Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle of a Political Movement

His life and as well as those of tens of thousands of others who struggled for social justice are examples for us

By Jimmy Franco Sr., Latino POV
Published on LatinoLA: May 9, 2014

Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle of a Political Movement

Originally published at Republished by permission.

This was a time of immense social upheaval when people made great sacrifices, many even sacrificed with their lives.

The recently aired documentary film 'Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle' has been received by a receptive audience due to the quality, professionalism and amount of research that went into the making of the film. It is essentially a biography of Ruben and the inner-conflicts that he experienced when he became caught up in the social upheaval of the Chicano Political Movement that was unfolding before him. The film accurately depicts how his complex nature

The film depicted Ruben's evolution in his sense of identity and becoming a movement spokesperson interacted with this movement which generated strong feelings within him that affected his sense of evolving identity and political development. Ruben's work-related involvement in an emotionally charged Chicano Movement drastically changed his thinking and perception of contemporary events particularly in regard to US society's negative attitude toward Chicanos.

His deepening experience within this movement would create certain conflicts within Ruben as he lived a contradictory life where he existed within a duality of lives and cultures. At work among his colleagues at the LA Times, he was Ruben the professional reporter while in the Mexican-American community he was beginning to be perceived as a public spokesperson and defender of his people whom he had an emotional connection to.

During the day Ruben would be involved in angry demonstrations, pickets and heated debates taking place within the community over issues of police brutality, inferior education or the Vietnam war and report on them in an understanding and supportive manner. Then, during the evening he would head home to his bi-ethnic family and the calm and contrasting white world of ultra-conservative Orange County.

For many years he shifted between these dual realities and diametrically opposed lives where he had to speak and behave differently and this created an inner-conflict within him that remained irresolvable. Thus, Ruben became embroiled in two conflicts and inner-struggles. One was as a Mexican-American torn between two peoples, languages and cultures and a second one based upon living a dual existence of being a Chicano reporter and active participant during the day in a historic Chicano civil rights movement and then receding at night into the ideologically conservative white enclave of Orange County and his quiet but apolitical family life.

Ruben did well at balancing the duality of these two worlds that he existed in at work and in society. Yet, this bisected reality of existing and adapting on a daily basis to two distinct lives further fueled the smoldering conflict within him. The film skillfully depicts Ruben gravitating between fellow LA Times reporters and his separate and detached family life in an all-white world while simultaneously reporting on and participating in a political movement that was bursting forth before his very eyes and which was directly impacting Mexican-Americans.

Despite mulling over these personal relationships and inner-conflicts which pulled at him from different directions Ruben became even more personally involved in the politics of the Chicano Movement as his growing sense of being a Mexican-American and his duty to contribute to this movement grew with time. His complex nature and strong beliefs strengthened his will to persevere and continue onward with his journalistic and moral obligation to cover and speak up for this burgeoning political movement while still tending to his family.

People who become spontaneously involved in political movements slowly begin to change their way of thinking and subsequently they evolve politically with a renewed sense of social consciousness that becomes heightened by their changing perception of reality. Ruben's journalistic assignments in Asia, Mexico and other Latin-American countries where right-wing political authorities and their police repressed the rights of the poorer sectors of society had already stirred his sense of justice. One influential event in particular was the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where the protests of students and others were brutally repressed by the dictatorial PRI government whose military forces shot down over 500 persons at Tlatelolco Plaza.

Upon his return assignment to Los Angeles Ruben observed and reported on the police abuse being inflicted upon the Mexican-American community by both the LAPD and the LA County Sheriffs Department. This traditional and continuing abuse had accelerated due to the outbreak of the 1968 East Los Angeles High School walkouts which were held to protest the inferior education that the LA School District was providing to Mexican-American students, growing demonstrations against the Vietnam War, increasing protests against police malpractice and a rapid rise in Chicano activist organizations.

For Ruben, these were not theoretical nor abstract intellectual issues being discussed in a university setting, but were observable acts of police brutality and verifiable police abuse that was anti-democratic in nature and which was being inflicted upon a vulnerable community whose only defense lay in their numbers. He developed a personal and growing political connection to the burgeoning Chicano Movement which was angrily surging forth with intense emotion in its quest for social justice.

