May 11, 2007

LAPD Opens Dangerous Front in Immigrant Movement

By Roberto Lovato
New America Media

LOS ANGELES — After participating in more than 50 small and large immigration vigils and marches in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, little of what happens there surprises me. The many acts of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) violence I witnessed – the choke-holds on 50-year-old female street vendors, the blood of marchers spilled on grass by baton-wielding cops, and me myself being hit – never really scared me. That is, until now.

As I sat stupefied before images of gunshots raining on immigrants whose only weapons were baby carriages and bongos, I saw the LAPD dragging the immigrants and the entire country into dangerous terrain, a new threshold in the tug of immigration war raging around the country.

In my almost 20 years (several of which I spent in a crowded office down the block from the park as the executive director of the Central American Resource Center, CARE-CEN) of working in the immigrant community, I’ve watched the very gradual escalation of anti-immigrant sentiment; I’ve watched us move from the wave of verbal and visual assaults against immigrants following small rallies against California’s Proposition 187 in MacArthur Park which denied social services to those without papers, to the wave of verbal, visual and now physical attacks carpeting the entire country. Among the 70 injured and hospitalized last Tuesday were Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others who fled situations where the gradual growth and normalization of verbal and visual violence against specific groups preceded violence against those same groups.

The 240 “less than lethal” shots fired by LAPD sent powerful concentric waves of trauma and media messages – seven journalists were among the injured – felt from the crowded brown brick apartments in Pico Union to the tobacco fields of Dudley, North Carolina as well as in homes throughout the hemisphere.

As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visited post-war El Salvador on the day of the incident, people there watched their six-o’clock local news with enthusiasm – after all, Los Angeles could be called the second largest Salvadoran city. But the cheer and goodwill quickly evaporated as they watched on their ten o’clock international news the all-too-familiar images: heavily armed men in black uniforms and riot gear firing shotguns at fellow Salvadorans and Mexicans and other immigrants, including four-year-old girls and 70-year-old grandmothers.

With the whole world watching, Chief Bratton and Mayor Villaraigosa, who owes his election to the post-Proposition 187 wave of Latino electoral power, must deal swiftly and in unprecedented ways with the shocking new threshold set by the LAPD if trust in the community, the city and the entire continent are to be repaired. The dangerous new precedent appears to many in the community to signal open season on immigrants in a country where they inspire such intense passions and hatred; such a situation requires local authorities to persuade many in the community that this most recent incident was not planned or provoked to repress immigrants. Some activists, like Javier Rodriguez, one of the march organizers, are already calling the MacArthur Park incident a “political decision” to “dismantle this (immigrant rights) movement.” Whether or not such claims are true, many born in the United States heard in the gunshots echoes of Kent State. Anchors on the Spanish language Uni-vision network drew angry comparisons with the shooting of former Univision reporter Ruben Salazar who was killed by an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy during a march against the Vietnam War in 1970, while community members born in other parts of America like El Salvador saw flashes of Plaza Barrios, also a site of police violence.

With deeply rooted fears growing and expanding in the immigrant community and with the pall of institutional violence still hanging heavily over the LAPD, it may not serve the city to simply establish another in the seemingly endless string of commissions investigating violence and other misconduct: the McCone Commission following the Watts riots, the Christopher Commission following the Rodney King beating, the Webster Commission following the riots of 1992, the reform recommendations following the Rampart scandal. During my tenure at CARECEN, then the country’s largest immigrant-serving organization, I attended dozens of meetings about police violence against immigrants with everybody from the former captain and other officers of the notorious Rampart Station to U.S. attorney generals, mayors, blue ribbon commission members and others who guaranteed “getting to the bottom” of official violence. Despite the assurances, the thick reports full of recommendations, the FBI investigations, and the promises to protect “civil rights,” police reform still seems like a bottomless pit of impunidad (impunity) to immigrants, youth, African-Americans and others.

Quelling concerns with FBI investigations and the language and institutional practice of “civil rights” may not be enough, especially among those who have experienced actual results from language and practices rooted in “human rights.” “The way the local police physically abused marchers represents right there a violation of human rights,” said Jorge A. Bustamante, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, during a visit to Los Angeles last week. Linking the MacArthur Park incident to the larger context informing the violence, he added, “There is concern in the United Nations human rights community about rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.”

In the search for answers and responsibility, Mayor Villaraigosa would do well to look back to countries like El Salvador or Mexico, where the determination of responsibility for such incidents includes identifying possible “intellectual authors”, special civilian Truth Commissions (as opposed to the previous commissions) and other measures. In the absence of new approaches to eradicate endemic police violence, Los Angeles should, in its efforts to be transparent, consider inviting international groups who monitor and report on violence and abuses of human rights of migrants around the world. Whether or not “autores intelectuales” (intellectual authors) of the violence exist and whatever form the inevitable claims of a cover-up take, local authorities must address the MacArthur Park incident in new ways, ways that leave no doubt that immigrants were not targeted for political reasons, for being the most vulnerable.

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