On the Chicano Moratorium of 1970: A Legal, Historical Inquiry Into the Events and the Death of Ruben Salazar

Aug 29, 2017
12:14 AM

By Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones

Some while ago, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium (August 29, 1970) in 2020 did indeed loom in people’s minds, but memories have since quickened and so have questions. More than justifiable was the attractively prominent front-page story of Eastern Group Publications (EGP), September 4, 2014, accompanied by an attention-drawing sharp photograph of a ceremony celebrating a plaque commemorating the life of Ruben Salazar placed at Salazar Park in East Los Angeles. The volunteer ceremony, the modest plaque, the EGP story—all were commendable in several ways. Certainly commendable are these actions and words of those lighting this candle of memories.

To be sure, the memorial candle does not lighten either dark comers or as yet unwritten pages on all matters pertinent to the events of August 29, 1970.

Indeed, the very heartening EGP story by a sensitive reporter —who well may be a grandchild of those young people alive at the times of the August events— confesses there are questions to be asked even today nearly 50 years later. Her questions inspire mine and more. And that is why we must ask: What is our responsibility to her and the next generation, as we face the daunting memory of August 29, 1970, today when civil rights are at risk?

Our grandparents have a saying our grandchildren should consider, “mal pensar es asertar” (“to think the worse is to be on the mark”). Time passes for victims and culprits, but time does not heal all hurts. Moreover, time passages may second the intentions of culprits who prefer inattention or better forgetfulness of their crimes.

As of yet, the misdeeds of the culprits of August 29 cannot achieve complete forgetfulness while witnesses live and, indeed, they do. Inevitably as days go by, eventually, there will be no witnesses to identify even redacted records to examine for scrutinous questioners to address. To some of us, some survivors of that day, the matters of August 29 are wounds demanding the need to be healed: “una espina que se debe sanar.”

If we are consequent with rhetorical proclamations on the importance of history for future generations, then we must light the candle on the record written in the blood of those who died and those wounded on August 29, 1970.  Civil rights were grossly and publicly violated on August 29. The films of the day clearly indicate this. Several credible persons, including Stephanie Salazar Cook, Frank Sotomayor (LA Observed, 08/27/10), and Hector Tobar (Los Angeles Times, 07/9/10) have raised questions in print and persons. For instance, in addition to the Los Angeles Times and many others, the filmmaker Philip Rodriguez and the late journalist Frank del Olmo have indicated that the events of August 29 need clarification.

In addition, the former-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, once caretaker of the Sheriff’s files on August 29, has faced issues of his own on credibility (Court House News Service, 05/12/17).

Matters of death caused by authoritarians and mass suppressions of civil rights by law authorities are serious questions of justice. Rather than simply describing (as usually done, at best, incompletely) the matters of August 29, whether through print or camera, let us try to change how the facts and analyses of August 29 have been addressed and concluded. Given transitions within the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s department, the time is more opportune than in the past to settle accounts on these matters. Quite clearly to some observers, the Supervisors, the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney would not have endorsed an investigation in 1970.

Thus, the need to create an investigatory commission comprised of leading and experienced researchers is critical. Commission members would be persons eminently respected and pertinent to civil rights efforts, law enforcement and judicial practices, such as Margaret E. Montoya (University of New Mexico Law), Lorena Oropeza (UC Davis), Laura E. Gómez (UCLA Law School), Ian Haney López (UC Berkeley Law), Edward Escobar (University of Arizona), and Ernesto B. Vigil (Independent Scholar, Denver, Colorado).

The commission could function through the auspices of MALDEF (Los Angeles) or the Center of Constitutional Rights (New York). Necessary funding could be secured through the Office of a Los Angeles County Supervisor, which has discretionary funds at their disposal. Costs could be budgeted covering all operating costs, including consultants, personnel, materials, travel, office needs, legal advisement, etc., for a period of two years.

At a certain time, a report would be issued and the findings presented at community public hearings. Yes, a full investigation is possible and the public deserves an accounting. A full report would be in compliance in accordance with the pertinent amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the pertinent clauses of the California Constitution. All parties involved or associated would benefit. The Sheriff’s Department would be expected to be cooperative, when asked.