Ruben's sense of fairness and his belief in people being treated humanely was being fueled by this growing movement for Chicano civil rights that he was observing and reporting on and his deepening physical and emotional involvement in this mass movement began to transform his ideological world view and perception of US society and question its many contradictions.

His evolution and role was progressing from simply being a narrator and reporter of the Chicano Movement to one of becoming an active participant and spokesperson for this cause. This would eventually bring him into conflict with the political authorities and their police enforcers who now began to view an outspoken Ruben along with others who exercised their right to free speech as "subversive and dangerous" elements whose public statements needed to be silenced.

Ruben's death occurred during an anti-democratic and repressive climate
A broader historical perspective is required in order to place Ruben's death in an objective political context. The year 1970 was a period when US society was dominated by the polarizing and anti-democratic policies of the Nixon administration and the hard-line views of the US military which was then waging an unpopular and failing war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

There were many right-wing elements within the country who ardently supported the imperialistic Vietnam War and attempted to block civil rights reforms for minorities and women. This undemocratic sector was in political agreement that all progressive opposition should be silenced with a campaign that tarnished them as being "un-American" and accompanied by the use of unconstitutional and illegal methods to undermine their work.

Thus, the political climate in 1970 was very repressive for those espousing social change and progress as these individuals were viewed as subversive and dangerous by those in power who were opposed to any type of social change or challenge to their war profiteering. This meant that social activists ranging from priests, youth organizations and reporters were spied upon by layers of government surveillance comprised of military intelligence, the CIA and local police intelligence units who all worked together to observe, follow and maintain secret reports on social activists and movements.

One of the most insidious of these intelligence spy programs at the time was the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) which not only kept track of activists who were exercising their constitutional rights, but also actively infiltrated, undermined and disrupted their legal activities that were supposedly sanctioned by the US Constitution. This period witnessed police attacks on the Native-American Movement (AIM), the Black Panther Party members in both Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities in addition to the Brown Berets.

All of these covert actions resulted in illegal harassment, police killings and the consciously planned sabotage of these organizations. These illegal COINTELPRO tactics which were orchestrated by Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were also aimed at Vietnam veteran's groups, the NAACP, M.L. King, Reies Tjerina and numerous other civil rights groups who were all treated as enemies. It was within this political context that Ruben Salazar worked and exercised his right of free speech as a representative of the press.

However, this work of seeking the truth, publishing it and speaking out soon brought Ruben under surveillance with reports being filed on his activities and accompanied by pressure and threats from the LAPD and LA Sheriff's Department. He often mentioned to acquaintances that he felt as if he was being followed and at times confided to others that he was fearful for his life which added even more stress and turmoil to his life. Any comprehensive story of Ruben's life needs to be placed within this social context and its repressive and anti-democratic political climate which existed within the country at that time and which ultimately impacted him.

The National Chicano Moratorium which was held on August 29th, 1970, and where Ruben met his death needs to be viewed within the context of a series of other related political protests that occurred before and after August 29th. These included Chicano Moratorium protest marches against the Vietnam War and police abuse which were held in December of 1969, February, 1970 and the largest one of over 25,000 people on August 29th in East Los Angeles when Angel Diaz and Brown Beret Lynn Ward along with Ruben were killed by the police.

Two weeks later, during a protest at the annual September 16, independence parade the police again opened fire at the Chicano protesters who were marching in the parade. Luckily, no fatalities occurred. Another protest in downtown LA on January 5, 1971, was also attacked by the LAPD's Special Operations Conspiracy(SOC) squad. The final Chicano Moratorium march and anti-war protest during this period was held on January 31, 1971.

On this date the marchers proceeded from Belvedere Park toward Laguna Park for a planed rally, but were blocked and confronted at the intersection of Arizona and Whittier Boulevard by a barricade which was manned by armed LA Sheriffs. Without any warning being given the sheriffs opened fire upon the peaceful marchers who approached them. A total of 23 people were gunned down with shotgun and pistol fire with one person being killed.

