BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Week after week on Friday nights, families of people killed by police line up to demonstrate peacefully outside the brick and marble police building in Bakersfield, California.
They arrive in small groups, as commuters head home after work, kick off the weekend with drinks and friends, or jostle for position on the freeway to get anywhere but Bakersfield. On the protest line, the families exchange stories about their missing members and the officers who are sworn to serve and protect.
A woman who asked not to be identified said they have been demonstrating outside the police building for two years.
“Obviously, not all Bakersfield police are bad,” she said. But the good cops who know something is wrong and stay quiet about it are just as bad, in her eyes.
Most protesters hold a sign. “Who is he, Chief Williams?” one asks, referring to a newspaper interview in which the police chief did not recognize the name of James De La Rosa, whose dead body was tickled and played with by a police officer.
De La Rosa, a 22-year-old oilfield worker, was shot dead by police after he crashed his car when they tried to pull him over. Police said he reached for his waistband as if he had a gun, but many witnesses say his were up – and empty.
“Serve and protect, not beat and neglect,” another sign says. Two red handprints adorn the top right corner. “Justice for Jorge Ramirez! Justice for David Silva! #Justice for Jason!“
Many signs invite drivers to honk for justice. Some oblige, including an off-duty school bus driver. This pleases Jorge Ramirez Sr., himself a school bus driver.
Ramirez Sr. wears a black shirt that states: “Shame on Bakersfield killer cops,” and carries two signs: “Jail Killer Cops,” with the names of five officers, and smaller one that says, “Shame on Chief Williams. Which one is he?” He wears a baseball cap and button in honor of his son, Jorge Ramirez, a confidential informant for police who was killed in a drug sting.
Ramirez agreed to act as an informant in exchange for leniency on drug charges. Ramirez persuaded Justin Harger, an old friend, to have dinner with him at the Four Points Sheraton hotel. When they got out of their car, police surrounded them and shot Harger to death when he drew a gun. They also shot Ramirez 10 times, then handcuffed him as he died.
Ramirez Sr. said police can terminate an operation for any reason if they feel it’s too risky, but they had no tactical plan, and were confused, and killed his son.
“I think it’s disturbing that the officer who shot my son opened fire without knowing who was who. It could have been a hotel guest or a bystander, but the officer assumed my son was going to run and killed him,” Ramirez Sr. told Courthouse News.
Jorge’s sister Nicole agreed.
“They didn’t protect him. They failed him,” she said, saying that if her brother had been an undercover officer they would not have shot him. “But he wasn’t, so his life didn’t matter to them,” she said.
Bakersfield police said Jorge was a drug-user responsible for his own death, though an autopsy showed he was clean, his son Anthony told Courthouse News.
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall declined to comment for this story, as did Police Chief Williamson.
Bakersfield City Council members did not return requests for comment.
Many protesters attribute the rash of police killings in Kern County to racism against Latinos. Anthony Ramirez said the white side of his family has never dealt with police, though the Mexican side has had several run-ins with them.
He said many Latinos are scared to deal with Bakersfield and Kern County law enforcement in any way, and he understands why. Last Christmas he called police after a minor car accident in which no one was hurt. Ramirez said he apologized to the officers for the trouble, and they got angry, so he started recording them with his phone.
“The next thing I knew, they attacked me, threw me on the ground, and started hitting me,” Ramirez said. He said the officers put him into a police cruiser and took him to a parking lot, where they put a bag over his head, pepper-sprayed him and put a gun to his head.
“They tell me, ‘We’re going to kill you just like we killed your dad. Don’t fuck with the police.’ And then they said, ‘If you ever mess with us again, we’re gonna kill you, just like we killed your dad,'” Ramirez said.
He sued the police and has a court date next May. His lawyer believes they can win, he said, but he is apprehensive about going to trial.
People on the line Friday night said police officers tend to ignore the protests, though some laugh, flip them off, or tell them to go get jobs.
“We’re not trying to make a political statement here,” Jorge Ramirez Sr. said. He just wants police to acknowledge what they did.
“These are our families. I don’t want their freaking money. I don’t want shit from them. All I want is for them to man up and say, ‘This is what happened.’ If that happened, I might be able to trust them again,” Ramirez said.
Kern County has the highest per capita rate of police killings in the country this year, 13 so far. All were men, ranging in age from 22 to 57. More than half were Latino.
Just over 51 percent of Kern County’s 874,589 people are Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2014. So far this year 192 people have been killed by law enforcement officers in California, according to The Counted , a public database of police shootings. The database is run by The Guardian, an English newspaper.
Were the police killing rate for the whole state the same as Kern County’s, 577 people would have been killed by police and sheriff’s officers in California this year.
Seventy-four of the people killed by California police this year were Latino: 38.5 percent, slightly below the 38.6 percent Latino population statewide. Sixty-two white people died in police-involved incidents, or 32.3 percent, 6.2 percent lower than the 38.5 percent of state population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The statewide death rate of Latinos at the hands of police is 0.49 per 100,000 people.
Whites are killed at a rate of 0.42 per 100,000.
Kern County’s rate of Latino deaths at hands of police is triple the statewide rate: 1.6 per 100,000 people. The rate of police killings of white people in Kern County is even higher: 1.9 per 100,000.
Jose Reyna, chairman of the Chicano Studies Advisory Committee and Professor of Spanish and Chicano Literature at California State University Bakersfield, said he was not surprised by the numbers.
“It bothers me, because there is a long history of that – police and community conflicts throughout the Southwest,” Reyna told Courthouse News.
The history of Mexican/Chicano and Anglo relations was laid out in Carey McWilliams’ classic 1949 book, “North From Mexico: the Spanish-Speaking people of the United States.” The book virtually disappeared until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and the rise of the Chicano Power movement, when it became a bestseller – 30 years after it was published.
