in Activism, Oxnard

The OPD vs. Local Historians!

Untitled Local Mural in La Colonia (2012). Courtesy of the author’s photo collection.

I was born and raised on the Oxnard Plain. My family was part of the migration of Mexican workers into Oxnard during the 1930’s. They settled in La Colonia in the 1940’s. And we lived in the same house for more than 60 years! Oxnard and La Colonia is our home!

I’m a student of history. My current research as a historian has focused on the intersections of migration, labor, and activism on the Oxnard Plain, especially La Colonia. In one section of my research, I have focused my attention on the interaction of the Mexican community and the Oxnard Police Department (see the following post, Violence on the Oxnard Plain).

It is important to examine the past to understand the present and future. I was not shocked by Police Chief Williams response to my friend and historian Frank Barajas’s opinion column in the VC Star. The police chief stated that the column’s “academic perspective was obsolete, one-sided and distant from today’s OPD.”

First of all, Frank Barajas has a Ph.D. in History and just published a book on the Mexican community in Oxnard. Clearly, the police chief has no respect for local historians; she really believes that things are different now! But, the truth, it is not!

In the police chief response to Dr. Barajas, she mentions the following protests, Prop 187 (1994) and Prop 227 (1998) as being peaceful events. They were peaceful because of the organizers (Committee on Raza Rights and Union del Barrio) and the community, not the police. Clearly, the police chief (she an outsider) has no knowledge of Oxnard’s history because the largest protest to date was not Prop 187 or Prop 227, but when 10,000 people took over downtown Oxnard in protest over HR 4437 (2006). But, for many of us including myself, we witnessed harassment of the marchers and organizers by the OPD at those events!

As of today, police brutality continues. Check out the following post from Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective, Photography is Not a Crime: Oxnard Officer Needs To Be Identified So, in a nutshell, the police chief, and OPD really hate history, especially local historians!

If the police chief and the OPD are really concern about the current violence in our community, it is time for them to address our concerns about police brutality (i.e. killing of Limon, Ramirez, and other victims).

According to VC Star, the police chief will be available to address community concerns on Saturday, Nov 23, 2013, in South Oxnard (8:30a-10:30a) and La Colonia (11a-1p).


The following are VC Star’s opinion columns on police brutality!

OCT. 20, 2013

Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at CSU Channel Islands and is the author of “Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961.”

Over 150 people spoke on Sunday, October 13, at Camino Del Sol Park in Oxnard, some serenely and others with strong demands for justice, in observance of the one year anniversary of the police killing of Alfonso Limon Jr. As I observed the Limon family distribute t-shirts before the event with the image of Alfonso on the front and the names of nine Oxnard Police Department officers on the back, a woman approached me to ask I was Professor Barajas. I said I was. She informed me that her name was Rebecca Limon, the sister of Alfonso, and that she was a student of mine at California State University Channel Islands.

Rebecca expressed interest in my presence. I said that as a historian I periodically document the actions of the Chicano community by writing op-ed essays to situate current events within in a historical frame. I then asked if her family considered a request to the California Office of the Attorney General to investigate the killing of her brother. With grace Rebecca explained that the process first entailed an investigation from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department and an inquiry by Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.

Meanwhile, the Limon family will continue to seek answers and the timely prosecution of justice.

Rebecca’s sisters echoed this message in a circle of unity before the commencement of a peaceful protest march through the streets of La Colonia and Oxnard Boulevard.

As I listened to the words of the Limon family and members of Todo Poder Al Pueblo and observed a prayer service conducted by Aztec dancers, I panned the audience of community elders, youth, college professors, parents, infants in strollers, and students and alumni of my institution, CSU Channel Islands. Their presence mirrored moments of the recent and not so distant past when the Mexican community of Ventura County protested the perceived and real oppressive actions of law enforcement.

For example, in 1900 leaders of the Mexican community summoned the Mexican consul in Los Angeles to investigate the fiery death of two Mexican nationals in an Oxnard jail. Forty-five years later, the Mexican community of Oxnard protested the police use of batons and tear gas to break up a peaceful outdoor celebration along the boulevard.

When Police Chief George Pryor was confronted by members of the community he responded, “The tear gas wasn’t much good, anyway. . . We had it for a long time, and it gets weaker as it gets older. Why, it didn’t make’em cry very much. . . .”

