The police murder of poor people of color—occurring at a rate of roughly two a day across the country—is not only about the indiscriminate use of lethal force. It is also about maintaining an ongoing climate of terror in marginal communities. It is about making it impossible for the poor, cast aside by corporate capitalists as surplus labor, to organize and build meaningful lives and to resist. It is terror by design. And it will not stop until police are disarmed—the authority to use lethal force should be restricted to specialized, highly regulated police units—and finally held accountable under the law. Until the rule of law becomes a reality for those who live in marginal communities, until we obliterate the poverty—the mechanism that keeps people trapped in squalor like penned animals—until we stop gunning the poor down in our streets, the nightmare will not stop. In fact, as poverty and inequality expand, this nightmare will only grow.
Families, suffocating in grief, terrified for their children, unable to find justice, rendered invisible by the media and crushed by poverty—the worst of all crimes—endure a hell that is directly linked to the plague of mass incarceration, Jim and Jane Crow laws, sunset laws, lynching and slave patrols. This terror is the latest manifestation of white supremacy and the expression of a corporate capitalist state that consciously creates huge pools of unemployed and underemployed. The destitute, desperate for work and kept in a state of constant fear, are easily exploited and unable to rise up against their oppressors.
Several days ago I met three mothers in Santa Ana whose sons had been murdered by police here in Orange County, Calif. Manuel Diaz, who was unarmed, was shot to death July 21, 2012, by Anaheim police Officer Nicholas Bennallack, also responsible for a fatal shooting in 2012. Bennallack was cleared in both killings. During protests over the Diaz killing, Joel Acevedo, 21, was killed July 22, 2012, by Anaheim police Officer Kelly Phillips, who had been involved in the fatal shooting of Caesar Cruz in 2009. Phillips too was cleared twice. Paul Joseph Quintanar, 19, died when he was struck by freeway traffic as officers of the Tustin Police Department tried to arrest him on Sept. 8, 2011. He had been on his way to buy a bottle of water from a 7-Eleven. Marcel Ceja, on Nov. 4, 2011, was shot to death by a police officer in Anaheim as he was walking to a store with two friends.
In Anaheim alone, where Disneyland markets a fantasy vision of a happy America, the police shot 37 people between 2003 and 2011, killing 21 of them, mostly people of color. As is usual across the United States, all of the police officers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon—in the neighborhood, there was a couple of children’s parties going on,” said Genevieve Huizar, the mother of Manuel Diaz. “They had jumpers for children to play on. My son was in the alley talking to a couple of friends. A police car came into the alley. The police got out. They pointed at him for some reason. When they pointed at him he ran. He ran around our apartment building, to the right. He was blocked by a gate. Officer Nick Bennallack came around the corner. He said he thought my son had a gun in his hand. It turned out to be my son’s cellphone. My son was shot in the lower back. As Manuel was falling to his knees, the second bullet got him in the right side of the head.”
“How could the police do this in broad daylight in front of children?” she asked. “My son wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t on parole or probation. He wasn’t committing a crime.”
The Diaz shooting triggered an uprising in Anaheim. Residents hauled mattresses onto the streets and set them on fire. Crowds threw rocks, bottles and other projectiles at police. Police officers fanned out in the neighborhood to buy the cellphones of witnesses to the Diaz shooting in an attempt to keep any video of the killing from being made public, neighborhood residents told the media. The day after the killing, with protests still taking place, police chased and fatally shot Joel Acevedo. In response to the protests, members of the police force patrolled the streets in camouflage uniforms, as if they were at war.
“First they [the police] pushed him down,” Marie Sales said of her son Paul Quintanar. “They searched him. Then they started to rough him up. He was talking to them. He complied with everything that they wanted. Then two to three officers were on top of him. He got scared. He was chased onto the 5 Freeway. They pulled guns on him. He was hit [by vehicles] and thrown to the onramp on the 5 Freeway. The police were never investigated.”
Barbara Padilla lost her son Marcel Ceja on Nov. 4, 2011, in Anaheim as he was walking to the store with two friends. Anaheim police Officer David Garcia approached the young men. Ceja ran. Garcia shot him twice in the chest.
