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Community belief in police accountability prevents riot

By Raj Jayadev
New America Media

December 29, 2005

SAN JOSE -- Last month, this city -- the state's third-largest and one of its most racially diverse -- had its own Rodney King moment. A jury found a state drug agent not guilty of fatally shooting a father of five in the back.

The Michael Walker case captured headlines and the public's imagination for over a year and a half, and brimmed with social and racial realities felt in the city but not acknowledged in its public identity. On Feb. 17, 2004, Rudy Cardenas, a Latino man, was mistaken by agent Walker for another Latino man of dramatically different height and weight. Many felt Cardenas was killed by stereotype.

The case was unprecedented in that Walker was the first state agent put on trial for a shooting death in the history of California, and the first to be indicted by a grand jury. For the local community, on trial was not just Michael Walker, but the question of whether law enforcement could be held accountable in the courts.

Just months before Cardenas was shot, San Jose had witnessed another high profile shooting case in which an officer was cleared of misconduct. Cau Tran, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman was shot dead by police in her kitchen in the city's downtown. With an average of six police-involved shootings per year, San Jose has one of the highest rates of shootings by law enforcement in proportion to its generally low rate of overall homicide (around 20 per year).

For the past five years, in fact, San Jose has been named the "Safest City in America" by a national annual study that uses FBI crime statistics. The underlying fear of many community members is that police abuse is tolerated and viewed as necessary to maintain the city's safe image.

If the Walker trial outcome was San Jose's Rodney King moment, why was there no major civil unrest as there was in Los Angeles in 1992? All the explosive ingredients were there. The trial was closely followed not only by Latinos, but by every ethnicity in San Jose, including more recently arrived immigrant communities. In fact, a multi-ethnic community coalition made up of Bay Area families who had lost loved ones due to police violence formed in support of the Cardenas family. Part organizing collective and part support group, it was Latino, Asian, Black, White, immigrant and non-immigrant.

Ironically, the multi-ethnic nature of the movement may have diffused any impulse to riot. Justice for Rudy would, in some way, be justice for Cau Tran, the Vietnamese woman killed in her kitchen the year prior; for Ziam Bojcic, a Bosnian refugee killed in front of a Starbucks; for Eric Kleemeyer, a white man shot in front of his mother's house in Santa Clara; for Johnny Nakao, a Japanese and Caucasian man killed in front of a Radio Shack; and for Cameron Boyd, an African-American man killed in San Francisco whose mother attended San Jose vigils. The despair that ignited Los Angeles was replaced here by an understanding and hopefulness that change could be brought about by coordinated community effort.

Furthermore, the victims' families themselves have provided clear moral leadership. In fact, the multi-ethnic, family-centered coalition that developed around the Walker case has forever changed the police accountability movement in several ways:

1) People now know it is possible for the community to influence the court system. Pressure from the families and their supporters brought about only the third open grand jury in Santa Clara County history, allowing the public and the media to uncover more facts surrounding the case long after the shooting.

2) Organizing efforts around police accountability are no longer limited to the ethnicity of the victim. When Cau Tran was killed by police in her kitchen, her death was viewed mainly as a Vietnamese issue, and mainly Vietnamese showed up at rallies, court dates and vigils. By the time Rudy Cardenas was killed, Latino, black, Vietnamese and white community members had a stake in the fight. The Justice for Rudy struggle could not be pegged as a "Latino issue," allowing the movement to build from the Bay Area's diversity, rather than be fractured by it.

3) Families of victims can conduct their own investigations. Michael Walker was an agent with the Bureau of Narcotics, which is supervised by the Department of Justice. But the Cardenas family discovered he is also part of the Central Coast Gang Investigators Association, an independent association where officers who do "gang suppression" exchange information and strategy. The Cardenas' found out that even after his indictment, Walker and other officers involved in the case were organizing CCGIA conferences and trainings for other officers. The public or the media are not allowed to these conferences. The families protested and effectively disrupted such a conference held in San Jose. Local media covered the protests, bringing into public debate the quality, content and range of the trainings that officers use out on the streets.

The movement for police accountability in San Jose is growing. Each new family victimized by police violence can build upon the lessons learned by their predecessors. The Walker case, though it did not result in a guilty verdict, got closer to justice than all the recent cases of police shootings. Now, the next time someone is unjustly killed by police in California, it will be that much more likely that the officer will be convicted.

PNS contributor Raj Jayadev is editor of Silicon Valley De-Bug, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project.




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