By Sandy Close and Raj Jayadev
New America Media
BAKERSFIELD — Abusive behavior by law enforcement officers in towns across Kern County and neighboring Tulare County has generated distrust and resignation, especially among Latinos who make up the majority of the region’s population.
But national media coverage of the alleged beating death by deputies of David Silva, a 33-year-old Latino father of four, in downtown Bakersfield may prompt a public reckoning with the wider issue, according to some two dozen attendees at a health care fair here interviewed by New America Media.
Less than a week after Silva was beaten allegedly by eight or nine deputies and highway patrol officers, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and Fox News had all reported on the incident as well as on an apparent attempt to cover it up when Bakersfield police confiscated the cell phones of several bystanders who had videotaped it.
So had the Spanish-language news outlet Univision, which posted a compilation of video segments titled “Most Infamous Police Beatings.”
“This is a really conservative community. Most people will think something like this was bound to happen — it’s been happening in other places. But the country’s eye is now on Bakersfield and that could make the difference,” said Amy Lopez, 22, a student of dental hygiene at Cal State Bakersfield.
Bill Phelps, who works with South Kern’s low-income health plan program HMC, said news of the beatings had “accelerated a huge mistrust of law enforcement across all sectors of the community. Thanks to national media coverage, Kern County is now on the public radar.”
Hilary Meeks, a reporter for the Visalia Times, noted that the incident hadn’t occurred in a vacuum. “The-re’ve been five shootings over the last four years in neighboring Tulare County … A sheriff’s deputy ran over someone two years ago and nothing was done about it. We had a guy killed in Porterville. The court case ended in a hung jury. That was one or two years ago.”
At least a third of those interviewed by NAM at the fair, held at the Kern County Fair Grounds on Saturday, had not heard about the Silva incident, although it’s been front page news for the Bakersfield Californian’s daily website, and on local TV. But recession-related closures of all but one Spanish- language news weekly and Univision’s Bakersfield bureau, has turned the city into something of a media desert, especially for non-English speakers.
“Local awareness will build with more local, state and national media coverage,” said El Popular publisher George Comacho, who plans to report on the story next week, especially in the wake of Kern County Sheriff Donny Young-blood’s request on May 14 for an FBI probe into Silva’s death.
Linda Vasquez, a 27-year-old Cal State Bakersfield student, was as agitated by the cover up as the beating itself. “The part that makes me angry is how they took the phones, because they’ve done that before.” She told a story of how her brother was harassed, and the phone of another family member who recorded the incident was taken by law enforcement. She was not sure whether it was city police or the sheriff’s department.
Ali Morris, CEO of the local Black Chamber of Commerce, thinks that even if public pressure mounts over the Silva case, it’s going to take a lot of time and education to change things for the better. “We have a broken system. In theory everything should work right. We can start attacking it here or there, but it’s the system that’s broke. It should have never gotten to this point.”
The solution, Morris says, has to come with changes in perception on both law enforcement’s side and on the public’s side.
“I think both sides are responsible,” Morris observed. “The whole police force is at the mercy of one bad officer. At the same time, the police officer wonders why he is putting his life in jeopardy when the people here don’t want him there.
“We have to go at this whole thing piece by piece,” Morris concluded. “If I didn’t have a spiritual foundation I couldn’t get through it.”
Pablo, another Cal State Bakersfield student who is studying to become a police officer and didn’t give his last name, learned about the Silva incident from his criminal justice professor.
“There have been a lot of shootings and beatings by law enforcement officials. They should train the police to use nonviolence or non-lethal force,” he commented.
Cal State student Amy Lopez said she was frustrated that there hadn’t been more public reaction like a student protest.
“Something’s got to give. I shouldn’t leave it up to another group to say something. I should step up and do something.”