In Closter Park in the heart of the farmworker community – there I was introduced to the brother of Carlos Mejia who was shot down like an animal May 20. The brother was quiet, hardly spoke, seemed in shock to me. I and others hugged him. “I should have worn black”, he said quietly, and he bit his lip.
On the park gazebo a woman read a statement off her cell phone from the family of Angel Ruiz who was shot dead on March 20 just steps from where he worked. She choked up as she read of the pain of a family that has lost a husband, a father, a son.
The hundreds who left Closter Park grew to a thousand or more as the march reached Sanborne and Del Monte where Carlos was gunned down by the two cops who had been following him, in sight of a resident with a cell phone camera. The stain from Carlos’ blood was still there where it had run like a small stream for yards down the street. A small memorial stood nearby, as neighborhood people passing through on foot or by car, stopped to look and grab leaflets that read in part “Murdering Salinas Cops Must Be Put on Trial and Face Justice! The Whole Damn System Is Guilty!” from Luz who came with me to this spot, herself a former farmworker from Soledad.
At the parking lot of Mi Pueblo people sat on picnic benches outside the market as the noise of scores of honking cars and chanting marches announced the approaching protest. People pointed to the spot where Osman Hernandez was shot dead on Friday evening, May 9. I thought back to all those payday nights when, with a paycheck in pocket, the fatigue of a long week of work drew one like a magnet to a liquor store or bar for a few beers to relax and forget. Osman, a 26 year old from El Salvador working to send funds to his family back home, had a few drinks that night and felt good, maybe even happy. Osman still had his lettuce knife in his back pocket where lettuce workers carry them when he left a bar. He danced to his own rhythm, knife in hand, that much a video shows -- until a cop, according to one person, pushed him brutally to the ground, and there, still in the shock of the moment, was shot repeatedly in the head!
And there I thought about an interview a few years before with several Salvadoran lettuce workers Osman’s age, a few yards away outside Christy’s Donuts. I recalled how they asked me about overtime, and speed up and what they considered cheating by their contractor of piece rate pay – their voices were edged with anger.
And there, at that moment in front of Mi Pueblo, an older woman came up to greet me. It was Silvia, a veteran farmworker who told me at a farmworker event in Greenfield that “overtime is just an unsubstantiated rumor in the fields”. I reminded her of that. She asked, didn’t you write a book? Yes. I want to write one too, she said – of all the injustices I’ve seen – I’ve seen so much! I’ll help you, I said, in whatever way I can. And we agreed to keep in touch.
People came from Oxnard, Oakland, Stockton, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and Sacramento to stand with the people of Salinas.
Some organizers did their best to control the message of the march – like those “pledges of non-violence” back in the day – why is it always the victims of violence, of brutal, vicious, malicious violence, that have to “prove themselves” “non-violent”. Why don’t the police, and the ruling forces that command them – why don’t they have to pledge non-violence? Why do the people who are victims of injustice have to prove they are “responsible”, while their exploiters and oppressors are above scrutiny? The thought police were out to keep expressions of justified contempt for the institutions of oppression from being openly expressed. They met with resistance and their success was limited but they will have the cooperation of a compliant (corporate) media in their work.
One of the speakers gave a glimpse of some deeper truth in the rally, so I’ll quote here from a transcription of his speech that I recorded. The speaker is Hector Perla Jr., a professor of international relations at UC Santa Cruz: “Many of us from El Salvador, Central América and México are here because our communities have been expelled, displaced by policies of the U.S. government, by ‘free trade’ policies by “free trade agreements” that displace farmers and destroy the agriculture of our countries. It is not the ‘violence of the narcos’ that is at fault but the structural violence imposed on us . . . And when we come here seeking a better future for our families to find honorable work, what happens? We are discriminated against, deported and criminalized. It’s time to say enough.” Such are the policies of a system of exploitation.
© 2014 Bruce Neuburger.
Bruce Neuburger is a former farmworker, longtime radical political activist, GI organizer, movement newspaper writer and editor, cab driver, and, for the past twenty-five+ years, adult school and community college teacher. Lettuce Wars is his first book.