The killing of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar on August 29th, 1970, is still mired in widespread suspicion and doubt by those familiar with the case.
At the time of his death, he was a reporter covering a Chicano Moratorium protest march against the Vietnam war that was being held in East Los Angeles. Ruben was killed by a L.A. Sheriffs' Department deputy who without warning fired an eight-inch tear-gas projectile into a crowded and dimly-lit bar where it struck Salazar in the head.
Ruben, and KMEX reporter Guillermo Restrepo, had sought refuge in the tavern after a violent insurrection had broken out after the anti-war protest of over 20,000 people had been attacked by a combined force of L.A. Police and L.A. County Sheriffs. Documents from the Sheriffs' Department that are relevant to the killing of Salazar have been locked up and kept from public view for close to forty years.The lack of transparency during the original Sheriffs' inquest in 1970 and throughout the years has only created more speculation and distrust on the part of the community and family members as to the real motive behind Ruben's death.
Recently, pressure had been placed upon the Sheriffs' Department by family members and the community to make public these confidential documents related to the killing of Salazar. A report was finally released three weeks ago by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca regarding the journalist's death. However, Baca stated that the public would only be allowed to scrutinize a part of these long sought-after records pertaining to the still controversial case. Sheriff Baca also added that the viewing of these confidential records is to be restricted and limited to only certain media persons and academics and that this limited "viewing" had to be be supervised under the watchful eyes of Sheriffs' employees.
This latest report was prepared by the Sheriffs' Office of Independent Review which also concluded that Salazar's killing in 1970 was only the result of a series of "tactical" blunders committed by sheriffs' deputies. The report also stated that there had not been any organized plot to eliminate or silence Salazar in 1970 in retaliation for his L.A.Times' articles that sharply criticized police abuse toward the Chicano community.
In retrospect, Ruben Salazar was a courageous man and Chicano journalist who had voiced his concern for justice in the articles that he had written for the L.A.Times and as a reporter for station KMEX. His indignation over the lack of civil rights, and particularly the rampant police abuse in the community, led Ruben to publicly expose these incidents and call for a halt to this illegal behavior by the police authorities.
He was harshly rebuked by L.A. police officials and subsequently received numerous threats whose objective was to pressure him to stop writing about these controversial issues. Salazar had commented to acquaintances on numerous occasions in 1970 that he felt he was being followed and was concerned that the authorities might do something drastic to interfere with his objective reporting of the facts. This was a clear pattern of intimidation that was meant to instill fear in Salazar in order to silence his voice on behalf of the community.
Looking back, we must realize that this was a time in history when L.A. Police and Sheriff's intelligence squads were spying on individuals as varied as ex-Mayor Bradley, activist priests, civil rights groups and anyone else who raised any criticism about existing social injustices. Also, during this time, the F.B.I.'s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was actively spying, maintaining files and engaging in the disruption of civil rights groups. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Robert Kennedy and even John Lennon of the Beatles, were all followed by the F.B.I. and spied upon due to their social activism.
Many of these advocates for civil rights who spoke out publicly were eventually killed under hazy circumstances. As a public figure who stood for reform, Salazar was a likely candidate to be followed and watched by those in power who were opposed to any dissent or change in society. A summation of objective facts reveals a definite pattern of organized political intimidation against progressives and their activist work at that time in history. If an individual or organization criticized or demonstrated peacefully against police abuse or the Vietnam war, then the intimidation was eventually escalated from threats and being followed, to the next level which was a violent assault. The attacks and near extermination of the Black Panther Party nationally was a prime example of this policy and pattern as well as others who where targeted at that time because of their anti-war views and support for civil rights.
The continued acts of intimidation that were aimed at Ruben in 1970 did not deter him from continuing his quest for social justice as he stood firm in his duty as a journalist. He viewed his task of bringing forth pertinent civil rights issues to the public as an ethical question of seeking the truth and distinguishing right from wrong. When Salazar looked out at the Chicano community, he could clearly see that there were many wrongs that needed to be corrected and he did not hesitate to point them out. He died in the process of doing his job and writing honestly about the injustices that he discerned in the society around him.
This recent report regarding the killing of Ruben Salazar with its limited disclosure of dated documents will only leave many concerns about the case unresolved as people's suspicions will continue to persist as to the true motive and circumstances regarding his death. This lack of full transparency and responsibility to the public by the Sheriffs' Department harms its creditability and does not ultimately serve justice nor bring any closure to Ruben's family and the community that he served.
Who knows what Ruben would have concluded and written about in regard to this anti-Vietnam war protest and violent upheaval that he was witnessing in East Los Angeles on August 29th, 1970. Salazar did not leave us his last thoughts, but he had previously warned the complacent and stubborn politicians of L.A. in his articles, about the anger that was simmering within the Chicano community and which was intensifying under the burden of injustice. Unfortunately, the response to the community by the local power structure was even more spying, obstruction and eventually the use of brute force.
In summary, what Ruben did leave us on his last day was an example of a courageous man with principles. A man who did not buckle under and kneel down to the abusers of power in our society and their thugs who attempted to intimidate and silence him and the community that he defended.
The old quote by the Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata, that "it is better to die on your feet, than live on your knees" is an appropriate description of Ruben Salazar's life and his unfortunate death. Yes, we must commemorate his loss as a martyr who did not receive justice by the system, but that is not the important aspect of his life. What is important is the example that he left for us which is that as an individual and as a community, we must never allow ourselves to be terrorized or subjugated and kept in our place. We have a right to freedom of speech and to assemble in public, and we must fiercely defend these rights. Both Ruben, and the community that he spoke for, fought for these rights with dignity and pride and held their heads high while doing so.
Thus, Ruben is not just a symbol of nostalgia for us, rather he is an example to everyone that we should stand up and continue to struggle to resolve many of these same issues that he confronted in 1970 such as senseless wars and a second-class educational system for our children. Salazar died in the community that he loved and tried to defend, and that is why he will be remembered by us all.
Editor's Note: The writer and editor of Latino Point of View is Jimmy Franco Sr. He is a long-time educator and community activist who was born in Texas and grew up in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles. The purpose of his blog is to encourage and promote dialogue and discussion on topical issues pertinent to the Latino community.