Such a report would avoid biased interference or influence by public offices or officers past and current. Civil rights were violated in East Los Angeles nearly 50 years ago, just as surely as they were violated in the matter of Michael Brown and the suppression of the 2014 democratic protests in Ferguson.

To date, a major cause of investigatory incompleteness on matters of August 29 is that no public office or official has claimed public responsibility for requiring and/or conducting a thorough investigation. How comforting for malfeasant doers, that in this case, neither some nearly 50 years ago nor today, there has been no public questioning, much less accounting? Baldly, such culprits argue there can be no investigation of possible crimes—their crimes. What glaringly stands out is that the actions of law enforcement were publicly committed and funded, but no one was or is in charge to accept responsibility for these actions.

The August 29 basics are part of a complex people’s history that may be subject to inquiry. Thus, there is a frame for the history of the tumultuous, and tragic events, and mendacious actions preceding, surrounding and following August 29. Some struts of the frame would be as follows:

There needs to be a full appreciation of the qualitative dimensions of core and contextual elements of August 29, not simply a quantitative assessment of these. The Chicano Moratorium was of significant importance to enforcement agencies regionally and nationally to act as they did. The attention given to it by law enforcement attests to that. Its importance at the time is reinforced by its recognized historical importance today. To be underscored is the fact August 29 constitutes a major civil rights and racist attack on the Mexican American community, not only with regional dimensions, but also with national implications. What comes to mind as a comparison with past mass suppressions of civil rights, but specifically, the many oppressions and suppressions of Native Americans, above all, at Wounded Knee, an ambush, resulting in casualties conducted by armed personnel acting under the cover of law.

The civil, political, economic, and cultural historical context of August 29 must be referred and spelled out specifically. August 29 is a culmination of the history of the consequences of repeated disregard for the political electoral under and misrepresentation of Mexican Americans, and the specific repeated violations of the civil rights of Mexican Americans and Mexicans in the greater Los Angeles area and Southern California region throughout the 20th Century. Moreover, here is a documented history of law enforcement practices and actions to be examined vis-à-vis minorities and labor organizing and community advocacies.

A public bona fide report would refer to these repressions and would include in its documentation references to of public assaults on Mexican Americans, which are recorded in scholarly works and in the rulings, finding the denial of voting and representational rights as evident in past court or administrative findings. Recall that as recent as 1990-1991, a court found Mexican Americans had been denied voting and representational rights in the Los Angeles area, such as Garza v. County of Los Angeles (1990-1991). The events of August 29 are consistent with a historical record that speaks volumes on injustices suffered by Mexican Americans.

The report would contextualize that the tragic events of August 29, which are parallel with analogous actions in the sixties and early seventies, whether in cities, rural areas, or campuses of the United States.

What is to be explicitly noted, is whether there were extensive planning meetings on actions of one kind or another by police and intelligence agencies which, given the events of August 29 and subsequent actions, resulted in civil rights violations of residents and citizens. A key question is whether these meetings were in fact meetings that preceded the denial of civil rights of individuals. If so, whether the meetings were actions which ultimately led to deaths and injuries at the hands of law enforcement and to the arrests on counts of unsubstantiated charges of perhaps over a hundred individuals. The report would consider whether law officers (or other public officials) discussed actions that would lead to violations of civil rights of residents and citizens under cover of their office. Presumably, such “planning” as occurred arguably could be considered engaging in conspiracy against the rights of citizens. The report would consider whether arrests and jailings would be discrete harmful actions done under the cover of law.

Moreover, if as reported, the Moratorium Committee was infiltrated, prior to August 29 as indicated in some of the literature, the why and wherefore of this would need to be examined and its infiltration related to events of August 29. Infiltration is a planned action and it did occur, research literature and Federal Freedom of Information documents indicate this. The Moratorium Committee is a party of some responsibility for its actions and inactions. Given its alleged infiltration, much before August 29, this group needs to be examined as to internal workings that impacted the events of August 29 and its behavior before, during and immediately after the events.