White hostility against Mexicans and Latinos dates from before Texas’ claim to be an independent republic in 1836, and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded more than 500,000 square miles of land: nearly all of present-day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.
The Texas Rangers were notorious murderers of Latinos, Reyna said, massacring entire communities of unarmed vaqueros and burying them in mass graves as late as the early 20th century. Reyna said the Texas Rangers also invented, or perfected, the practice of carrying “drop guns,” to plant by the bodies of the people they killed.
“This is common knowledge in the Hispanic community, and it’s still happening today. Not all cops, obviously, but enough to make it a problem,” Reyna said.
Reyna, and several protesters, said relations between Kern County’s Latino majority and its police force are little better than in the days of the Texas Rangers. Reyna cited the hunting parties organized by so-called Minute Men in Arizona and New Mexico, who threaten to shoot immigrants.
Though 46 percent of Bakersfield residents are Latino, just 21 percent of the police department’s 390 sworn officers are Latino. Seventy-four percent of the officers are white, as are 38 percent of city residents.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Department is slightly more diverse. Of the 898 sworn employees, 316 are Latino: 35 percent. The 532 white sworn employees make up 59 percent of the force, according to a sheriff’s department diversity report.
Reyna said establishing civilian review boards for police shootings could improve relations, but police resist the idea.
“I think a really important step would be to integrate the police departments. If we had representative numbers of Hispanics in the police department and sheriff’s department, then that would be a natural check. But there’s resistance to that too,” Reyna said.
“There will always be rogue cops in any force,” Reyna said, “[but] a police force more representative of the population would be more attuned to the community.”
He cited Arvin, a small farming town in Kern County south of Delano. Arvin is 92.7 percent Latino, and most of its 19 sworn officers are also Latino, and community relations there are much better than in Bakersfield, Reyna said. Neither of the two homicides there this year involved police.
Cultural awareness programs to educate police on Latino culture and history could help, Reyna said, but it is difficult to implement them when police refuse to acknowledge they are needed.
“One admirable thing about Anglo culture is that they do respect intelligence. The worst thing you can tell an Anglo is that he’s stupid, right?” Reyna said.
He said white people must educate white people for change to happen.
“They have to work with their own people like we work with ours to enlighten themselves, and then if they’re both enlightened, they can work with each other,” Reyna said. “But it can’t be just us. Right now they’d say, tell your people not to commit crimes. Or, wear a bulletproof vest if you’re going to commit a crime. And that’s not a solution.”
A big barrier to change is that some police, and other Anglos, view Latinos as immigrants, though many of their families have lived in the Southwest since before it belonged to the United States.
“I never felt accepted as an American,” Reyna said. “I felt American, I knew I was American, but you’re always a second-class citizen. One of the reasons I left South Texas was I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life carrying a picket sign to convince Anglos that I was equal. I am. I don’t need to be proving it.”
It’s fine that people are finally protesting police brutality, Reyna said, but he asked why it required a family member being killed to get them involved.
“What about the rest of the community? They’re saying, ‘Well, I’ll wait until they shoot my brother, and then go protest.’ That’s why I said we need more enlightenment, training, for all sides.”
Mary Silva said her son David Sal Silva was beaten to death by six sheriff’s deputies and two CHP officers for sleeping on a lawn.
After beating the 33-year-old father of four with their steel batons, the officers hogtied him and he stopped breathing. Though there was a hospital across the street, she said they did not take him there for treatment until early the next morning. He was pronounced dead on May 8 at 12:45 a.m.
“There are too many lives that have been taken, too many lives that are gone,” Mary Silva said. “All of us mothers here, we’re not going to give up. We’ll stick together because we’ve really got to unify each other. One person cannot do it.”
David Silva’s partner Tara Garlick and his four children sued the county, the Sheriff’s Department, and the deputies involved in July 2013, alleging wrongful death.
Several people who captured Silva’s death on their cell phones followed suit in 2014, claiming that deputies forcibly took their phones after hours of threats. A federal judge dismissed most of their claims in April, finding that the accused deputies may not have been present when other deputies demanded the plaintiffs’ phones.
Silva’s was the third fatal beating by Kern County sheriff’s deputies since 2005.
James De La Rosa’s family also has filed a wrongful death action against the Bakersfield Police.
Anthony Ramirez wondered why local newspapers, radio and TV have devoted far less effort to covering the issue in Kern County than a newspaper 6,000 miles away. He said he and fellow protesters have been following with interest the five-part series published by The Guardian, in London.
“I’m hoping it blows up pretty big,” he said. “If we’re number one with how they’re saying, the worst per capita, how come we haven’t got one single report on CNN? Nothing, nothing at all? It’s crazy. I can’t believe it. If this doesn’t get us national attention, I don’t think we ever will get it.”
Protesters said part of the problem is lack of support from Bakersfield residents. Without more support, police and sheriff’s deputies have no incentive to change the way they treat people, Ramirez said.
Roughly 30 people showed up at last Friday’s protest. Most were adults, but a few children held signs alongside their parents and older siblings.
Jorge Ramirez Sr. said he is sad that so many families have suffered what he has, but he is grateful to have met them.
“This is not the way to meet people, but you know what? This is what families do. And we’re like family out here,” he said.
As the protest ends, they gather on the steps in front of the glass doors of the police building and pose with their signs for a picture to send their attorneys. There so many people they can’t all fit in one shot. The photographer stands in the street and takes a shot while someone else watches for cars.
After the photo, hugs are exchanged, and the families go their separate ways until they meet again in a week.
Mary Silva said she expects some backlash from the protests and media coverage, but she wants people to understand what is happening.
“We’re the voice,” she said. “Nobody’s going to be able to speak except for us. That’s why we’re here.”
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