Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Stop ignoring the police killings of Latinos

Black-white racial binary renders Hispanics invisible in the police brutality debate

February 7, 2016 2:00AM ET

The killing of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez in Denver was one of the most notorious incidents of police shootings last year. Hernandez was shot four times after she allegedly drove a stolen car toward an officer. Her death sparked public outcry and protests, but the national media largely ignored the story.

The lack of national media attention to Hernandez’s death was not surprising. Police kill Latinos at a higher rate than whites. Latinos were the second largest group killed by police in 2015 after blacks. The Guardian documented 194 killings but that number could be higher if all deaths were counted and if Hispanic were classified as a race. It is possible that several Latino deaths were added to white and black categories.

But few police shootings of Latinos make national headlines. The lack of national attention and outrage stems from the poor understanding of the history of state violence against them in the United States.

Police shootings of Latinos have generated outrage in Latino communities for decades, but this history tends to be ignored. For example, the Latino community in Denver has organized against police brutality since the 1960s, but the sparse coverage of Hernandez’s death lacked this historical context.

The media interest in police killings of unarmed black men has picked up in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, several media outlets have asked why there is little to no public outrage over police shootings of Latinos. Some analyses have argued that this neglects results from the erroneous assumption that most Latinos are undocumented immigrants. In other words, police killings of Latinos spark less outrage because they are viewed as foreigners. These claims have merit, but they fall short of addressing a critical factor behind the neglect for Latino lives: Latino history has not been fully integrated into mainstream American history.

Latinos have formed organizations to address police brutality and other issues that affect their communities since the 1940s. These include the Brown Berets, Community Alert Patrol, Crusaders for Justice, Young Lords Party and Chicano Revolutionary Party. For example, the Community Alert Patrol was formed in 1968 in the eastside of San Jose, California, a predominately Mexican-American community. It challenged the nearly all-white San Jose Police Department to be more accountable. Activists followed cops around with cameras and tape recorders to document incidents of police abuse. However, the efforts of these groups remain largely erased from popular memory.

In the 1960s, incidents of police brutality sparked riots in poor and working-class Latino communities, primarily in Puerto Rican, Mexican and Central American neighborhoods. Several cities including Chicago and Hartford, Connecticut were hit by Latino riots. The protests continued through the 1990s: Camden, New Jersey, in 1971; Newark, New Jersey, in 1974; Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 1988; Washington, D.C., in 1991; and Los Angeles in 1992. The most recent Latino protests over police violence occurred in Anaheim, California, in 2012 and Salinas, California, in 2014.

Yet these historic Latino riots were overshadowed by black riots, as they are now. “The incidents in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Newark have gained a more prevalent focus from historians because of their African-American, racially charged nature that fall under the umbrella of ‘race riots’ during the 1960s and 1970s,” according to Yale doctoral student Pedro Regalado. If these riots remain in obscurity, Americans will struggle to understand the challenges that plague poor and working-class Latino communities. 

It is time to jettison the black-white binary that renders Latinos invisible and contributes to the denial of historical and present-day injustices against their community.

This lack of understanding for the history of police violence against Latinos also leads to selective outrage to incidents that are strikingly similar. The 2013 shooting death of 13-year-old Latino teen, Andy Lopez, in Santa Rosa, California, sparked less outrage than the killing of 12-year-old African-American teen, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland. Both incidents involved children holding a toy gun. Both were declared justified shootings. However, unlike the plethora of articles and outrage from Rice’s killing, Lopez’s tragedy remained a local issue and inspired only local protests.

Police killings of Latinos have troublingly historical roots. Yet it is often viewed as an anomaly. For contemporary state violence against brown bodies to have more social meaning, Americans must learn about historical incidents such as the lynching of Mexicans in the Southwest, border violence and the forced sterilization of Mexican and Puerto Rican women.

We also need be informed about what’s happening today: Latino communities are still disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. From 2011 to 2012 Latino households in Allentown, Pennsylvania, were 29 times more likely to be targeted by SWAT raids than white households. Latinos and whites make up 42.8 and 43.2 percent of the city’s population. Similarly, in 2011, Latino drivers were nearly five times more likely to be pulled over by police than whites in Milwaukee. Latinos and whites make up 17.3 and 44.8 percent of Milwaukee’s total population.

Latino national leaders have been criticized for deliberately ignoring unpleasant issues that affect their communities. “While a number of influential African-Americans have spoken out vehemently against mass incarceration, Latino leaders have proven inept at mirroring this outrage,” investigative journalist Aaron Cantu wrote in 2014. “Latino leaders seem as if they’d rather sweep the issue —and those most affected by it—under the rug, out of sight and the way of their efforts to acclimate into elite American society.”

It is possible that some Latino leaders ignore police brutality out of fear that concerns of Latino communities will be associated with black issues. It was not until October 2015 that the National Council of La Raza decided to examine police relations within Latino communities.

It is time to jettison the black-white binary that renders Latinos invisible and contributes to the denial of historical and present-day injustices against their community. The neglect for the plight of Latinos also undermines the courageous work of generation of activists who labored to mend police-community relations. Americans can no longer remain ignorant of the history of police violence against Latinos. Lives are at stake.

Aaron G. Fountain Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter