A May 20 police shooting has plunged the California city of Salinas into crisis. A small riot, multiple protests and calls for outside intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice have all riveted the mainly Latino community within the past week.
Like a similar episode in New Mexico earlier this year, a video of the police shooting has gone “viral” on the Internet, transforming a local issue of police violence into a larger controversy with national and international implications.
Last week’s fatal officer-involved shooting of Carlos Mejia, a 44-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, was the third such killing in Salinas and the fourth in the central coastal area of California since the beginning of the year. Since all of the men killed by police have been Latinos- including immigrants from Mexico and Central America- issues of race, class and nationality are sizzling on a blazing political platter.
“You can feel the tension in the air,” said Salinas City Councilman Jose Castaneda.
As many as 1,000 people marched through Salinas on Sunday, May 25, calling for a new police chief, a new mayor and a comprehensive citizen review of police shootings during the past decade. Support contingents from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and other towns joined with local residents in demanding justice, dignity and respect. Disagreement, however, developed over the content of messages posted on signs, with march organizers demanding some participants tone down their language.
“We need police,” farmworker Victor Calderon said. “We just don’t need racist ones.”
According to the SPD’s account, Mejia exposed himself to a woman, threatened to rape her, attempted to break into her home, and unsuccessfully tried to strangle her dog. Confronted by the SPD at a busy intersection as he was leaving the scene, Mejia allegedly lunged at officers with a pair of gardening shears.
“In response, the officers, fearing for their personal safety, shot this individual, and this individual is now deceased.” SPD Commander Vince Maiorana was quoted in the regional media.
Two unidentified officers responsible for the shooting have been placed on standard, paid administrative leave, Maiorana added.
Word of the early afternoon shooting quickly spread throughout Salinas and beyond, drawing crowds that staged a street protest the evening of May 21.
As upwards of 1,000 people protested, police from surrounding communities poured into the agricultural city. Anti-riot gear and automatic weapons were deployed. An onlooker, 23-year-old Constan-tino Garcia Tienda, was struck by a bullet fired by an unknown shooter and killed.
After Garcia was shot, members of the crowd reportedly pelted police with rocks and bottles, with one bottle hitting an officer in the head as he was administering CPR to Garcia, who later died. A police cruiser was nearly destroyed, while a police radio was stolen and later used to broadcast an anonymous message promising that “This is just the beginning mother….”
The following evening of May 21, a more peaceful protest against the police shooting and violence was held in Salinas. “Amor y Paz,” or “Peace and Love” were the slogans setting the tone of the night.
A native of Hidalgo, Mexico, Garcia worked as a strawberry picker. The young man was married and the father of a small child. A friend who was raising money to ship Garcia’s body back to Mexico, Jose Cruz Guzman, described Garcia as a “nice person” who came to work like other immigrants.
The Mejia shooting closely followed other police shootings that already had Salinas on edge. On March 20, Angel Ruiz was shot and killed by police. Lettuce harvester Osman Hernandez, who was also originally from El Salvador, was slain on May 9.
In a letter prepared by Hernandez’s co-workers, the farmworker was described as a peaceful, solitary and respectful man.
“The saddest thing is that he was the only support for his family back in his country,” the letter stated. A multi-million dollar wrongful death suit against the City of Salinas is being pursued by Hernandez’s family.
Additionally, fugitive Hector “Junior” Chairez was killed by sheriff’s deputies on March 20 in the Big Sur country. Officers said it appeared Chairez had displayed a gun during a pursuit, but no weapon was reported recovered.
Different interpretations of the video that shows Mejia being shot at almost point-blank range are bouncing around the media and in cyberspace. While some conclude that Mejia did indeed pose a threat to officers, others hold that he did not.
The spike in shootings is unusual for the SPD, which has averaged one fatal killing per year until 2014, according to the department.
The day prior to the shooting of Carlos Mejia, a police sergeant in the nearby community of Soledad, Thomas Marchese, was stabbed and briefly hospitalized.
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin declared last week that he was requesting that both the FBI and DOJ probe the Mejia and Hernandez shootings.
California State Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) also urged a DOJ investigation, as well as a “crisis mediation process that will address community concerns while rebuilding trust between residents and our police department.” Alejo joined other elected officials in appealing for calm.
The recent shootings have frayed community-law enforcement relations in Salinas and the surrounding region.
Resident Maria Torres said her aversion to the police force was so great that she would not call officers in the future. “It would be like I killed the person,” Torres said. “No matter what I see, I won’t call them again.”
Public distrust of law enforcement extends into nearby King City, which was shaken by scandal in February when six officers and a seventh individual were variously charged with conspiracy, embezzlement, bribery, possession of an assault weapon, and threats, in a case stemming from an alleged vehicle towing scam targeting unlicensed drivers, many of whom were likely undocumented workers.
Former King City Police Chief Bruce Miller and his brother, tow truck company owner Brian Miller, were named in an indictment that charged police with impounding private vehicles and then personally profiting from the disposition of the confiscated property.
In May, Bruce Miller and Sgt. Bobby Carrillo were additionally charged with perjury, as the result of an investigation the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office said was an ongoing one.
Separately, the FBI is investigating the King City Police Department for several thousand dollars that disappeared after cash was recovered from a bank robbery.
In March, civil rights lawyers Blanca Zarazua and Fernando F. Chavez, the son of legendary farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of people allegedly victimized by the towing scheme.
“It is quite amazing that in 2014 Latinos continues to suffer the types of discrimination which occurred decades ago and which the Civil Rights Act of 1983 sought to correct,” attorney Fernando F. Chavez was quoted.
Generally overlooked in the national media landscape, Salinas is perhaps best known as the lettuce-producing capital of the United States.
But the city of 154,484 people (2012 U.S. Census estimate) has often been at the cutting edge of socio-economic trends as well as agricultural, immigration, labor, justice and social movement histories. Salinas was the birthplace of famed 20th century writer and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, whose classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” dramatized the saga of Dust Bowl era migrants to California’s fields.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Salinas Valley was an important battleground in the campaign waged by Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union.
Decades later, as new generations of low-paid Mexican and Central American immigrant workers keep Salinas agribusiness buzzing and California’s prisons burst at the seams, some contend that the recent police shootings reveal a larger socio-political crisis gripping California and the United States.
Salinas is surfacing as an issue in the California gubernatorial contest. Acclaimed author and activist Luis J. Rodriguez, who is running for governor on the Green Party ticket, has made the establishment of civilian police review boards with the power to discipline police a part of his campaign platform, in addition to a “statewide investigation into the growing police violence across California.”
“With a poverty rate of well over 30.7 percent, Salinas is one of the poorest areas in California,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Meanwhile, just over the ‘lettuce curtain’ wealthy and powerful agri-business and other interests treat the hardest-hit, predominantly minority communities as if they were colonies-with the police as the ‘occupying army.’”
“Mountains of research show that violent crime is much more likely in underserved neighborhoods, meaning neighborhoods that suffer from poverty, lack of services and lack of opportunity,” the police department continued. “In Salinas, those neighborhoods are much more likely to be Latino. So people from underserved neighborhoods are much more likely to commit violent crimes, which means they are much more likely to have contact with the police. That’s what we see in Salinas.”
YouTube videos and visuals on the Salinas crisis:
Carlos Mejia shooting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SGrRnzjlWo
May 20 City Council Meeting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9g0cPqeNWZE
May 25 demonstration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzxyqMsV3DE
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico