Raul Reyes: Cops not charged after shooting Latino man for allegedly throwing rocks at passing cars. Doesn't his life matter?
He says scant data on police shootings of Latinos, lack of media coverage show Latino lives given lower priority
Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Wednesday, a county prosecutor announced that there would be no charges filed against the three police officers who shot and killed a Mexican immigrant in Pasco, Washington, on February 10. Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, had been allegedly throwing rocks at passing cars when police fired on him in an incident that was captured on video and has been viewed on YouTube over 2 million times. The Zambrano case drew national attention as the “Latino Ferguson.”
In truth, this case was not the “Latino Ferguson” because no such thing exists. The killing of unarmed Latinos by police does not generate the same level of outrage that gave rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There are reasons for this – none of them acceptable.
One reason that the killings of Latinos by police do not resonate with the public is that they do not fit into the usual black/white narrative of police brutality. Latinos (there are 54 million in America) have been here just as long as any other racial or ethnic group – in many cases, longer – but the mainstream media is still not adept at covering the community.
We see this in the way that a Latino suspect’s or victim’s immigration status is often mentioned in coverage of a story, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the case. This can create a flawed and automatic presumption in the public’s mind that the person in question is undocumented, and “if this person weren’t here illegally, this wouldn’t have happened.”
In the Zambrano case, the issue is why three police officers used lethal force on a man who was allegedly only carrying rocks. Pasco police fired on Zambrano 17 times, and most of those shots missed him. The remaining shots could have hit anyone in the vicinity of the busy street where he was killed. This should concern people far more than Zambrano’s being in the country without authorization. The fact that none of the officers involved in the Zambrano case was interviewed until nearly three months after the shooting is outrageous.
Another possible reason that there has not been a stronger “Latino Lives Matter” movement is the lack of data on killings by police. An analysis last month by Al-Jazeera America found that, unlike African-Americans, Latinos are underrepresented in police casualties; Latinos are almost 17% of the population and accounted for 14% of police casualties. While this conclusion was reached by using everything from Census figures to police reports, we really don’t know the actual numbers of Latinos killed by police. Nobody does.
Even former Attorney General Eric Holder has called the absence of comprehensive statistics on police killings “unacceptable.” Until we know the real statistics, how can we expect real outrage?
Latinos bear our own share of responsibility for not putting greater value on Latino lives.
Unlike the African-American community, we do not have leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson who can bring a case of police brutality to national attention simply by showing up. Consider that the Pew Research Center reports that three-fourths of Latinos say that our community needs a national leader – yet most cannot name one.
In addition, the major Latino advocacy organizations are very focused on the immigration debate, which means that other issues may not get the attention that they deserve. And for all of the talk surrounding the rising importance of Hispanics in the upcoming election, Latinos traditionally lag behind other demographics when it comes to showing up at the polls on Election Day.
While there are ongoing questions surrounding the Zambrano case, this is not to suggest that the police who shot him were motivated by racism. One of the three officers involved is Latino, and another saved Zambrano’s life weeks before he was shot by pulling him from a fire.
Still, in the nearly seven months since Zambrano’s death, Freddie Gray (of Baltimore) and Walter Scott (of South Carolina) became symbols of injustice. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Zambrano and other Latino victims of police killings, from Jessica Hernandez to Manuel Diaz. Until this status quo changes, we will continue to live in a country where 68% of Latinos say they worry that law enforcement will use excessive force against them.
At nearly three hours, this was a debate for the true political junkies. To me, the most resonant memory was that of the various Republican presidential candidates, on and off the camera, crying “Jake! Jake!” to moderator Jake Tapper, signaling their desire to jump into the discussion.