Sunday, June 19, 2016

For the record: when the SFPD put Dolores Huerta in the hospital

Dolores Huerta had always been feisty. Alongside Cesar Chavez, she co-founded the movement that became the United Farm Workers union which fought for migrant agricultural workers in California through the 60s and 70s. The UFW was an incubator for Latino organizing in the Golden State, inspiring action far beyond the fields.

Huerta was no stranger to violence. Not only had workers been shot in the course of the UFW's strikes, but she was part of Robert F. Kennedy's party when he was murdered in 1968 in a Los Angeles hotel just hours after winning the California Democratic presidential primary.

In 1988 Huerta was a respected and significant figure in labor, Democratic, and activist politics when she joined a peaceful demonstration in Union Square outside a George H.W. Bush fundraiser. The crowd was noisy, but contained. But San Francisco police chose to charge, using their thrusting batons to fracture Huerta's ribs and rupturing her spleen.

Janice Leber was reporting for radio station KPFA that night and recounted her experiences.

The event was President George Bush's campaign swing through the Golden $tate, and many Bay Area groups were meeting and greeting him San Francisco-style, with nasty signs and slogans. A bunch of union loyalists were carrying "Dukakis for President" signs and chanting, "We Like Mike!" (One fellow started shouting, "We Like Jesse!" which earned him some dirty looks.) ACT-UP was there with their whistles and shouts of "Shame!" A corps of drummers kept up an incessant racket. Food Not Bombs served up wholesome food to all.

In short, it was a typical response to a visit by an incumbent Republican fat cat. [She interviewed Huerta.]

... Then, for some reason I still don't understand, the cops decided it was time to clear the sidewalk. Okay. No problem. 

Oh, except -- problem. There are people in front of me, officer. I'm trying to clear the sidewalk, really I am, but there are people in front of me. And still, more people were pushing against me. The crowd became so compacted I felt I could lift my feet off the ground and I would have remained upright. ...

Eventually I was scraping up against a concrete tree planter. I had nowhere to go, and was still being pushed. As I contemplated my skinned shins I felt a THUD, somebody's elbow HARD in my back. I thought, "Hey man, I know it's crowded but there's no reason to get physical!" I turned to tell the guy behind me just that when I saw that I had been poked hard not by an errant elbow, but by the business end of a billy club.

... The adrenaline rush was still going when I was back home watching the KRON Eleven O'Clock News. Those sneaky bastards. As the cops began their maneuver I had watched them systematically removing TV cameras from the sidewalk area before they began poking the crowd. But Channel 4's cameraman (bless you, dude) snuck back onto the sidewalk while the police were distracted with the crowd. And this one nasty cop got caught on video, doing a number on Dolores Huerta.

And as I watched the news that night, I watched myself. I saw me in my black jacket, with my goofy '88 perm, exactly right next to Dolores Huerta right before she was first struck. I watched myself leaping away in slow-motion as the club descended on her. A lump grew in my throat. That poke on my back …  that cop warmed up on me.

But I was too big, physically. Petite Dolores would be such a better target for one's rage.

Or could it be this guy knew who she was, knew what an effective political fighter she was…?

Regardless of that cop's motives, his actions were inhuman.

As it happens, I was about 10 feet behind Huerta that night and can confirm that the police charge was both unwarranted and seemed intended to injure. Most got away, but some became targets.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Mayor Art Agnos watched the police tapes of the event with Police Chief Frank Jordan:

Dolores Huerta, 58-year-old grandmother and union vice-president, was under sedation and in fair condition at San Francisco General Hospital after doctors removed her spleen and treated two fractured ribs. Family and union officials charged that police attacked Huerta during the demonstration....

"I will not tolerate anything that is not part of authorized crowd control tactics," said Agnos, who paid a bedside visit to Huerta, a longtime political ally and friend. After reviewing police tapes with Chief Jordan, Agnos said he identified Huerta in the crowd that was being moved from the front of the hotel to Geary Street. Agnos said he doubted that the 5-foot-2-inch Huerta who weighs 110 pounds, resisted police. "We could see she was being very cooperative, Agnos said, "We could even read her lips, saying 'I'm moving.'"

So what came of this? Huerta lost her spleen and recovered. The city paid her a judgment of $825,000. Agnos was a one term mayor; he was succeeded in office by the Police Chief, Frank Jordan. I have not been able to find a record of what happened to the officers who gave Huerta a beating. In reporting the settlement, the LA Times reported:

Since then, the police force has changed its rules regarding police discipline and crowd control methods.

The Huerta case prompted three internal police investigations, three criminal grand jury inquiries, three supervisors' hearings and three probes by the Office of Citizen Complaints, the city's civilian police watchdog group.

I have to wonder if the officers who beat Huerta retired with their pensions as so many rogue cops have, before and since.

Posts titled "For the record" will appear here occasionally as long as San Franciscans continue to have to struggle to rein in a police department which has killed five civilians in the last two years in circumstances in which officers' justifications for their use of force strain credulity. Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat, and Jessica Williams are dead. No officer has been charged or (as far as we know) disciplined. In fact, since 2000, the SFPD has killed 42 civilians; no officers have been charged. A culture of impunity in the SFPD is not new; in the over 40 years I've lived in this city, new cases involving officers mistreating residents have recurred over and over.

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