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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Whittier Blvd. Connection: Salazar: Man in the Middle

4th entry (5th coming up... actual review of the documentary)

April 29, 2014
My Whittier Blvd. Connection
By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

In my first entry, I mentioned that I have always felt a connection with Ruben Salazar because I was nearly killed by Sheriff’s deputies on Whittier Blvd., a few streets down from where he was killed.

To me, I always considered the Silver Dollar Café a place of pilgrimage. It was located across the street from Sounds of Music record store, which itself had its own fame among the lowrider scene. For years, the Silver Dollar changed ownership and transformed from café to bar to restaurant, etc. For years, a theatrical play on the death of Salazar was reenacted there. Last time I went by in 2013, I believe it is now a jewelry store… and they nowadays advertise that they sell “silver” there. Perhaps it is a reminder or a tenuous connection at best to the past. Or maybe the owner is completely oblivious. It should be a museum. It is a crime that it isn’t. It should at least be on the national register of historic places.

A few blocks down the boulevard, heading toward downtown L.A., is McDonnell street. There on that corner is where I was almost killed in 1979. Today, a few yards from McDonnell, in between this street and Arizona, there is an arch there, signaling the entrance to the Whittier Blvd shopping district. I always joke and tell people that they placed the arch there in my honor.

Joking aside, I have written and rewritten many times about what happened to me. And I don’t write about the dramatic details anymore. Through the years, many people have conflated what happened to me with the riots of Aug. 29, 1970. As mentioned, what happened to me took place nine years later. I always felt guilty because when I was almost killed, it was not part of a political action, but part of cruising and the lowrider scene, etc. Not that it was minor; 538 people were arrested that weekend and after that, Whittier Blvd has been closed to cruising ever since.

Only until about 30 years later did I recognize what happened to me in political terms. When I photographed that guy being beaten… it was a political act because I had already left because I did not want to be next. I did not want to be another casualty. It became political when after leaving, I intentionally returned to photograph him being beaten. While that was hapening, he was screaming about God… but by the time I left, there was an eerie silence everywhere as he was no longer screaming. Only thuds from the riot sticks to his body could be heard, echoing against the night air and the store walls.

That is why I returned. My conscience would not permit me to leave. There were about 100 members of the Selective Enforcement Bureau of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department all along the 1-mile section of Whittier Blvd that where the cruising would take place every weekend. The red and blue lights were everywhere. I was conscious of that as he was being beaten by some 10-12 deputies. I returned to photograph, knowing full well I would probably be arrested or beaten or both… or even possibly be killed. But I was compelled to return. Return I did and I did photograph the Sheriffs deputies beating on him. The last photograph I took was of a deputy pointing at me.

Suffice to say that I got my skull cracked, I was hospitalized and I was charged with several criminal counts, including: Assault and Battery on 4 deputies. And yes, the “weapon” was the camera.

It took nine months before my charges were dropped (I was detained or arrested about 60 times in those nine months) and then I filed a lawsuit against the deputies who claimed I tried to kill them. It was a long wait, but in 1986, after a 36-day trial, which included 10 days of deliberation, I won the lawsuit. It was near miraculous for two reasons; no one wins in court against law enforcement, but on the rarest occasions that it does happen, the victory goes to the spouse or parents. In my case, I won… and I’m alive.

Today, I teach at the University of Arizona… and there, I teach Salazar. I teach more than Salazar, but when I teach either “The History of Red-Brown Journalism” (a class I created , which has a special collections at the UA Library) or “the History of the Chicano Movement,” I teach primarily the journalism of Salazar, but also, his death.

Akin to this essay, I don’t really teach about my trials, in part because it is awkward to do so. I can’t actually compare my work or situation to Salazar, though as I have noted, for me at least, I do see a connection. I know I pursued the path of a journalist/columnist because of his death and I do know that my case was historic because it resulted in victory (thanks to my witnesses and my attorney, Antonio Rodriguez). I won both my trials, but I always know there should have been a 3rd trial. The 4 deputies should have had to face criminal charges themselves. They didn’t and of course, not one of them ever had to serve time behind this. In fact, what surfaced in court is that they all had subsequently been promoted.

I could write more… or speak in details about this in public more, but I no longer do this because I did live with post-traumatic stress disorder for the longest time (due to the traumatic brain injury). But over the years, I have learned that I can speak about what happened to me, without having to relive that nightmare and without getting into a trance, by giving specific details. Justice for me over the years has been the opportunity to fight on behalf of others – too numerous to mention – of peoples and communities that continue to live these traumas.

We should not forget that Salazar did write about police abuse throughout his career.

Here, suffice to say that the Salazar documentary is long overdue. I would say at least he is finally getting some justice. But a documentary is not the same as justice. But minimally, it will give millions of people around the country an opportunity to learn about this great journalist.

In speaking to his daughters through the years, I know they have always felt – and continue to feel – that it is not enough to honor their father. Justice for them is to answer once and for all whether their father was in fact assassinated or not.

Perhaps this documentary is taking us one step closer to answering that question.

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:

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