About a half hour before midnight on Sunday, the fourth of May, at the corner of 38th and Federal, the Denver Chief of Police shook my hand. "Whad'ya think?" he asked.
Noncommittally, I shrugged and in turn asked him, "You remember me?"
"No," he responded, trying to remember why I'd think that he'd remember me.
"I'm Leo," I answered his unspoken question. "Leo Griep-Ruiz. I was one of the organizers of the medical teams for the demonstrations back in '91 and '92."
His face clouded briefly as he remembered the tumultuous days of the anti-Persian Gulf War and "Columbus" Day protests in Denver.
I had my field recording equipment and was accompanying a young Xicano filmmaker, Gwylym Cano. Together we were documenting the Cinco De Mayo celebration in the Northside Barrio. We wanted to see for ourselves, and to feel, what was going on out there on the street. What we got was more than we expected.
We'd anticipated meeting a certain suspicion, a common experience for any journalist in a highly-charged situation. But except for a couple of penetrating stares, the reaction from the thousands of celebrants was warm acceptance.The streets were jammed bumper-to-bumper with urban youth, rural rancheros, all of the colors of humanity, outrageous lowriders, and family stationwagons. I was overwhelmed with a sense of the fragile beauty of exuberant youth. It is a bittersweet feeling: seeing their unbridled expressions of joy and pride and knowing of the tragedies lurking in the shadows.
Gwyl and I were about three blocks away from the scene of the fatal shooting at the corner of Speer and Federal on Saturday night. We got there minutes after it happened. We stayed across the street. Our involvement with the crime scene was the same as that of the hugely overwhelming majority of the cruisers who were in no way involved in any violence whatsoever.
The noise, the honking and the cheering, muted as the parade of vehicles approached the cluster of flashing red and blue lights, the many police officers, the yards of yellow crime scene tape, the photographers, the ambulance. The young witnesses waiting to be interviewed, perhaps friends of the victim, leaned against the back of a police car with their arms crossed trying to warm themselves, to hold themselves, to comfort themselves in their sudden isolation from the celebration streaming silently past them.
There were three other incidents of violence that night. I was not present at any of them.
Was this violence within the rate of the "ambient" violence which occurs in Denver? There's about one killing in Denver every week and a half, about a dozen non-fatal shootings and stabbings a week. Was the violence which occurred on Saturday night due to the nature of the festivities or was it the result of having so many Denverites concentrated in one place at one time? Did locating all of those persons on Federal, rather than someplace else, keep other acts of violence from occurring?
Sunday night on Federal was busier and noisier than Saturday. We spent most of our time on the southeast corner of 37th Avenue and Federal, the site of an improvised checkpoint, interrogation center, and vehicle impoundment facility.
Gwylym and I watched as at least a dozen vehicles were selected from the passing thousands and motioned over from northbound Federal to eastbound 37th. We were not more than 5-6 yards from most of these incidents. We could see a reason for stopping perhaps two out of every ten of the vehicles which were pulled over.
We saw a young man who offered no resistance handcuffed and forced to sit on the curb. Before removing his handcuffs, the officer wrote him out a citation and poked it into the young man's right front pants pocket in an obvious show of authority. We saw vehicles towed away for no proof of insurance.
On the west side of Federal, across the street from us, a crowd of three or four dozen youths stood on the sidewalk in front of a couple houses with sloping front lawns. From time to time a few of them stood in the gutter, just like at a parade. The officer who was pulling cars over crossed the street a half dozen times, occasionally with his partner in tow, and forced the youth back up on the lawn by ordering them off the sidewalk. A couple of times I followed the police across the street.
On one of these excursions I ran into Adrienne Benavides, the head of the Denver police review board. She was just arriving at the intersection where Gwylym and I had been for the previous hour. I made the comment that prohibiting access to the sidewalk to those youth was unnecessary harassment. She responded, "Well, they are loitering."
I described what seemed like the arbitrary selection of vehicles. While we were talking, three vehicles with youth sitting on the windows (an obvious violation of vehicle safety regulations) were motioned over to the impoundment area across the street. Ms. Benavides said to me, "Well, all of the vehicles I've seen have been pulled over for good reason."
I invited her to come across the street and observe the police activities from our vantage point at the scene of the arrests and towings. She turned me down as a gust of wind blew by saying that she was getting dust under her contact lenses.
A brief time later Gwyl and I ran into a group of young friends. They animatedly recounted how students of the Escuela Tlatelolco had been standing on school property watching the cruising, when the police arrived and ordered them to disperse. The director of the school apparently responded "We're on our own property, they're students here, and I'm in charge."