As witnesses to the events of August 29 attest, there are several signs not least the massive staging and presence of law enforcement and equipment at several sites in proximity to the park, such actions indicate planning. Their presence alone subverted this march and an assembly. Thus, the matter of these planned preparations must be clarified. Too often, critical observers assume that what happens would follow top-down directives and thus there would be administrative documentation. In fact, the Sheriff’s Department was internally complex and reportedly encompassed groups whose purpose and action presumably warranted secrecy by their participants, leaving scant or no paper trail.

No one has been critically questioned or cross-examined under oath on the actions of law enforcement and other officials in regards to matters of August 29 related to injuries and arrests. The so-called inquest hearing was a farce, as can be judged by the film(s) available.

The physical behavior of law enforcement toward citizens and residents at the park assembly is plainly visible on film, this behavior has not been and should be addressed, the suppression of the assembly was brutal, as witnesses know and films show. The chaos visibly caused by officers served the purpose of providing ostensible grounds for mass arrests.

No one has addressed the facts that the death and injuries of individuals were promoted by law enforcement actions and that these also would constitute violations of human and civil rights. The peaceful assembly did not warrant these actions.

There were three publicly reported deaths. These deaths should be examined with equal attention. No one has addressed the fourth death of an individual associated with the activities of Barrio Alliance of Latin Americans (BALA) (Santa Monica-Venice) and member of a known activist (Galvan family member) in the Santa Monica-Venice area. Moreover, there is no adequate explanation as to why one body, that of Ruben Salazar, was unattended for an unreasonable length of time. If had survived an initial shot, he would’ve had bled to death.

No one has raised the issue of civil rights violations given the possible targeting by law enforcement of the Denver-based Crusade for Justice members, in particular its leader, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, who were visitors. Eventually, he and other Crusade members were jailed on allegedly false charges. Why? Perhaps this targeting means planning for specific purposes not only related to Los Angeles. What were the possible purposes of this targeting and, if so, who would have ordered these purposes to fruition? Would and did this involve other agencies and does this involvement explain the lack of ready information available on the events of August 29?

There are three specific incidents that are telling of the larger mega scene which should be reported on. Note that everyone involved on the participant side has stated that the march was festive and orderly, as was the assembly at the park. This is a noteworthy fact given what happened and how law enforcement rationalized part of their actions. Thus, the following are to be underscored:

  • On the surface, a minor point: there is the presence of an ostensibly ultra left group [not Community Part or Socialists Worker Party] parading with perfectly made signs, shouting their own slogans. Supposedly they caused some commotion at the (south)west part of the park, though this has never been explained by law enforcement. The group was not associated with the Moratorium organizing before, during or after the August 29Their commotion supposedly served as the reason offered by some law enforcement to act initially at the (south)west margins of the crowd, according to some. Moreover, their presence provided bad-faith, pseudo-evidence for allegations of “commies” in this event, as voiced later by public officials and repeated by some spokespersons and such allegations are a common ploy used by Los Angeles law enforcement for decades. They were mostly white, young males, with short hair and preppie shirts and neat pants; their signs did not speak to the issues of the Moratorium. As far as anyone noted, they came and left untouched by law enforcement, even as the surrounding bedlam caused by law officers occurred. In effect, they received a pass. No law enforcement agents or media, then or later, questioned members of the group, though there are photos of them.
  • Eventually, what law enforcement offered as reasons for their actions are events at a corner liquor store on Whittier Blvd. In some instances, law agents alleged the “owner” called them, concerning “pandemonium” at the store. Various participants, including persons at the store, have been denied these allegations. In fact, there was no significant disorderliness at this corner store, which, in any case, was across the street from the margins of the assembly. Why should the supposed store issue used by the police to attack the assembly? Without this false allegation there would be no probable cause for disbursing and attacking the assembly. If something did occur at the store, as the police allege, why would a little customer impatience be a reason to shut down a lawful assembly of thousands? By the way, there is an implied racist stereotype here, as well as constitutional disregard;
  • Next in the scenario of beginnings, supposedly law enforcement acted as they did because the crowd disobeyed blatantly an order to disburse. You would think such a dramatic announcement would be made by an appropriate officer at the stage of the assembly through the audio system there, or powerful police microphones would be used, meanwhile giving women and children time to leave in an orderly and safe way. No such initial order was heard by the front rows of the assembly—certainly not at the stage. Perhaps such order was not given to thousands, only whispered to a few. Perhaps the officers closest to the law enforcement speaker at the extreme (south)west edge of the assembly only mentioned to a few participants, or after police disbursement actions had begun. This questionable claim by officers served as a multi purpose justification for their attack. Was this a misrepresentation or an outright lie by law enforcement leaders? Perhaps what followed from the alleged store incident and the unheard initial disbursement “order” represented reflections of poor training or simply incompetence by the Sheriff’s Department. The officers who supposedly voiced orders that became the justification for terrorizing thousands, including women and children, and injuring hundreds, can be identified and questioned; they have not been. What happened at the assembly at the park has to be examined critically and separated and distinct from other matters of the 29th.

