May 6, 2014 The Open Wound Called Salazar By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
Forty four years ago, a journalist by the name of Ruben Salazar was killed by an LA County Sheriff’s deputy, Thomas Wilson. Seems like a long time to look back, yet, his death in 1970 will forever remain an open wound. The recently aired PBS documentary, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, while educational for those who were not around in 1970, does little to heal that wound.
Prior to watching the documentary, I posted four entries on the documentary’s website or blog (http://rubensalazarpbs.org/blog/). Now that I watched it, here is a fifth entry.
After writing about Salazar for some 44 years, I repeat, what is there left to write that hasn’t already been written? In watching the documentary, I felt the same way. Having lived through the era, and as someone who teaches the life and works of Salazar, I walked away feeling that the documentary did not actually probe into his death, but that it actually took a step backwards in promoting the law enforcement and mainstream narrative of the events of that era.
There were two major things that were wrong.
During that era, law enforcement, the LA Sheriff’s Department in particular, created the narrative that the protests of that day, Aug. 29, 1970, were primarily the work of outside agitators. Secondarily, they told the story, via the media, that it was the rally goers who became unruly and attacked the Sheriff’s deputies, and thus, law enforcement had no choice and was entitled to go in and restore order via billy club and tear gas justice.
The documentary, in effect, inexplicably and unnecessarily towed that line. In towing that line, it has the feel of “official narrative” – it has the feel of a Sheriff’s Department press release as opposed to an eyewitness account, or minimally, a critical account.
Secondly, after 44 years, the public was entitled to a full probe of the events of Aug. 29, 1970. If law enforcement and government refused to fully probe or make public its findings regarding the circumstances behind Salazar’s death, then that job fell to the media, in this case, the documentary. And probe it did, but not deep enough; it appeared to be of secondary import. Or as previously stated, it had the feel of another official Sheriff’s Department press release.
The year 1970 was part of en era in which the government seemingly directed all its resources to destroy all the progressive movements at the time. This included the Chicano Movement. The most well known coordinated effort was the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COLINTENPRO). Perhaps the deeper probe took place by the filmmaker, but in the documentary, nary a mention of COLINTENPRO, the CIA or military intelligence or any other law enforcement program or agency that illegally and violently disrupted or attempted to destroy these movements, other than the Sheriff’s Department and a secret probe by the Department of Justice that found no prosecutable crimes, but that was nonetheless kept away from the public for more than four decades.
What we are left with by way of the documentary was a biography of Salazar, his journalism, a distortion of Aug 29, 1970, and the lack of a deeper probe into his death. And yet, realistically, if an agency was indeed responsible for the assassination of Salazar, it is highly unlikely that it would have placed the directive in writing and that the memo would survive to this day.
So the sum total of the documentary is that it does little to answer the pivotal question that most of us will to continue to ask, was he assassinated, and if so, by whom? Why does the question persist? The 44-year secrecy is one reason, but just as importantly, people still remember that his body was not removed from the Silver Dollar for at least three hours after he had been shot. And people can call it conspiracy theory if they wish, but it is legitimate to ask why his head was intact if he was killed by a 9-inch armor-piercing tear-gas projectile.
Our gut gives us answers and our memory also compels us to keep probing and asking questions. If anything, we can thank the filmmaker, Phillip Rodriguez, for keeping the story alive.
Rodriguez, a life-long journalist/columnist, won the 1986 Journalist of the Year Award from the California Chicano News Media Association in 1986 for his defense of the First Amendment, stemming from an incident in which he photographed the brutal beating of a young Mexican man in 1979. Today, he is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and was the recent winner of the American Educational Research Association’s Ella Baker-Septima Clark Human Rights Award for his defense of Ethnic Studies. He can be reached at: XColumn@gmail.com