By Dr. Ricardo Romo
In the Opinion page of the Dallas Morning News on June 7, 2020, Rene Martinez wrote of a tragic shooting 47 years ago by a police officer of a 12 year Mexican American boy handcuffed in the back of a police car. Rodriguez was shot in the head at very close range by officer Darrell Cain. Martinez wrote that as a result of the senseless killing, 5,000 marchers protested in the streets of Dallas. Cain was sentenced to prison for the murder.
Some events, even those nearly fifty years ago, cannot be forgotten. More recently there have been many shootings of Mexican Americans by police officers in Texas. It is because of the persistence of police violence against people of color that many Latinos have joined the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
The Black community has been confronting racism in policing since the end of slavery in 1863. In the famed Tulsa Riots of 1921, the police made no effort to stop the White vigilantes and rioters from burning the Black community and killing more than 300 Black residents. For generations, there have been calls for reform.
I came of age in the turbulent sixties when the last great social protest movements swept across America. There were actually three major types of protests and political rallies in that decade. First, the Civil Rights Movement initiated by Dr. Martin Luther King and other religious leaders associated with his campaign for justice and peace. Second, there was the Anti-Vietnam war and peace movement, which had many authors and had its origins in the universities and colleges of America. And third, there was the farmworkers’ labor movement led by Cesar Chavez and members of the United Farmworkers of America, UFW. In a small, but dedicated manner, I was engaged in all three of these social and labor movements.
There are great differences between the protests of the sixties with the events of today. What is different in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing is that a significant number of White, Black and Brown elected officials have responded to a call for an end to police violence against Black men. Many political leaders are pledging reform, including the establishment of new laws that promote fairness and justice in the American criminal system. The needed changes could not come fast enough.
Several cities and states are banning police from using chokeholds. Governor Cuomo announced this week he planned to set aside one billion dollars [from a total budget of $ 6 billion] for community programs from the New York police budget. Los Angeles has cut the police budget by $150 million [of a total of $2 billion] in order to address related racial issues including affordable housing, poverty, education, and homelessness.
The rapid response to police reform in Los Angeles is a result of pent up anger which dates back at least to 1992 with the Rodney King beating in Compton. For one of the first times in America, the public was able to see the actual beating thanks to a video taken surreptitiously by a concerned neighbor. If not for the video, few outside the Black community would have believed King’s description of the violence directed at him. That video and subsequent videos leading up to George Floyd’s death made all the difference.
Today’s Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement is unlike any we have ever seen in America. Its rapid rise has astonished all observers. BLM was started by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in the aftermath of the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. It has been active for nearly four years, and those involved have been largely young black activists.
The BLM movement exploded onto the world scene when a handcuffed Black man and father of young children, George Floyd, died at the hands of a Minnesota police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried “I can’t breathe.” A video which captured the full tragic incident sparked outrage as the video recording reached billions of people across the globe.
In response to the death of George Floyd, BLM leaders organized marches across American cities, and the rallies instantly became a powerful world-wide movement. The uniqueness of the movement is its diversity: attracting White, Black, and Brown demonstrators. BLM marches have engaged the young, the old, and those of ages in-between. Protestors come from inner cities, suburbs, and rural communities. The BLM movement is already the largest protest movement in American history. There have been protests in all fifty states and well as in Europe and Asia.
We are encouraged by demands for criminal justice reform and the gestures of progressive change in this era of protest. For example, thanks to a young Black college graduate, the Merriam Webster Dictionary has expanded the definition of ‘racism.” The new meaning has been “divided to express, first, explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure.” A simple change like this can have significant long term positive outcomes enabling many to better understand the extent of racism.
Several Texas cities, including Austin and Dallas, have moved toward altering policing in handling protesters. The Austin City Council voted unanimously to prohibit the use of deadly force and “less lethal” munitions such as rubber bullets during protests. In addition, Austin’s city manager has been instructed to find ways to reduce next year’s budget for the police department and find ways to prevent police abuse.
Other positive change recommendations across the country include greater support for community needs, such as housing, education, and social services and for police to be properly trained to protect people rather than to use military combat tactics against their community residents.
The call for police reform dates back several generations. What is new is the urgency for action and a movement that has strong leadership and broad appeal. There are no longer just Black leaders asking for change–it is a BLM movement supported by Blacks, Whites and Latinos. I hope that meaningful changes will result from this movement. Our democracy can not tolerate injustice, bias, and unfairness.