The matter of Ruben Salazar is both clearer and murkier than the actions directed at the assembly of August 29. Moratorium Committee meetings were public, as well their participants. We must emphasize that Salazar’s death is both linked and distinct from the hostility directed at the Moratorium Committee and subsequent assembly. Surely, and activists agree, the deaths of all on August 29 are equally tragic and presumably all are the responsibility of law enforcement personnel. Reportedly, Salazar was being monitored, so said his associates. If so, why? If freedom of information (unredacted) materials concerning the Moratorium and Ruben Salazar are fully available, would these documents indicate, clearly both were targeted? Presumably, the Moratorium mobilization and Salazar underwent, to some extent, distinct and discreet targeting, given that references to them occur in some files. Then-County Sheriff Lee Baca denies that Salazar was targeted (Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 2/19/11). Hundreds of pages of heavily redacted materials minimally tell the reader that assigned authorizes were monitoring community activities, organizations and spokespersons at the time. These doings are in themselves threats, arguably.

If there is evidence, written and oral, that Salazar was targeted, a question follows, why? Who is “they” behind the “why”? For what reasons, and who may be those who consciously targeted him? Quickly said is that they were not targeting Salazar to learn of places or persons of interest to him. “They” had that information, and, in any case, as a journalist in Los Angeles, his editors were aware of his activities and contacts. Salazar probably would have provided basic information on his journalist whereabouts, and on his reporting to his professional associates. Moreover, as media entities, the Los Angeles Times or KMEX Channel 34, if asked, would provide some or all of this information.

