“My son's dreams were cut short”: protests against police brutality go viral in Mexico, the US, and beyond
As soon as COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the rumors started: it had been prophesied all along! Psychic Sylvia Browne had predicted it in her 2008 book End of Days, writing: “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe…” Brazilian author Melissa Tobias described it in her novel A realidade de Madhu: a “global pandemic that would kill more than three billion earthdwellers.” Some even attributed prophetic powers to the end credits scene of the 2001 film Planet of the Apes, depicting how a new disease could quickly spread across the globe through air travel.
It didn’t take psychic powers to foresee how quickly a pandemic would spread, though. And in this age of unprecedented interconnectivity, infectious diseases aren’t the only thing that goes viral. Social tendencies seem to crop up simultaneously in distant corners of the globe. The recent rise of the far-right—in such disparate countries as Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, and the United States—is just one example.
Most recently, police violence—and the mass protests in response to it—are making news across the globe. While protests erupt across the US in response to the murder of George Floyd, Mexico’s people have protested their nation’s own wave of public police brutality cases.
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30-year-old Giovanni López, a low-income construction worker, was sitting on the stoop of his aunt’s house on May 4. He was just finishing dinner along with his aunt and brother. They lived in a poor, dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of the lakeside town of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, in the state of Jalisco. Despite Ixtlahuacán’s tourism economy and large US expat community, the surrounding towns languish in neglect.
Police officers approached Giovanni, detained him, and threw him into a truck, along with seven other neighborhood locals. According to eyewitness accounts and early media reports, Giovanni was detained for not wearing a facemask. (The State of Jalisco made masks mandatory in public as of April.) The authorities countered that he was detained on suspicion of substance abuse and for assaulting the officers.
Giovanni spent that night in jail. While in police custody, officers beat him severely and sent him to the hospital. He died the following morning. Nearly a month went by before the case was made public. (In the State of Jalisco, the odds of a crime being solved are 0.6%, many languishing in a bureaucratic bottleneck of stacked files.) It wasn’t until early June, when reporters began to pressure the state authorities, that the police finally announced they “would look into the case.”
By that time the news had become public. A month after Giovanni’s death, his brother posted a video of his detention online, which quickly went viral. At the peak of coronavirus infections in Mexico, outraged crowds flooded the city of Guadalajara and marched to the state capital. Clashes soon erupted between protesters and police. Police cars were burned and government buildings graffitied. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. Similar protests rocked Mexico City and other large cities across the country.
As in the case of George Floyd, of course, this one public case represented the tip of the iceberg, a face and name to put on years of abuse and impunity. As in so many countries, tensions were high after months of quarantine, fear, job loss, and uncertainty. Outrage at police violence, long festering like a sore, had now exploded, to paraphrase Langston Hughes.
Other cases have emerged in the wake of Giovanni’s death. A video surfaced in early June, from the northern border city of Tijuana, which shows police officers stepping on a detained man’s neck. The man later died.
On June 11, teenager Alexander Martinez went to a local store with his friends to buy soft drinks. Alexander lived in the town of Acatlán de Pérez Figueroa, in the southern state of Oaxaca. He was a well-liked, athletic boy, on the fast track to a career as a professional soccer player. When he and his friends left the store on their motorcycles, municipal police officers ordered them to stop. When they didn’t, an officer shot to kill.
As the newspaper El País reported, “There are corners of Mexico where they shoot first and ask questions later. Violence sets the rules for this macabre game.” 1
The authorities responded that they had mistaken him for a criminal—an all-too-common claim.
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Many in the US are used to hearing of state violence in other countries. “Well, of course that happens in Mexico,” some friends have told me regarding these recent events. Even more than police impunity, the violent repression of free speech is often described as “a foreign phenomenon.” For many Americans who have never set foot in a demonstration, repression is something those other countries do. The government fires on unarmed protesters in Russia, in China, in Iran. Millions watched the lone protester stand against tanks in Tiananmen Square and said, “Good for that brave man. And how terrible that they treat their own people like that.”
Needless to say, this perspective requires a considerably myopic and selective memory. How quickly we forget Kent State, the repression of the Civil Rights movement, the dogs, the fire hoses, the clubs. The paramilitary terrorism of the mass lynchings. The beginning of this century, as well, saw violent government responses to anti-globalization and anti war protests.
Perhaps because of this mindset, many of my friends and family were shocked when I told them about the brutal police response to our own peaceful demonstration here in San Diego, CA.
A large crowd of over 1,000 unarmed civilians marched through downtown San Diego on the afternoon of Sunday, May 31. Signs and placards called for peace and reconciliation, justice for George Floyd. “Say his name!” was a frequent cry during the march. “No more police brutality!”
The full force of the state came out to meet us. Armored vehicles and police with militarized equipment; National Guard troops; snipers posted in visible positions on the roofs of buildings lining Broadway, training their weapons on us. Still, the march remained calm. We gathered in front of the Hall of Justice. Things looked hopeful.
Then shots were fired.
The first sound was that of a “flash bang” to disperse the crowd. “Something hit me,” a young man next to me shouted. Soon after, we heard the familiar pop pop pop of small arms fire—rubber bullets fired at the crowd indiscriminately. As young women and children screamed and protesters ran eastward down Broadway, a large second flank of officers drove up from the south to trap the crowd in a closed area of the street. (This technique, known as “kettling” or “corralling,” is a military strategy used to surround large groups of unarmed protesters, causing maximum bodily injury and detentions.)
“We were doing so good,” a female college student next to me cried out to the crowd of officers in riot gear. “Why did you have to take it there?”
