By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
photo by Don NormarkADD TO THE NAMES OF JAVIER FRANCISCO OVANDO, Jose Perez and Juan Manuel Saldana those of Félix López, Florentino Sánchez and Patrick Nuñez. Ovando, Perez and Saldana were all shot by Los Angeles police officers, Saldana fatally, in cases recently fingered as "dirty" by Rampart Division rat célèbre Rafael Perez. The other three each merit a brief mention in Edward J. Escobar's Race, Police and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 19001945. Félix López, a striking farm worker, was shot in the chest with a tear-gas canister by the LAPD's red squad in 1936; Florentino Sánchez was shot with a conventional bullet in 1939 while allegedly resisting arrest, as was Patrick Nuñez, age 22 at the time of his death in 1942. Far too many others, whose names are recorded nowhere but in the memories of those they left behind, could be added to this list.
By tracing the long and bloody trail leading up to the current enmity between L.A.'s police and its Latino community, Escobar's book goes a long way toward answering the baffled cries of local editorial writers heard since the Rampart scandal broke. Escobar, a professor of Chicano studies at Arizona State University, methodically, if not always grippingly, lays out the steps by which a department that was merely brutal, corrupt and almost incidentally racist came to cultivate "the mystique of being the defender of the white middle and working classes against the depredations of inherently criminal racial groups."
"At the beginning of the century," Escobar writes, "while Mexicans were certainly seen by whites as an inferior race, they were not generally regarded by government and law-enforcement officials as inherently criminal." They were nonetheless the frequent victims of a police department that acted in explicit service to the city's moneyed interests. Mexican labor unions, often far more radical than their white counterparts, bore the brunt of the repression. Picketers were jailed, meetings and rallies raided. At one point in 1917, when sugar-beet pickers struck in Orange County, the LAPD aided the growers by rounding up able-bodied Mexican men on trumped-up vagrancy charges and giving them the option of scabbing in the beet fields or "pound[ing] city rock."
Radical political groups were equally at risk: In 1907, the great Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón and several members of his Partido Liberal Mexicano were arrested and illegally imprisoned for over a year. Other activists and rabble-rousers learned to fear the department's red squad, which was organized in 1919 to fight "radicals, persons making unpatriotic utterances, [and] IWWs," and went on to take part in many sorry chapters of local history, including the mass deportations of the 1930s.
Throughout the early part of the century, though, Progressive reformers were battling to wrest control of the Police Department from the city's ruling elite and take it for the burgeoning bourgeoisie. Escobar takes the reformist luster off the Progressive movement -- which overlapped with the party of the same name and shared its goal of crafting industrial capitalism into a more refined and efficient beast -- by defining it simply as "an affirmation of the increasing strength and confidence of the growing American middle class." The Progressives' eventual success insulated the LAPD from the oft-corrupt political process, and as a side effect "essentially removed all external control over the actions of individual officers," with predictable results. At the same time, the force began a process of professionalization, raising "the status of police work by making officers' primary function fighting crime, not merely reacting to it," thus creating for themselves the perpetual mission of a "war on crime." This mission combined with the growing tendency to link crime to ethnicity, the LAPD's loss of its traditional big-money sponsors and the department's commensurate "need to develop a constituency among working-class whites to permanently label Mexican Americans a criminal element within the community." The unfortunate result, Escobar argues, was not only the destruction wreaked by the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, but a legacy of antagonism and violence between the police and the Latino community that shows no signs of fading.
Police attacks, though, have not always been met passively. Escobar convincingly demonstrates that each wave of police repression helped to create an increasingly cohesive notion of Chicano identity and to spawn confident and effective struggles for Mexican American civil rights. While discussing the enormous community support for 17 young men wrongfully convicted of murder in the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial of 1942-43, Escobar mentions in passing a telegram sent to the attorney general by 300 residents of L.A.'s Palo Verde barrio. Within two decades, Palo Verde would no longer exist.
LIFE IN PALO VERDE, AND IN LA LOMA AND BISHOP, the other two neighborhoods that once made up Chávez Ravine, is lovingly documented in Don Normark's Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. Shortly after the 18-year-old photographer visited the area, its residents received form letters from the city announcing that their homes were to be razed to make way for a public-housing project. They were promised first choice of apartments. The project -- and all public-housing plans for L.A. -- fell victim to McCarthyism, but the inhabitants of Chávez Ravine were evicted nonetheless. The city eventually gave the land to Walter O'Malley, to lure him and his Dodgers away from Brooklyn. Palo Verde is now beneath the asphalt of the stadium parking lot.
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