  • Probably, the political interest on Salazar was due to the possible consequences of his reporting through both English and Spanish media, nationally and internationally. To be sure, his reporting was not wholly on what he had to say about Mexican American Eastsiders in order to inform Los Angeles Westsiders. His journalist concerns were cosmopolitan. Has there been obfuscation in regard to this outreach, part of which included the Latin American Left, by Latino media or writers to this day? The Left artist David A. Siqueiros understood his outreach. His art piece on him shows this;
  • An objective concern by Los Angeles influentials was perhaps because of Salazar’s increasing knowledge of L.A. institutional insiders and their doings as a result of his interests and inquiries. He was linking the dots of Los Angeles City and County institutional, corporate and electoral networks and perhaps beyond. Reportedly, he was informing himself on law enforcement institutions. Any number of sources will tell you how sensitive the powers that be were about on information on their inner workings during that era, so much under the public radar. As a journalist, Salazar had national and transnational consequences and at certain juncture for a moment, so did the Moratorium.
  • Salazar’s professionalism, credibility, and outreach in two language media systems were reportedly looked with askance by L.A. law enforcement and their backup politico networks. This was the Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s. Westside or Eastside readers of the Los Angeles Times were not the major worry. This journalist had outreach beyond average L.A. newspaper readers, as important or more important than metropolitan reader outreach would be the collection of information by a competent credible professional in and of itself. As is known, journalists can be endangered by what they know as well as by what they have printed;
  • For those underscored in Salazar’s investigations, most probably they would seriously consider the significance of his journalist outreach. Imagine what Salazar would say about the events of August 29 and their aftermath if he was alive to report them, including explanatory references to the domestic unrest within the U.S., the populist opposition to the Vietnam War, and so forth. Imagine to what extent his views on these would be picked up in and outside of Los Angeles in the U.S., and particularly in Latin America and in some parts of Europe. Remember, this was the world of the late sixties becoming the early seventiesm when critical journalists mattered.
  • Salazar’s politics, as can be attested, were moderate, on most domestic issues emphasizing fairness and equality. Salazar disavowed agitational rhetoric. He was not a man “stuck” in the middle, due to vague split loyalties or a person caught between some imagined contending sides within his profession nor was he a simple commercial bridge between language audiences or an affirmative action yuppie cautiously climbing an institutional ladder. He was a competent forthright principled journalist. Clearly, if anything, he stood more firmly on his professional principles in 1970 as he had in the past. This ethical standing may have been perceived invidiously by those who imagined him as a threat.
  • Investigatory research should explore that there are several mundane incidentals leading to Salazar’s rendezvous with tragedy. A seasoned professional, he repeatedly confessed to friends that enemies may threaten him. He reported a visit to his office by two plain clothes individuals. Moreover, he, an experienced journalist having worked in Asia and Latin America where journalists were commonly under surveillance, believed he was being followed. If so, he would worry not so much about an information tracker but a target stalker. Such a stalker probably communicating by phone would have informed whomever on the other end of the line as to where Salazar was at any given moment. The stalker could have functioned as a spotter. Could this someone be part of the sidewalk traffic, a person making phone calls who could report where Salazar was at any given moment?
  • Supposedly, Ruben Salazar entered a Whittier Boulevard bar (Silver Dollar Bar) through a front doorway where persons stood, covered by a flapping curtain into a room with some light sufficient for customers to order and pay. Reportedly, some were leaving through the back. He sat at the bar, not seeing, not hearing? This was not a totally dark Silver Dollar. With commotion all around, immediately a special force appeared at the entrance with one individual presumably especially trained, especially armed, aiming this weapon at chest level at the bar, as photos show, not upward toward the ceiling. Who heard an order to disburse? Was one given?
  • As those who have followed what narratives, there are on these actions known—the law enforcement statements can be examined for contradictions and absences. And certainly as to what supposedly happened, such statements are contradicted by several witnesses including media persons: Why and what happened and why and how did Salazar die or get killed?
  • Little is known about the supposed shooter. A respected well-known Los Angeles urban scholar has told listeners that the deputy described as a rookie by law enforcement and inquest staff, had an aggressive past vis-à-vis Mexican Americans in relation to a labor/protest dispute(s). This allegation contradicts his claimed and proffered inexperience by the Sheriff’s Department. Moreover, the official rationale for using a fly-rite missile weapon (somewhat like a dated grenade launcher) into a room with humans is preposterous, as is the claim of total darkness in the bar and a heavy curtain impeding the view of an entire squad of police officers (or was it indeed a flapping curtain as photos show?) Presumably, arguably the shooter did not see his shot hit. Indeed, a trained officer shoots into a darkened space, if true, and into a space where persons are reported present, if true?

An investigatory committee has a chilling but doable task. If this is an accidental death, its reporting should have been dealt with quickly and openly. To date, the questions and suspicions continue because a credible bonafide public hearing has never happened.

Aftermath and Loose Ends That Need Tying for the Sake of Public Truth

There are several aspects to be noted in the aftermath of August 29. What motivation set off the Moratorium clash and actions setting off the Silver Dollar death of Salazar and the deaths of others are as yet not satisfactorily explained? Why are there so many loose ends? The inquest was a farce—compare it to the victim Latasha Harlins investigations of yesterday or any death by an officer on duty today. The whole scene of what supposedly took place in the Silver Dollar is questionable in several aspects. What about the exit back of the bar? What happened to the supposed presence of an armed man who served as justification and probable cause for law enforcement at the bar? If true, was he in the bar with Salazar? An armed man missing? A hoax? If people were leaving, why did Salazar not leave? Was the autopsy thorough? Was the weapon and its various munitions examined by an independent expert?

The fact remains there was reckless use of a destructive weapon, resulting in the death of an acclaimed and recognizable journalist by supposedly trained officers following orders. Who gave the orders? Or, again, is there an order claimed to be given to clear the area of the Silver Dollar and/or not heard by anyone other than officers? If so, why would Salazar or others at the bar not hear it? Who did fire the fatal shot? What if, actually, someone fully or partially inside the bar fired the lethal shot?

