A little over a week ago, a Los Angeles police officer shot a Guatemalan day laborer, Manuel Jaminez, twice in the head claiming that Jaminez allegedly lunged at him with a knife. At the time, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck thought the “community would understand” the alleged circumstances of the shooting which involved a threatening man supposedly armed with a knife ignoring police orders and then advancing toward an officer. Instead, the shooting sparked days of angry and sometimes violent protest amongst the community of mostly Central American immigrants who felt the shooting was “an unfair and unnecessary use of police force.”
In retrospect, Beck observes that the demonstrations weren’t just about the shooting. According to Beck, the “eruption of anger and hostility” was in many ways also a response to the anti-immigrant fervor that has spread through the country. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The response to the incident, Beck said in an interview Friday, “is about so much more than just this shooting. Our challenge is to figure that out and to understand what it is really about. We’re still working to peel back those layers.” [...]
Beck said he believes the shooting of the man, a day laborer like so many others in the neighborhood, quickly became a flashpoint that brought to the surface much larger issues facing the impoverished community of immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries west of downtown L.A., one of the most densely populated areas on the country.
“This community feels disconnected from the city,” he said. “They feel like they don’t have a voice. I think they feel a lot of pressure because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that runs through a very common conversation in America right now.”
Life in the central Los Angeles neighborhood is tough. “Life is very hard here,” said Ricardo Fernández, a retired Nicaraguan truck driver. “I tell people not to come, it’s not as good as before. But people still come.” There aren’t a lot of jobs, rent is high, and crime and gangs have a constant presence. Many of the residents are immigrants from the indigenous communities of rural Mexico and Guatemala and may speak little Spanish and are barely able to read and write. A Guatemalan pastor explains, “They’re not poor, they’re destitute.” In other words, they’re essentially powerless.
The details of the shooting itself are still fuzzy. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised an “unbiased investigation” into the shooting, but also called the police officer, Frank Hernandez, who fired the shots a “hero.” The Los Angeles Police Protective League defended Hernandez’s actions stating, “when an armed individual refuses police orders to end the threat they are posing to the safety of officers and the public, they are subjecting themselves to the consequences of their actions, which may include being shot.”
However, many of the Los Angeles residents who live in the community and knew the victim feel differently. Many claim they have been frequently mistreated by Los Angeles policethemselves. “They are messing with people all the time,” said Juan Lorenzo, a day laborer who knew the victim. One witness claims the victim had been drinking, but was not holding a weapon. Others even speculate that the knife was planted. Those who knew the victim insist that he wasn’t a criminal. Meanwhile, Hernandez was previously found by the department’s watchdog arm to have used improper tactics in 2008 and is being sued by a man who claims unlawfully shot by him.
It’s far too early to say what really happened a week ago. However, what’s clear is that the anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping many parts of the nation has heightened tensions on both sides of the issue. Jaminez may or may not have committed a violent offense. Yet, for many his death likely symbolizes their own helplessness in the face of discrimination. Those who protested his death probably aren’t just angry they lost a friend. They’re also tired of being portrayed and treated like the dangerous criminals that most of them aren’t.