Manuel Ramirez's bloodied body lay on the grimy Sixth Street sidewalk, partly obscured by a La Opinión newspaper rack, which would feature the Guatemalan-born day laborer in headlines for days to come.
Ramirez, 37, was shot on September 5 by a veteran Los Angeles Police Department officer responding to a call of a man armed with a knife, threatening people near the intersection of Sixth Street and Union Avenue in Los Angeles' heavily Latino Westlake area.
One couldn't help but think Ramirez would have been stunned by the level of outrage over his shooting, and the overt efforts by city politicians and LAPD brass to explain the fatal incident.
For several days and nights, hundreds of people converged on the corner where the makeshift memorial, including a Guatemalan flag, were arranged atop the La Opinión rack beneath which he died. The coroner later announced the slain man was not Manuel Jamines, a name he lived under, but Manuel Ramirez, according to a fingerprint match from U.S. Department of Justice records.
Some insist his death was an extreme case of police harassment in an area where authorities have cracked down on illegal street vendors.
Many see it as another police shooting that should have been avoided. Many say Ramirez was so inebriated that he was harmless.
At 5 feet 3 inches, and a slight 136 pounds, Ramirez wasn't exactly Ray Lewis. People continue to ask, “Couldn't police have shot him in the leg, or shot the knife out of his hand?”
But no police force in America is trained to take half-steps with a drunk who has a knife. “That is just preposterous,” says an LAPD field sergeant at the memorial scene. “People watch too many movies, and they think the police can act like that in real life. Shoot the knife out of his hand. Stupid. Just plain stupid. The guy had a knife and was threatening people. Someone called 911 on him.”
Ramirez ignored warnings in English and Spanish to drop the knife, according to both police and most witnesses. With a folding knife raised, he allegedly made a move toward three bicycle officers who'd responded to the 911 call and were 10 to 12 feet away from Ramirez.
One of them, 13-year veteran Frank Hernandez, shot Ramirez twice in the head.
“After they killed him, they frisked him and handcuffed him,” says a highly emotional Daniel Hernandez, 20, who arrived hours later and did not see the shooting.
He is referring to a strict LAPD procedure, in which police must secure even a “dead” suspect because sometimes they are alive and can lash out — even kill.
Yet, Hernandez says, “That's just wrong. To protect and serve, my ass.”
Others in Westlake, however, clearly side with the police.
“They said maybe he didn't understand the police because of the dialect he spoke, but when police have guns pointed at you and they are yelling, that's like an international language,” says Edward Lizama, a security guard who had come to pay his respects at the corner.
“I grew up in the 'hood and if you have a weapon — have anything in your hands — and the police with guns are yelling, drop whatever you are carrying. I don't care if it's a cheeseburger.”
Few protesters — more than 20 of whom were arrested, some for throwing rocks and bottles at police — knew Ramirez. The angriest often seemed more interested in the video cameras aimed at them than in the tribute to the victim.
“The frustrations that the community are displaying are frustrations of the current social environment throughout the city,” says an unnamed veteran LAPD source. “The shooting is being used as a catalyst to speak and act out. Unfortunately, it's not pretty when this happens, because you have those in the community who are just looking for a reason to act out.”
Of more than 50 people the Weekly spoke to at the site, five said they knew Ramirez.
“He loved to work and he loved to drink,” says Juan Lorenzo, a fellow Guatemalan who knew Ramirez for four years. Ramirez, he says, was from the town of Santo Tomas La Union in Guatemala, where his wife still lives.
Lorenzo, who says he witnessed the shooting from across the street in front of the Food4Less, isn't sure if Ramirez made a move toward the bicycle officers or simply stumbled in his stupor. “I wish I could ask him what happened, but he's dead.”
The neatly dressed Lorenzo stood watch over the memorial, which consisted of a picture of Ramirez, bouquets and candles. The light pole was scrawled with “Justice 4 Manuel.” On the sidewalk fronting a razor-wire–topped fence around the Dollar Market lot, a chalked message read: “Hope he gets more than a slap on the wrist.”
Occasionally, passersby dropped dollar bills into a box on which Ramirez's photo was taped. “I didn't know the man, but I feel sorry for him,” says Maria Mundo, who gave $2.
Daniel Hernandez saw Mundo make her contribution and shook his head. “People around here make $8 an hour, $5 an hour,” he says. “They wear $5 jeans and they are putting dollars in this box for him.”
Two day laborers near the Home Depot, a block from the shooting, say Ramirez was a good, quiet man who specialized in construction and patiently waited along with the others seeking work.
A 15-year-old student says she often saw him on Union Avenue near where he lived, at the Waldorf Apartments. “He was just a nice, quiet guy,” says Jocelyn Carbajal.
To counter the persisting public outrage, some of which authorities say is being fueled by people from outside the area, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has launched an intense outreach effort, holding a public meeting at a local school, where he promised a fair, transparent investigation.
Lieutenant Wes Buhrmester, watch commander at the area's Rampart Division, says he did not think Beck and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were overreacting or coddling the community, as critics have suggested.
Four days after the shooting, the mayor referred to the officers as “heroes” who “acted bravely.”
Buhrmester, a 30-year veteran, notes, “It used to be the LAPD says it's this way and that's the way it was, take it or leave it. Now there is much more community outreach. We incorporate more people in the discussion. It's not just the police — and that's a good thing.”
He says the officers “are of a different mind-set as well. They have a greater grasp on community outreach than we did 30 years ago.”
Despite the intense media coverage and official scrutiny of the killing, Buhrmester says police morale hasn't been affected. He compared the several people fighting in the streets last week to those who disrupted the Lakers' victory parade in 2009.
“Those weren't Lakers fans, and these people were not friends of this fellow. They didn't even know him. They had no interest in his fate. It was just an excuse to be vandals and hoodlums. The vast majority of the community supports us here at Rampart.”
Once among the city's most notorious and crime-ridden divisions, Rampart has settled down somewhat over the last several years.
The densely populated neighborhoods, home to tens of thousands of Central American immigrants, still have a fairly high crime rate — with 12 homicides and 876 violent crimes committed so far this year, according to LAPD statistics.
Still, the area is not in the battered league with South Los Angeles. The 77th Street Division in South Central has recorded 28 homicides and 1,865 violent crimes this year.
The field sergeant, who did not want his name used, says it was good that Beck has tried hard to educate the community about police procedures and policies.
“This is the way the department is nowadays, and it is good. Some people are going to agree and some people are going to disagree.”
As for the fury among some over this shooting, he says, “Sometimes there is a huge response, sometimes hardly any. You just never can tell with a police shooting.”
Almost surely, Manuel Ramirez would have been flabbergasted about the reaction to his own death.