The youth said that he was arrested and taken away after being chased to the ground and handcuffed. Moments later one of them pointed out Denver's Manager of Public Safety, the head police administrator, "There's Butch Montoya. Go interview him!"
I thought for a moment and responded, "I don't have anything to say to him, but you do." The youth all looked at me like What? Us? "Go tell him about what happened at the Escuela. Just let him know about it. Ask him what he can do."
We walked over as a group to where Mr. Montoya stood near his car in the Total gas station parking lot. There were four youth, Gwyl with his video gear, and me with my tape recorder.
"Mr. Montoya," I said. "These youth would like to speak with you about an incident they witnessed."
Two or three times they tried to tell him what they'd seen, what their concerns were. He brushed them off saying "I wasn't there."
I interjected, "Sir, they're not asking you for your view of the incident, they just want to tell you what they saw."
He responded, "I'm going to speak with Nita Gonzales about it," referring to the head of the social services agency which sponsers the school.
"In other words," I inquired, "you're not interested in what these youth have to say?"
He refused further comment.
But later, after the cruisers and revelers had been dispersed, and I sat on the fire hydrant on the corner surveying the empty streets, Chief Michaud came up to me and shook my hand like a politician running for office. I wish that all the cops would be that polite with all of our youth. After all, isn't the role of an adult to set an example for the youth instead of exacerbating tensions which will resonate for a lifetime?
How do you explain torture to children? I had no choice: I had to do it... It was a direct question from a child who had raised his hand in a classroom full of children and I had all eyes - even the teacher's - upon me in assured expectation of an answer.
I was in the company of a young Maya woman who had fled Guatemala twelve years earlier after the night that the men in the pickup truck took her father away, never to be seen again. Where she comes from nine-year-old children don't have to have words like "torture" and "decapitation" explained to them.
But here, half a day's plane ride away from the refugee camps of Chiapas and the killing fields of the Guatemalan countryside, I struggled to explain torture.
"Everyone had something they're afraid of," I said. I told them to close their eyes and imagine what they're afraid of... Walking home in the dark and someone is hiding, waiting, next to the dumpster in the alley...
Torture is what it is called when someone does things to you which you don't like and most of those things hurt. A lot. Sometimes they hurt so much that you die. Sometimes they hurt so much that the person being tortured will do anything, anything, to stop the pain.
In some places when a whole family, even the children, work all day they get paid only enough for housing, food, medicine, or clothes. That's right: pick one, only one... housing, food, medicine, or clothes. And the persons who complain get tortured to make them shut up. Sometimes they die.
The ones who do the torturing are paid by the same rich people who don't pay their workers enough to be healthy and go to school because keeping the workers poor makes the rich people even richer.
This is, of course, not a new story. But we should note that it is not something which happened long ago in the "distant" past: torture, government-sponsored or sanctioned, is occurring somewhere on this planet as I write (and you read!) these words.
So I ask myself "How am I benefiting from this pattern of exploitation and repression?" The answer is obvious: I am afloat in a sea of wealth whose tide runs so high that I can buy virtually everything I need and wear second-hand!
Then I ask myself "How am I contributing to the liberation of the ones whose oppression benefits me?"
Here's where some on the ones reading this will probably think that I'm some kind of bleeding heart wacko. Most folks, after all, compartmentalize their lives in such a way that unless something happens in their face "it" doesn't concern them. This alienation is rationalized by saying "Oh, that's so far away..." or "Oh, that happened so long ago..."
Can't you imagine slave owners in 1850 indignantly protesting "Whut? Leggo mah slabes? Hit ain't mah fawlt mah daddy leffum tuh me. Ah didden bringum ovah frum Africah. Hit wuz mah grate-grate-granpappy whut boughten th' breeden stock..."
Let us suppose that my father stole your father's farm. Let us suppose that your father and your mother and you, a tender babe-in-arms, were driven from your home because my father and his buddies burned your crops, shot your livestock, and lynched the hired help. What if I were to suddenly demonstrate my willingness to "let bygones by bygones" by hiring you, at minimum wage, as a field hand. What, if any, damages could you, should you, would you try to collect from me, the owner through inheritance of what was once your family's farm?
This is not a question to be taken lightly. historically frustrated claims for restitution will, over time, frequently ferment into an urge for retribution. The injured party, whether an individual, a class, a people, or a nation, will seek retribution in inverse proportion to their perceived likelihood of receiving restitution. This is not my opinion; it is history.
Land is only one of the objects of this dynamic. Other tangibles and intangibles also subject to theft are artifacts, livestock, human beings (remember slavery?), food, language, spirituality... In other words: culture. This is just an inkling of why we oppose Official English and just a tiny part of what we mean when we say that the Indigenous People of this Continent Of The Sun are reclaiming what is rightfully ours.