In 1956, the OPD again fired tear gas as they stormed a crowd that enjoyed the festivities of a Cristo Rey Church bazaar in La Colonia after a reported disturbance. Tony Del Buono, Vera Gonzales, John Soria, and other activists formed the Oxnard Civic Improvement Association to collectively protest such abuse of power. Two years later in 1958, the OCIA converted itself to the Community Service Organization of Ventura County with Cesar E. Chavez as its director. A central concern of the CSO was police brutality.

Police relations in La Colonia had become strained to the point that many residents, particularly its youth, viewed law enforcement as not their protectors but as an agency that violated their rights with impunity. This expressed itself in 1958 when police officers responded to a boy being struck by a car in La Colonia. As they arrived at the scene, they found themselves pelted by rocks and bottles launched by neighborhood youths.

In my research of the Chicano Movement in Ventura County, long-time civically engaged citizens have shared stories how the police stopped African American and Mexican origin residents that dared to venture into white neighborhoods. In April of 1972 Mexican origin youth demonstrated against this sort of harassment by the Santa Paula Police. One Santa Paula police officer in particular was infamous for pulling over Chicanos who cruised the town to throw their car keys into an adjacent orchard.

It is this history and similar contemporary experiences generally not reported in the media that is absent from the public’s mind when considering peaceful yet militant demonstrations such at those organized by Todo Poder and the families who have lost loved ones to police violence.

As heartbreaking as the killing of Alfonso is, the Limon family is patient and determined to obtain answers to why and how he died at the hands of Oxnard Police Department. With the support of people in Ventura County and many others outside the area, they will wait for the legal process of justice to take its course.

OCT 27, 2013

Jeri Williams is chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

Re: Frank P. Barajas’ Oct. 20 guest column, “Waiting on the justice system”:

On the topic of public demonstrations in Oxnard, this recent opinion article delved back in time through Oxnard’s century-long history, citing past events in which the Oxnard Police Department responded to demonstrations with the use of batons and tear gas.

Most of the examples cited by the historian were from the 1940s and 1950s — such a long time ago, and a much different time altogether. These examples, intended to set a backdrop for today’s issues, are not reflective of modern-day policing.

The opinion article ignored the more recent history of the past two decades, a time in which the Oxnard Police Department implemented a host of progressive efforts and developed a strong and positive relationship with the community. The article’s academic perspective was obsolete, one-sided and distant from today’s Oxnard Police Department. We live in a much different time than those long-past decades.

During the past 14 months, five demonstrations have taken place in front of the Oxnard Police Department. Two weekends ago, about 150 people participated in a rally that observed the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of Alfonso Limon. This event was preceded in June by a demonstration that marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Robert Ramirez.

On Oct. 22 of last year, the Oxnard community witnessed a larger demonstration during National Day of Action Against Police Brutality, when approximately 450 people marched through the La Colonia neighborhood to the police station. Two other similar rallies were held in August of last year.

All of these demonstrations have involved marches to Oxnard’s Civic Center, including the Police Department’s headquarters building and Plaza Park.

It is a fundamental responsibility of the Oxnard Police Department to respect the public’s right to free speech and assembly, as is afforded by the First Amendment of the Constitution. This stance has been in place for many years, as demonstrated by the way the Police Department contended with more than 1,500 Proposition 187 demonstrators in 1994, and hundreds of Proposition 227 protesters in 1998. Both events, among the larger protests in Oxnard’s recent history, remained peaceful.

The Police Department has made many efforts to accommodate protesters. Last year, the Police Department made arrangements to facilitate parking for demonstrators. Preceding the recent demonstrations, our department made numerous efforts to reach out to its organizers, advising them of our role, but we received no response.

We have also been in regular communication with the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Services, whose conciliation specialists help mediate issues between the community and the police.

Though we continue to receive no response from the event’s organizers, we continue to contact members of the community, in hopes that the public understands our need to balance the right to free speech with the public’s safety.

Our department is committed to working with the community. Our officers have taken an oath to protect and serve our community. We will ensure that protesters’ rights of free speech and assembly are protected. However, we also have a responsibility to maintain order and protect the public’s safety.

During the recent marches, participants created traffic hazards by walking in the roadway of major thoroughfares. The demonstrators blocked both 3rd Street and ‘C’ Street in front of the police station as participants defaced the sidewalk, street, trees and bus stop with chalk inscriptions, much of which was profane.

In La Colonia, a transit bus was blocked from continuing on its route, and a pizza delivery driver was treated in a hostile manner by members of the crowd. The crowd ignored traffic signals and violated traffic laws as it walked up Oxnard Boulevard from 5th Street.

