Adi Talwar

Professor Johanna Fernández giving a speech about Black History and police violence during a Juneteeth event at Amelia Gorman Park in Washington Heights.

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“A march of 5,000 people in New York City cannot be organized by one person,” says Johanna Fernández, professor of history at Baruch College and who was also one of the first people to start spreading the word and coordinating the Puerto Rican pride and Latino solidarity march with the Black Lives Matter movement on Sunday, June 14th.

While the idea of organizing a march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement came out of a conversation between two old friends, journalist Gerson Borrero and Miguel Melendez, a former member of the Young Lords, organizing such effort required the joint effort of a network of more than 60 city organizations.

It cannot be said that all Latinos support the Black Lives Matter movement. However, according to the organizers of the June 14th march, a large segment of both the organizers and the marchers in the streets of New York during the month of protest were Latinos.

“Some [Latinos] are more conservative. Some lived in authoritarian countries and are used to this violence, but their view also changes when they see videos like that of Erik Salgado, a Latino who was shot 40 times through the window, injuring his pregnant girlfriend [in East Oakland, California]. Or when they are called names so they start to come around and join in,” says Mark Torres, who helped organize the march and also is the co-founder of the People-Pueblo Party.

In June, three Latinos were killed by police in California: 22-year-old Salgado, 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo, California, and 18-year-old Andres Guardado in Los Angeles, California. In 2017, Latinos accounted for almost half of the 172 people killed by police in California.

“It’s not lack of training. It’s not fear. It’s the system. There are no reforms sufficient to end this culture of violence and malfeasance,” wrote the Latino Justice PRLDEF organization in a press release referring to the Guardado case, which occurred on June 18.

Chivona Newsome, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter in New York, who was also a candidate for congress in the 15th district, has seen Latinos in the streets protesting since day one. 

“We’ve gotten a ton of support from Latinos: the Afro-Latino diaspora, older Latinos, younger Latinos, everybody is joining the [Black Lives Matter] movement,” she said. “To understand this, we have to think about the history of this relationship between African Americans and Latinos. Both communities have faced the same economic problems and have lived in the same neighborhoods.”

Protests past and present

For the Latino Justice PRLDEF organization, “protesting unlawful conduct and government abuse has been part of the fabric of Latino New York for decades, even before the Young Lords activism of the 1960s and early 1970s. Episodes of police brutality galvanized Latino activism and created ties with Black New Yorkers.”

<blockquote>”The Young Lords battled police in every encounter to call attention to the lack of health care, nutrition, decent housing and education. Years later a former Young Lord, Richie Perez, mobilized people of color throughout NYC to act against police brutality and use of force. He founded the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights and within that, founded the Justice Committee – which exists till this day. He was instrumental in teaching activists of all races the intersectional foundations of the resistance to state sponsored violence.”</blockquote>

Fernández, in addition to being an activist, is the author of the 2019 book: The Young Lords, A Radical History. She says that the history of Latinos protesting police brutality dates back to 1963 with a case of police brutality that involved two Puerto Ricans, Victor Rodriguez and Maximo Solero.

“Rodríguez and Solero were bike-delivery men known for singing Puerto Rican folk songs en route to their destinations. They were arrested for loitering when an Upper West Side resident called the police with a noise complaint. The men were shot and killed inside a police car beneath the underpass at 96th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, while they were being driven to the precinct on 100th Street and Broadway,” Fernández narrates in her book.

According to Fernández, “It is not a surprise that one of the founders [of the Young Lords] called for this march [on June 14th]. We marched against police brutality and also against ICE. We wanted to amplify the match to include the experience of border police,” says Fernández.

“Let’s not say that all Latinos were at the march because, as you know, not all Latinos can march,” says David Galarza, a member of MiJente, a grassroots organization for Latinos. “Some [undocumented] immigrants, for example, are afraid to take to the streets to march against the police. They were engaged in different ways: calling, organizing, and helping.”

Latinos and the NYPD

Like Blacks, if at lower levels, Latinos experience a disproportionate number of interactions with the criminal justice system, especially when compared with Whites. 

About 17 percent of New York State is Latino and 16 percent is Black. At last count, the state’s prison population was 24 percent Latino and 48 percent Black. In the city, Latinos are 29 percent of the population, and blacks 24 percent. But the population in city jails in 2017 was 34 percent Latino and 53 percent Black. 