Certainly, officers at the scene have not been questioned under oath by independent counsel. Amazingly, no one has raised the question whether the officers who admitted being at the shooting were assisted by special personnel or supervised at the site by higher-ups.  Is there a “patsy” here?  On the August 29  matter, if no one has effectively been questioned, and an “official” explanation has been unquestioned, therefore why would a guilty person feel accountable or apprehensive? Why would any informed person come forth then? Why would anyone involved with the law or judiciary side feel the need to change a story that exonerates him and everyone else in the story? Once that story became publicly official and publicly endorsed, it thus became officially inviolate.

If the official story is so solid, why the coverup for decades? Why not answer questions? Why the delay? Why did it take a reporter’s filing 40 years later for some minor redacted material to be available? The fact is that a coverup, when it occurs, is a fact. What kind of reporting and editorializing would Salazar have written if he had survived the August 29 tragedy of a massive assault on a peaceful assembly in a Mexican American neighborhood? Who would he held responsible for the events of August 29?

Perhaps the matters are given substance beyond aftermath questions by the irrefutable fact that the matters of August 29 and Salazar have not been clarified to this day. If there is nothing to hide on the matter, why make clarity on them difficult for nearly 50 years? Quite conveniently for facilitating this coverup is that there is no one empowered, we are told, to be a doer and mover in exacting responsibility. However, there is initiative to safeguard institutional personnel and, thus, cohesion.

Few over the age of reason will believe that District Attorney representatives, Sheriff’s officials or police chiefs or law enforcement agencies will volunteer to investigate themselves. However, there are forensic cold case investigations that work, and yield results. There are newspapers reports on these matters. “Murder will out” is an old English saying. This August 29 door remains shut, and will it ever reopen? Here, no one wants to bite this spent bullet.

Obviously, why “they” don’t explain is in part why the matter remains unclarified. Thus, this obfuscation is why the matter calls for independent investigation with power of public credibility and professional questioning of witnesses and the issuing of a credible public report subject to public scrutiny. Seeking the truth is positive for all, not negative.

If events and personages of August 29 are public history worthy of being memorialized at a public park, as public education, so be it. If this story is worthy of inclusion in public education, the Superintendent office of the LAUSD that has contacts with major education materials and technology corporations could ask them for costs to sustain an investigation and its conclusions included in textbooks, etc., for students. Perhaps LAUSD would say this matter may be history, but it is not within their scope. The report may not answer all questions, but raising civil rights related questions would be a worthwhile set of lessons in these days when civil rights must be upheld.

More to the immediate point is for a County Supervisor to initiate or encourage an appropriate history-focused investigation. From their district funds, they could fund such an investigation or to publicly support such an investigation by calling on select donors for funding. To be willing to fund a professional and comprehensive investigation by bonafide scholars under the auspices of one or more prestigious civil rights organizations is civically meritorious. Alongside an investigation endorsed by a board member or members, there are other investigatory alternatives provided there are funds. For example, independent of a public official, a civil rights organization can name a committee of legal and history scholars to conduct an investigation and issue a public report. Perhaps a university research center or program can collaborate. The point for all is to defend civil rights.

If we are willing to commemorate these August 29 memorable events, we should accept the further challenge of upholding civil rights for all including the residents of East Los Angeles and the activists of August 29—actions that undeniably happened on the watch of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico, through its governing council, commemorates an injustice endured 500 years ago. We can do something more modest, shine a candle on dark comers of major violations of civil rights that occurred in Los Angeles County on August 29, 1970.

Thereupon, we say with the Mourner’s Kaddish, “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us … to which we say Amen.”


Author: Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones is a professor of history at UCLA, specializing in the fields of political, labor, intellectual, and cultural history. As a prolific scholar, key figure in the Chicana/o movement and mentor to countless academics, he has a long trajectory in higher education, civic / political engagement, the arts, poetry and related activities. Born in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, he was raised in Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles).

Note: Essay edited and circulated by Dr. Alvaro Huerta, an urban planning and ethnic studies scholar—also raised in Boyle Heights. Links provided by Dr. Huerta.