How fragile, that peace. How quickly the facade of free speech dissipates. Similar scenes played out in cities across the nation, including the capital.
Shortly before the first shots were fired, SDPD announced on their official Twitter account: “Unlawful assembly order being given in the area of Broadway. We are asking everyone to disperse immediately due to the escalation of violence by the protestors.” None of the people I spoke with at the event heard any warning at the time. (If it was announced, it must have been made by the “low-talker” from a certain Seinfeld episode.) Over 100 San Diegans were soon arrested for being present at the protest.
“I thought that only happened in places like Russia,” one local friend said as I described the scene.
“Some of my Russian friends have said the opposite,” I replied. “That this kind of repression was a uniquely American thing. They grew up watching heartbreaking footage of our protesters being shot at during the Vietnam war and Civil Rights marches. They pitied us.”
History comes full circle as many Russian voices have recently called on the United States to adhere to international law and human rights norms. On June 4, Maria Zakharova—Russia’s Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—condemned the violent suppression of Black Lives Matters marches in the United States. “In [the authorities’] actions taken against peaceful protesters, tear gas and other special means were used, in fact, while making arrests and detentions ... the authorities must not violate Americans’ right to engage in peaceful protest.” 2
Interestingly enough, Mexico is experiencing a very similar series of events at the same time.
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It is always unwise to make simplified equivalencies between countries, especially in the case of the unique history of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mexico does not have the same history of racial dynamics as the United States. Indeed, some of Mexico’s intellectuals and privileged citizens insist that inequality and prejudice do not exist there, under the frequent cry, “We never had a Ku Klux Klan here.”
This is true. Moreover, Mexico never had Jim Crow Laws, or lynchings based on skin color. Slavery was outlawed in Mexico in 1810, 53 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Some of Mexico’s very first presidents were of Indigenous and African descent (Benito Juarez and Vicente Guerrero, respectively).
And yet, as in many countries, the privileged get lawyers, trials, justice; the poor get the shaft. The marginalized citizens live in those “corners of Mexico where they shoot first and ask questions later.” Meanwhile, some elites in Mexico—descendants of the old Spanish ruling class, “whitexicans” in the current popular lexicon—deny the reality of prejudice and inequality.
One of them has made a name for himself as a YouTuber and comedian. Chumel Torres has been widely criticized for his frequent racist and classist comments. Controversy erupted recently, when the National Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination (CONAPRED) announced a forum on racism and class prejudice, and invited Torres to participate in the forum. The head of the CONAPRED resigned in the wake of the controversy, and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called for the dissolution of the institution. “This is like holding a forum on human rights,” he stated, “and inviting a torturer to it.”3
The dynamics of prejudice and inequality are complex and unique in Mexico, blending racial issues with social class. Author Federico Navarrete develops the concept at length in his book on racial prejudice in Mexico, Alfabeto del racismo mexicano. At its heart, though, the principle is the same one behind the protests in the US: violent, unequal, and systematically unfair treatment by law enforcement. A long history of state violence against the poor—especially those who speak up against the status quo—and impunity for those who exert it.
Of course, protests against police violence, corruption, and impunity are nothing new to Mexico. In 2014, the country was rocked by the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, following a coordinated attack by municipal police and criminal elements.4 What is interesting now, though, is how these events have coincided with those in the US I recently spoke with Arturo Ramos, retired professor of sociology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), about the globalized tendency in these protests.
It is a corollary result of economic and cultural globalization. Social movements are currently transcending national borders—both in the case of the rise of the far right, as well as with expressions of resistance and struggle against various forms of the oppression of social classes, of the masses, exercised by monopolistic, transnational capital.
The collective outrage against police brutality and unequal treatment has exploded across many countries. On June 6, thousands marched in Australia against police violence against the aboriginal population. Protesters gathered in Paris on the same date, many remembering Adama Traoré, a man of African descent who died in 2016 while in police custody. Other protests took place in England, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
These circumstances have existed for years. As technology and social networks make it increasingly easier for everyday citizens to expose them, though, they are emerging simultaneously, in a global movement of outrage. “In this day and age,” Professor Ramos continued,
when people react to the discrimination and abuse in a particular country or region, that reaction will rarely stay confined to geographical or political boundaries. This is because the diverse global channels of communication, thanks to new forms of technology, allow for the integration of identities and struggles for true justice and inclusion, as a projection of the essential human nature which makes us a global community, capable of overcoming the secondary differences that so often divide us.
Shortly after Alexander Martinez died in that Oaxaca hospital, his mother cried out in front of the clinic. “My son had a dream, and those sons of bitches cut his dreams short. They killed my boy, I know that now. But I want everyone to rise up, to refuse to put up with this. Fight back. Because they could do the same thing to any one of you, too.”5
This is the lament of countless mothers, a collective pietà. As we know all too well, George Floyd echoed the cry back, calling out for his mother with his last breath. These cries are universal, the wailing of every mother, every son and daughter. Todos somos Giovanni, todos somos Alexander, todos somos George Floyd. We are all Giovanni, Alexander, and George Floyd. May their deaths not be in vain.
1. El País, Un último gol contra la impunidad policial en México, June 12, 2020. Translation mine.
2. TASS, Захарова: власти США должны соблюдать право своих граждан на мирные протесты, June 4, 2020. Author’s translation.
3. El Universal, AMLO critica invitación a Chumel Torres a foro sobre racismo y clasismo, June 17, 2020. Author’s Translation.
4. See https://brooklynrail.org/2015/02/field-notes/ayotzinapa-reasons-of-stateand-economy
5. El Pais, Un último gol contra la impunidad policial en México, June 10, 2020. Author’s Translation.