The voice on the phone was muted and not urgent, but trying to convey something urgently. "Jimmy's dead."
"Oh no," I responded. It was that hole again. That bottomless chasm which we are usually unaware of, but which accompanies all living beings until the moment that they fall into it. I tried to get one last glimpse of my friend, but I knew it was hopeless. I knew that he was gone forever until, perhaps, I follow him into those depths and we will greet each other once again.
Jimmy Omura was brave and humble. As a young man he had stood up to the power of the United States government and challenged it to do its worst to him, because justice was on his side and he knew it. It was World War II and President Roosevelt had ordered that all persons of Japanese ancestry on the west coast be concentrated into camps which were hastily erected in desolate and out of the way places. They were allowed to take only those personal goods which they could carry. After this wholesale removal of over 120,000 human beings from their homes, the young men over the age of 18 were first asked to volunteer and then sent induction notices.
Get it? They were behind barbed wire with armed guards in watch towers looming over them and they were drafted! All of their possessions, the homes, their land, their vehicles, everything except what they could carry with their own two hands was gone - poof! - and they were expected to go off and fight for the government which was holding their families hostage as pawns in a possible trade for prisoners of war with the government of Japan. Well, some of them did volunteer and others agreed to be drafted, thinking that in this way they could prove their loyalty to the US. They were sworn in, trained, and many of them formed into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated fighting unit in the US Army. Many others, however, refused to enter into the Armed Forces until their families were once again allowed their constitutional rights. Their action in refusing to serve under those conditions was the source of tremendous controversy both inside and outside of the camps. One of the persons who supported them was the young editor of The Rocky Shimpo, the Japanese community's newspaper published in Denver. This young newspaperman was my friend, the late Jimmy Omura.
Among the repercussions for his courageous act of conscience was his being ostracized from the press and in large part from community life. You might have seen Jimmy on the job or driving to and from work: he was a gardener, a Japanese gardener. It is a stereotype which is fast fading from the American scene, but it was certainly one of the prevalent images of Japanese men in this country during the 50's, 60's and 70's.
My thoughts turned to memories of Jimmy as I listened to a recent radio program commemorating the life of another warrior for justice who has passed on to the Spirit World, Judi Barri. Judi was one of the organizers who did the seemingly impossible: she organized a broad-based movement involving environmentalists and loggers in support of ecologically-sound sustainable logging in the Pacific northwest.
Most folks outside of Northern California had not heard of her until the day that her car blew up almost killing her and injuring her companion and fellow organizer, Darryl Cherney. The FBI arrested her as she lay near death on a hospital bed on charges of possessing and transporting an explosive. She was later cleared of all charges in court. Interestingly none of the death threats that she received before the bombing have been examined for leads in tracking down the actual perpetrators of that cowardly act against a person who was never known to have done violence to anyone. She is sorely missed. She is sorely needed.
I few years ago I spent a lot of time with ranchers, cattle ranchers. I drank coffee with them and listened to them talk about their concerns as brucellosis claimed more and more of their herds. I understand the issues surrounding cattle, especially cattle on public land. I am entirely sympathetic with the ones who are raising their concerns about the degradation of the countryside and the taxpayers' support of ranching through various deals, including access to public lands. I certainly understand that it takes an inefficient amount of vegetable protein to produce animal protein. But as I write this I am wearing leather boots and a leather belt. In my pocket is an eyeglass case which I made of three kinds of leather: steer, goat, and water buffalo. I eat meat. Most of you do too. I am amused, but ranchers are infuriated by the self-righteous dietary missionaries who go off on any available carnivore, but who are wearing leather as they speak. The ranchers would openly sneer at any mention of the "tree-huggers" whose only contact with the out of doors is on an occasional weekend spent well-wrapped in a thousand dollars worth of Gortex.
This chasm of misunderstanding represents the distance that must somehow be breached in order to come up with a workable scheme for land use now and into the future. The late Judi Barri breached that gap. It is sad that she's gone because we need her, or someone like her, right here in Colorado. South central Colorado is the scene of one of the most brutal assaults upon the integrity of the land in recent memory. The logging currently under way in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the southeastern part of the San Luis Valley is a devastation of the land without precedent in the area. It is being carried out almost as if intended to ruin the Culebra River watershed. The small farmers and ranchers downstream of Zack Taylor's operation are living in fear of the erosion which threatens to clog the streams and irrigation ditches which they have maintained sustainably for generations. More than farms and ranches are being threatened: it's a whole way of life.
I never met Judi, but I am certain that she and Jimmy would have hit it off well. They were both persons of rare personal courage and they both dedicated their lives to living things. Their lives are a challenge to all of us to back our words up with our actions.