East Los Angeles Peace Rally Explodes in Bloody Violence...Man Shot to Death; Buildings Looted, Burned.
It all comes down to August 29, 1970.
That day, some 5000 Mexican-Americans, mostly liberal students and activists, had gathered in Laguna Park. Officially, they were there to protest the draft of Chicano citizens to fight in Vietnam, a trendy label backed by a swelling anger against decades of police, media, and popular abuses and discrimination across America and in Los Angeles, since the Zoot Suit Riots of 1942. L.A.'s finest eagerly took their cue from the CPD at the '68 convention, and charged after their volley of tear gas with billy clubs drawn. The crowd ran, and small crowds began to loot and trash property. Three people died in the riots, and 60 were wounded. But this was nothing new.
Ruben Salazar was a reporter for the L.A. Times, news director of KMEX-TV, and assigned to cover the rally. Born in Mexico in 1935, raised in El Paso, Texas since he was 8 months old until he left the University of Texas at El Paso, he found himself drifting toward journalism, writing first for his campus paper and then the El Paso Herald-Post. By the 1960's, he was working as a correspondent for the L.A. Times, sending in his stories from Vietnam, Mexico City, and the Dominican Republic. By August 29, 1970, he had been "promoted", rewarded for years of busting his butt in the field by being assigned the local interest stories, like that day's Chicano Moratorium. His militant defense of Chicano interests had earned him three warnings from the local police, all of which he happily ignored.
When the crowd stampeded, Ruben Salazar fled as well, and ended up sitting in the front of a crowded local bar called the Silver Dollar. At a little before 8 pm, the police claimed that the riot had reached the area of the bar, that suspected militants and communists responsible for the riot were inside, and a squad from the the Special Enforcement Bureau surrounded the bar and announced from outside that all patrons should surrender themselves and come out. And just before 8 pm, a policeman, who claimed he heard no response, shot 3 canisters of tear gas into the bar. Inside, a friend was just warning Salazar that the cops were ready to shoot. When everybody else fled out the back door, Salazar wasn't among them. He was dead, struck directly in the head by one of those tear-gas grenades. His last words: "That's impossible; we're not doing anything."
How do you point out the most infuriating parts of the case? The police justified the action at first by saying they found a single man carrying a 7.65 automatic pistol running out of the Silver Dollar, though nobody was arrested. They knew he was in there, having received an anonymous report. Of course, at a time when almost the entire LAPD was out on the streets trying to quell a riot, a TAC squad was immediately available to investigate. The official report claimed Salazar was shot by errant gunfire, and firmly denied that he had his head blown clean off by a tear-gas bazooka.
There was no possible course of action the sheriff's office could have taken that would have helped the situation. But there were many that made it worse, and you can just about guess which course they took. At first they denied everything, fueling the suspicions of the budding La Raza movement that the cops had just assassinated the "only man in America...they were really afraid of" (according to Oscar Acosta. Their "anonymous tip" remained anonymous until the day the inquest into Salazar's death began, when he suddenly appeared to tell his tale of anarchists gone mad. Photographs of the deputy firing the tear gas into the bar were produced, dismissed with the claim by the sheriff's office that they had been doctored. The inquest ended in two verdicts after 16 days, and shortly thereafter the district attorney announced that no criminal charges were necessary.
Ruben Salazar, the man who had once vehemently denied that he was a "Chicano Journalist", became an instant martyr. Middle-aged men and women, who would once have quietly taken their abuse, started bandying the words La Raza and wore the label Chicano proudly. Anybody who didn't join in, who wasn't part of this rising solidarity, those Tio Tacos, was a target within the community. Gangs of young men, the Batos Locos, roamed the streets sucking down wine and secanol cruised for fights with the pigs under a vague heading of justice, while justice became the rallying cry for Oscar Acosta in his desperate and doomed attempt to fight the courts. Whatever Salazar may have been in life, he was now their Voice and Face, who told it like it was in the papers and on television, wasn't afraid of those filthy, racist swine in government, and whom those vicious bastards had now murdered. On all fronts, in Ruben Salazar, Chicano pride had finally found a rallying point. Brown Power! Viva La Raza!
It is now generally accepted that Salazar wasn't assassinated, wasn't the target of a grand conspiracy, with deputy Todd Williams acting as the lone gunman and scape-goat, but the victim of ordinary police incompetence. Which is worse, I don't know. Acosta's attempts failed. The major newspapers still fed the public the same, original police bullshit, the police still muttered about communist sympathizers and phantom Chicano Liberation Front activity. The Batos Locos never really died out, but became much less prominent, more subtle (if that's the right word).
But Salazar is still a martyr. All across the country his name hangs on street-signs, parks, and scholarships, while occasionally some old-timer still remembers one of the songs they wrote about him. I don't have to point out the irony in the martyrdom of a reporter who was never really involved in the cause in the first place, but I'll end with this: as important as he was in the history of the La Raza movement, he was a damn fine reporter.