On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced that it would be sending a federal mediator to Pasco, Washington next week to initiate talks between community leaders and the city police department. This is the latest development following the February 10 shooting of Antonio-Zambrano-Montes by local law enforcement. Zambrano, 35, was unarmed when police fired on him 17 times after he was observed throwing rocks into traffic.
His death has roiled Latinos in Pasco who want a federal inquiry into the excessive use of force by the police. A front-page story in the New York Times recently referred to the incident as a “Ferguson moment for Hispanics.”
But whether the Pasco shooting has morphed into a “Ferguson moment” remains an open question. Activists and journalists say that while there are similarities between Zambrano’s death and incidents involving African-American victims, his killing has not resonated with the mainstream media and the public in the same way. They point to factors suggesting that the names of Zambrano and other Latinos killed by law enforcement may never become as well known as Michael Brown, whose death in Ferguson sparked a national discussion on race and policing, or Eric Garner, whose choking death by New York police was captured on video.
Blanca Torres, a columnist for the Seattle Times who grew up in Pasco, does not see the Zambrano case as an issue of racial or ethnic tensions. “To me, this is about what is going on with the police. This is not just about Ferguson, or Pasco. The question is, why are these incidents escalating?”
Torres said that some of her readers seemed inclined to dismiss the Pasco killing because Zambrano was an undocumented immigrant. She rejects comparisons to Ferguson because she views them as simplistic. “What does ‘another Ferguson’ even mean? I do not care for that comparison at all. I don’t feel like it provides any light on the situation.”
Maria Hinojosa, executive producer and host of NPR’s “Latino USA,” believes that comparisons with Ferguson must be nuanced. “I think for the sake of understanding the media, Ferguson has come to represent police misconduct leading in most cases to death,” she said. “I understand the need to make a comparison, to say “Latino Ferguson,” but we need to understand that what is happening in the Latino and immigrant community is something very specific. There is a new, particular kind of discrimination that you face if you are Latino or immigrant.”
“Not based on any investigative work,” Hinojosa said, “but I believe there have been shootings of immigrants that we don’t even know about. They occur and go underground because of the particular dynamic that Latinos live right now.”
According to an analysis of Center for Disease Control statistics, Latinos are victims of police killings at 30 percent above average, and at 1.9 times the rate of whites. The state where a person is most likely to be killed by police is New Mexico – which is also the state with the top ranking for Hispanics as total percentage of the population (47%).
Between 2003 and 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics data showed that 949 Latinos were killed by law enforcement in “arrest-related deaths.” However – as Hinojosa suggests – the actual numbers of Latinos killed by law enforcement may be higher, because DOJ figures are based on self-reported data from police departments.
Nationally, there is no shortage of cases involving unarmed Latinos who have been killed by law enforcement. In the same month that Zambrano was killed, police in Grapevine, Texas, killed Ruben Garcia Villalpando (February 20), and Santa Ana, Calif., police shot and killed Javier Canepa Diaz (February 27). These cases include children, too. Andy Lopez, 13, was carrying a BB gun when he was killed by a sheriff's deputy in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 2013.
So why haven’t the killings of Hispanics by law enforcement generated more national media interest? The reasons, according to experts, range from the complex to the prosaic.
“When you look at the dialogue that emerged around Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that Black/white dialogue is one that has been happening for three or four hundred years,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the research firm Latino Decisions and a former professor at the University of Washington. “The media is far more familiar with that narrative, and less involved in tensions involving Latinos and immigrants.”
Barreto said that coverage of the Pasco shooting was better in the western states than it was nationally. “On the east coast, the dominant story of police/community relations is that it is a Black/white issue, and that leaves Latinos out.”
He also noted that the African-American community has a more prominent civil rights community. A figure like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, he pointed out, can generate headlines simply by showing up at a protest. “The Latino groups such as MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) are not yet accorded the same level of stature.”
Barreto cited the role that African-American journalists played in elevating the conversation surrounding excessive police force. “There were many African-American journalists who went to Ferguson immediately and began highlighting inconsistencies in the police report, and asking questions,” he said. “And then the national media followed. The critical element was the sense of injustice that generated by this investigative work. We haven’t seen such in-depth coverage in Pasco.”
The lack of diversity in newsrooms also contributes to the media overlooking stories involving Latinos and law enforcement. “Too often, the mainstream media has left Latino issues to Spanish-language media as if they were something separate,” said Mekahlo Medina, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “If you have a victim who is an immigrant or who is Spanish-speaking, some producers figure it is a Univision or Telemundo story.”
Gustavo Arellano, author and editor of the OC Weekly (in Southern California) offered other reasons why Pasco has not inspired a movement or national conversation like Ferguson. “Pasco is hard to get to. You have to fly to Seattle, take a connecting flight, then drive for a couple of hours. Most people do not have the time or wherewithal to make that journey,” he said. “It is not easy to go and protest there, whereas in Ferguson, it was adjacent to St. Louis, and easier for reporters and protesters to get to.”
Arellano wondered why national Latino political leaders, who have been outspoken on issues like immigration reform, have not been more visible on issues of police violence. “It sometimes seems like it is easier to get people to protest international issues than things right here at home,” he said. “It seems easier to rally around the 43 disappeared students in Mexico than it is to get people to care about police brutality,” he said.
Still, Latinos are concerned about police violence. A poll last year by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that Hispanics support the notion that the police exist to protect the public. Yet 68 percent of Hispanics worried that police would use excessive force against them, and only 26 percent believed that police treated Latinos fairly most of the time.
NBC News Latino reported Tuesday that in a new national poll, one in five Hispanics said they had been treated unfairly by police and law enforcement.
Arellano has seen progress in how the media covers the use of excessive force by police against Latinos. “When we (the OC Weekly) covered the shootings by Anaheim police in 2012, the mainstream media was mostly interested because they occurred close to Disneyland,” he said. “We had a police department that was out of control, yet most people didn't even think there was police brutality against Mexicans.”
“Now we take a sort of grim satisfaction that, within just a few years, America is more attuned to police brutality, including violence against Latinos,” he said. “We just wish they had been more attuned to it over the past 40 years.”