wealth that each worker brought to the industry of Monterey County in 2010 was US$ 183,334 while the employee’s annual salary reached only US$ 19,180 in 2012.

The lettuce industry in Salinas is what Chevrolet is for GM, someone has remarked. With working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week in the sun and the consequences of a highly mechanized industry, these agricultural workers still endure the unbearable environmental contamination due to the use of pesticides that affect not only the workers, but the entire communities inhabiting the areas surrounding the crops.

Moreover, the degree of precariousness of this work leads to the most depraved abuses by employers on workers, especially against women workers, which form an important part of this labor force. Sexual harassment against women, threats of deportation and sun exposure without adequate access to drinking water stations make this one of the most precarious work of all labor activities in the country.

The large Latino population also suffers from strong overcrowding. Farmworkers live in garages and often share a room with four or five people in complete unsanitary conditions. This population is concentrated in the area of the city called Alisal, a neighborhood where the population is mostly young and affected by problems of drug trafficking, gangs, crime, and high rates of school dropouts. The other parts of the city are characterized by residential areas where the rest of the population lives in a different world.

In the 1970s, a great struggle for the construction of unions that would address all these abuses by the government and the bosses led to the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW). The successful and historic days of mobilization and strikes led by Cesar Chavez and others – which were strongly suppressed by the bosses and the government – managed to bring important gains for workers in regard to a minimum wage, pension and health insurance, among others.

These achievements have been lost across the years due to the divisive policies supported by the bureaucratic union leaders. The preferred weapon used by the bosses to divide and weaken what could have been a powerful union movement in the 70s were the anti-immigrant policies of the government that the union leaders themselves accepted, including Cesar Chavez, which were used as a wedge against the workers’ inside their own organizations in order to lower wages, labor stability, etc.

However, the bosses have still failed to erase from the consciousness of the farm workers in California and Salinas what was one of the most important battles of the American proletariat in the early 70s.

All the adverse circumstances surrounding the life of the Latino working population, who are subjected to all kinds of injustices and precariousness, work in favor of the social struggles that take place. The mass actions that have occurred in recent months show this trend and they have been reinforced with the impressive examples shown by the African American masses in Ferguson. Now it is an urgent task of revolutionaries to act on this boiling kettle in order to drive the momentum of the masses towards the path of the organization, mobilization, and a general strike of the proletariat in the tradition of the 1970s UFW.


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