The participants walked north in the southbound lanes of Oxnard Boulevard, against the flow of traffic. This included children and marchers who were pushing toddlers in strollers. At one point, the group deliberately blocked all lanes of Oxnard Boulevard at Cooper Road for about 15 minutes, completely shutting down traffic in both directions.

This caused an immediate impact on traffic flow on Oxnard Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in this city, which required officers to divert traffic into residential neighborhoods. The actions of the group created a safety hazard to motorists and marchers alike.

While we recognize that demonstrators have a right to express themselves, they also have a responsibility to obey laws. California law allows police officers up to a year to cite or arrest for traffic infractions and misdemeanors. As with the other marches, evidence will be examined for intentional acts committed by individuals that jeopardize the public’s safety.

NOV. 3, 2013

Elliott Gabriel is an organizer with the Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective. He submitted the column on behalf of the collective.

Re: Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams’ Oct. 27 guest column, “Different times call for different police measures”:

With a strong sense of distaste, the Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective and the families of Oxnard’s police brutality victims read Williams’ guest column.

The chief apparently feels that the community’s expectations of justice can be silenced through intimidation alone. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Oct. 13 marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting of innocent bystander Alfonso Limon, Jr. by nine Oxnard police officers, as well as the extrajudicial killing of Jose Zepeda. That day, the families, friends and neighbors of Robert Ramirez, Michael Mahoney and Limon stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a nonpermitted yet entirely peaceful mobilization that showed the remarkable dignity, vigilance and discipline of our community.

However, Chief Williams seems to feel as though gestures like the offering of “parking accommodations” can help heal the deep wounds resulting from her officers’ actions. Her insensitive tone suggests a clear disconnect with the community whose public safety she’s sworn to assure.

Until her appointment by scandal-plagued former City Manager Ed Sotelo in fall 2010, Williams was an assistant police chief in Phoenix. As a newcomer, she shouldn’t misuse her privileged role to lecture Frank Barajas, a respected educator and local historian.

Instead, Williams should familiarize herself with his writings, where she can learn of the countless fighters who put their lives, comfort and safety on the line to secure the rights of residents in the face of harsh exploitation, institutional racism and routine police brutality.

Referring to the popular mood of past generations, Barajas wrote, “Police relations in La Colonia had become strained to the point that many residents, particularly its youth, viewed law enforcement as not their protectors but as an agency that violated their rights with impunity.”

Once Williams sets aside her contempt for the inconvenient lessons of our shared local history, she’ll discover that she’s echoing former Chief of Police A.E. Jewell, who also wrote Opinion pieces to protest community outrage.

In an op-ed published April 9, 1962, in the Oxnard Press-Courier, Jewell complained of the widespread allegations of criminal abuse of power under color of law: “Charges were hurled recklessly of police brutality in general.”

Civil rights partisan Juan Soria responded: “It certainly is appalling to see that these things exist in Oxnard. It is time for a change to take place.” What’s past is prologue.

Some changes have taken place, yet the OPD’s entrenched culture of disrespect toward the city’s Chicano, immigrant and working-class residents still persists. This is precisely why we refuse to take part in inconsequential public-relations spectacles hosted by the department.

For many in our community, police misconduct remains the foremost threat to public safety — just ask the families of the victims.

Meanwhile, our collective continues to receive complaints of police abuse from residents across the city.

We won’t be lulled into a false sense of security through the repetition of sweet-sounding yet hollow phrases like “community policing.” Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be squandered on outsourced private vendors such as the misleadingly-named Office of Independent Review.

We prefer democratic solutions that serve the public interest like an elected, independent civilian review board that has the power to hire, fire and impose disciplinary measures. Officers implicated in killings must be removed from our streets, and an independent prosecutor should be appointed to investigate police negligence and malfeasance.

Chief Williams’ guest column wasn’t her first threat to arrest participants in Oxnard’s anti-brutality mobilizations. She has launched similar threats in the past, privately through her proxies.

At the time, we responded: “According to the OPD’s perverse notions of ‘justice,’ officers are free to kill the innocent and spray densely populated neighborhoods of families with high-caliber gunfire while jaywalking and writing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk somehow constitute serious crimes.

“However, while chalk can easily be washed away with water, the spilled blood of the victims doesn’t evaporate — it sinks deep into our streets and becomes embedded into the memory and consciousness of our community. Despite recent threats from the Oxnard Police Department to arrest organizers who continue to fight against police brutality, our belief is that the only true power lies in the people standing strong against all forms of aggression or humiliation.”

We stand by these words; bullying approaches won’t win the community’s confidence.

No justice, no peace!