“My son was taken to UCI hospital,” Padilla said. “Nobody called me. He died alone at the hospital. The police then appeared at my house and searched it without a warrant. The officer was never charged. We went to trial twice [after filing lawsuits]. We lost both times.”
These killings do not end with the funerals of the young men. They reverberate, as they are meant to do, through poor neighborhoods, leaving in their wake constant stress, anxiety and fear that infect households.
The message this violence sends to poor people of color is this: We can kill you and your children with impunity. There is nothing you can do about it. You have no rights. You will never be safe. And if you attempt rise up and resist we will kill you and your children en masse.
“I’m constantly screaming, ‘Where are my kids?’ ” Sales said. “I am constantly calling them to make sure they’re not outside, or that they are at least inside the gate. Your mind is always on ‘it’s gonna happen again, it’s not gonna stop here.’ My son’s little brother was beaten by the cops two days before my son was killed. I think, ‘They are going to kill another one of my kids.’ I can’t get that out of my head. I constantly ask, ‘Who is next, what are they going to do to us next?’ I don’t have any ease. You can’t let your kids go down the street to the store because the cops are there. You don’t know if they are going to get stopped, or if they are going to get beat up, or worse. My son was just getting a bottle of water, no crime, no dispatch, no call, and now he’s not here. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?”
The killings routinely shatter and at times destroy the lives of families left behind.
“My daughter turned to drugs and alcohol because she misses her brother so much,” Huizar said. “She can’t stand to be sober. It impacts your whole family. It impacts her children.”
Huizar asked me if she could read some of the names of those killed by police in Anaheim and other cities in Orange County. She pulled out a paper and recited from the long list, made up almost entirely of the names of people of color. The women remained silent after she finished, grief etched across their faces.
After losing a child to police violence, said Padilla, “it is like you just barely exist.” She has two other sons. One is a U.S. Marine.
Orange County is divided between the wealthy white elites, notorious as conservative Republicans, and impoverished Hispanic and black populations, especially in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Tustin. Police shootings take place almost exclusively in the areas where poor people of color reside. Those who hold power, however, even in cities such as Anaheim, where Hispanics are at least half the population, are usually rich and white. And in cities where people of color are integrated into the power elite, such as Santa Ana, quislings doggedly protect the status quo.
It is common to see rows of poor black and brown men seated abjectly in a line along a curb in poor neighborhoods as police officers check their documents. Police routinely search backpacks as children leave schools, uttering threats, according to mothers, such as “You could be next.”
“I’ve lived in Anaheim my whole life, my parents were born in Anaheim,” Padilla said. “It’s been going on for forever. Anaheim has always been a racist city. The Ku Klux Klan used to meet at Pearson Park.”
“And it’s gotten worse,” she added. “The police are now on a killing spree.”
The mothers said they discovered online posts by gang-unit police officers boasting that they were part of a “shooting squad.” The posts included drawings of high-caliber weapons, skulls and the Grim Reaper. After the mothers used the downloaded images in a street protest against police violence, the images were hastily removed from the Internet.
“Revolt is simmering,” said Chicanos Unidos’ Gaby Hernandez, whose nephew’s father was murdered by police. “People don’t even want the police to come in anymore. They say, ‘We’ll handle our own issues. Stay away.’ ”
The killings and police intimidation in Anaheim are carried out within sight of Disneyland, a tourist attraction the women detest. And when the one-year anniversary of the uprising put protesters in the streets, the Anaheim Police Department brought in military-style gear and armored vehicles to protect Disneyland and intimidate the marchers.
“Disney is a corporation that wants to take these neighborhoods and pretty much wipe them out,” Huizar said, “even though we are the ones serving the food and cleaning up around Disney for minimal pay without medical benefits.”
“Disney functions as a Brave New World form of oppression,” Gabriel San Roman, a journalist for the OC Weekly, said to me in an interview. “There’s this corporate image of childhood innocence. Then, when riots happen, you have ‘1984.’ It’s the bludgeon of repression.”
San Roman said participants in a July 2012 street protest against police were startled to hear huge explosions. “There were people’s cathartic outbursts in the streets, yelling, people getting out their frustrations against what they’ve experienced for years, and at that very moment at 9:30 everyone heard explosions in the sky,” he said. “It was the Disneyland fireworks. That moment tells you everything you need to know about Anaheim and about corporations like Disneyland.”