Latinos comprised 33 percent of the NYPD’s misdemeanor arrests in 2019, versus Blacks’45 percent. According to a New York Civil Liberties Union report on the use of stop-and-frisk under Mayor de Blasio from 2014-2017, blacks comprised 53 percent of stops, Latinos 28 percent and Whites 11 percent. That mirrored the experience during the heavy years of stop-and-frisk under Mayor Bloomberg, when the number of stops of Latinos was largely in line with their share of the population, but way out of whack relative to Whites. And the most salient feature of stop-and-frisk, of course, was that the vast majority of all those stopped were found to be doing nothing wrong.

“The data proved that even controlling for crime, Blacks and Latinos were still subject to stop-and-frisk in outrageous numbers,” explains Latino Justice PRLDEF. “Success’ if that was defined by capturing guns or contraband, was also not the defining factor because the evidence showed that stopping whites was far more likely in finding a gun than stopping people of color. So when all other factors cannot explain the disparities, then only bias remains,” adds Latino Justice PRLDEF.

From 2014 to 2018, the New York Police Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) saw an increase in the number of complaints of abuse of authority. African Americans accounted for 56.2 percent of the victims of complaints filed during this period, followed by Latinos with 25.3 percent.

Advocates assert that one of the reasons why African Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by policing was the creation of arrest and ticket quotas.

In New York, several Brooklyn cops have confessed to the New York Times that they were told by a commander that White and Asian people should be left alone and commended them to go after Latinos and Black people. 

“The ‘productivity’ quota is real (and illegal) [in New York] and it begins with the NYPD leadership who has for years denied that it exists, and even covered it up,” explains Josmar Trujillo, activist and organizer against police brutality in New York. “The fundamental reasons that the quotas exist is because of the COMPSTAT system of police management pioneered under Bill Bratton that made the department a numbers-based police department.”

Still, as those and other numbers reflect, African American and Latino New Yorkers’ experiences with the criminal justice system are not the same. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, jailed or imprisoned.

The opposite is true when it comes to the composition of the NYPD; approximately 28 percent of officers are Latino, while only 14 percent are African-American. The demographics of the NYPD are almost perfectly reflected in the civil complaints against the police: 28 percent of the police officers who were targeted in 2018 were Latino and 14 percent were African-American.

“I will say, however, that my worst personal interactions with police have been with Latino cops,” acknowledges Trujillo.

Even Latino police officers, when they are not in uniform, have to deal with racial prejudice in their daily lives. “I’ve had many encounters with police and asked me to pull my car over,” acknowledges Anthony Miranda, former NYPD sergeant and executive president of the National Latino Officers Association (NLOA).

“You know, we Latinos move our hands while talking. Well, that can be a problem [because it could be interpreted as a violent gesture instead of a cultural gesture]. I advise my children to call the officer by his name. Comply with what they are asking you to do. Try to imagine what the police officer might be thinking and try to de-escalate the situation,” admits Miranda.

“My advice is: survive the moment and we would take action later,” Miranda says.

Confronting bias

In addition to the marches and protests that have been organized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement by the Latino community, an internal conversation has been underway about  bias among Latinos.

For example, in Puerto Rico, a controversy has been generated by a series of racist comments by Kobbo Santarrosa’s puppet La Comay. “Racism and white supremacy are part of the legacy that goes back centuries and goes on and on. It is important that now we are able to portray ourselves the way we are and not by the White-washed standards,” suggests Galarza.

The media figures into some of the advocates’ concerns of how their movement is–or isn’t–being portrayed. The MiJente organization has sent letters and it is circulating a petition for the two largest Spanish-language media conglomerates in the United States, NBC Telemundo Enterprises and Univision Communications, to provide a more extensive and inclusive coverage of the current crisis of police violence against African Americans and the protests organized in response throughout the country.

“By producing news programming and content that focuses on negative depictions of protesters, that fails to cover the systemic causes of anti-Black police violence, and that makes no effort at centering the voices of Black people in their coverage the networks have contributed to the Latino community’s skewed and incomplete understanding of the current crisis. Their coverage feeds into anti-Black stereotypes that have historically existed in the Latino community, which in the extreme can and have been used as justification for anti-Black violence and which serves to further divide us,” the organization’s press release says.

All of the changes that have come about with these protests in New York, across the country and around the world are a unique moment for Fernández. “I have been dreaming of this moment. Black and Brown people are sharing their history of the colonial experience and class struggle.”

“Hard work and change begin at home,” Melendez admits. “My hope is that this can be transformed in truth and reconciliation. We need it.”

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