Thus, from August 29th, 1970, to January 31, 1971, the use of violence inflicted by the police upon protesters who were exercising their right to peacefully assemble had now increased to a higher and more lethal level with a total of four persons losing their lives due to police attacks. The message that was being sent out by the political establishment and their enforcers in the form of the police was violently clear-no more demonstrations would be tolerated. This violent attack on protesters on January 31, 1971, also created a split among activists and leaders as some left the ranks of the movement when they realized that this was becoming a serious and deadly conflict.

A time of great upheaval has been followed by 44 years of injustice for Ruben
This film by Phillip Rodriguez was well researched and produced and after years of being rejected by networks it constitutes another positive step toward the goal of bringing our experiences and stories to the media and the broader public.

Following upon the heels of the Cesar Chavez film these efforts have opened a crease in the media door for the so-called "invisible" minority of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos to finally be portrayed in a realistic and respectful manner. If people were expecting to discover any new information from this film in regard to the manner in which Ruben was killed they were probably disappointed as this biographical film primarily focused upon the inner-conflicts of this complex man and his evolving
The Silver Dollar bar: sheriffs just before firing a projectile that killed Ruben

The Silver Dollar bar: sheriffs just before firing a projectile that killed Ruben
political development. Recent legal action has forced the police to release more files that pertain to Ruben's death, however, there is still much more information that is being withheld. The conclusion of this film along with undisclosed federal and local police files still leaves the cause of Ruben's death unresolved as to whether it was planned or a mere accident.

The reality is that no key information will be voluntarily released by police authorities that will disclose and admit to a premeditated plan to kill Salazar. The filmmaker believes that Ruben's death was an accident which is his right, yet the questions regarding his death still remain unanswered as well as those that pertain to the deaths during this period of the Kennedys, M.L. King, Malcolm X and numerous other pro-civil rights advocates. However, one thing is certain, which is that Ruben had been threatened numerous times in the past and was being tailed the day of the Moratorium by the police who knew that he and others had entered the Silver Dollar Cafe.

There, a meeting and discussion was held at the entrance of the bar by police who knew that he was inside the establishment. Shortly after, no verbal police warning was given to Ruben and others inside the Silver Dollar to evacuate the premises before a sheriff fired an unauthorized gas projectile through the curtain-covered doorway of the bar for no apparent reason. This violent act and Ruben's death was followed by a superficial and biased governmental inquiry that was purposely distorted by tactics of evasion and red-baiting by the presiding officials. This cover-up along with the prevailing
Justice has not been achieved in Ruben's death, but his example lives on for others

Justice has not been achieved in Ruben's death, but his example lives on for others
political climate at the time tend to create a lot of skepticism that his death was a mere coincidence and accident. This was a historical period that was disgraceful in its trampling of democratic rights and human life.

In summary, one defect in the film was that it seemed to convey the impression that protesters at the August 31, 1970 rally at Laguna park initiated the violence by throwing bottles at the police who then justifiably reacted to being attacked by the crowd. This was not accurate. There was a small incident at a nearby liquor store and a few bottles thrown, but this was away from the park.

Meanwhile, the rally at the park was proceeding in a peaceful manner as the majority of people in attendance were seated on the grass listening to a program comprised of speakers and music. This event was then abruptly interrupted by the LA Sheriffs who approached in a threatening manner and declared the rally to be an illegal assembly. The sheriffs along with a contingent of LA police proceeded to march on the crowd and violently attack them in order to break up the event.

In addition, two others died that day who were not mentioned in the film, Brown Beret Lynn Ward and Angel Diaz.

In conclusion, the past 44 years have been ones of mixed progress for our community with many past victories now under attack such as affirmative action, voting rights and the right to an affordable and bilingual education. Unfortunately, for Ruben and his family justice is still not forthcoming as his death has not been dealt with in an honest manner.

Regardless, Ruben's life and as well as those of tens of thousands of others who struggled for social justice are examples for us to presently learn from and follow.

Author's website
Email the author

   print this


Arts & Entertainment Comunidad Forum People El Editor's Blog

Careers Expresate Hollywood Tecnología RSS Feeds