By Alejandro Pérez
Ten years ago, Iris Baez' son Anthony was murdered on the streets of the Bronx. But he wasn't the victim of a drive-by shooting, gang violence, or a drug deal gone bad - the type of incidents labeled as brown-on-brown (or black-on-black) crime suggesting that urban residents most need protection from themselves. Far from it. A couple of Baez' sons and their friends had been playing football when a bad pass hit a patrol car. Officer Frank Livotti stepped out and, emboldened by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's get-tough rhetoric, used an illegal chokehold on Anthony Baez, killing him. Ironically, Anthony had been preparing for a career in law enforcement.
"My son did everything right. Everything," Baez said, speaking at the Esperanza Center's Youth Summit on Police Brutality on July 31. Her son's death, she told the crowd of about 50 people, "was like a wake up call."
"I wanted information. Why did this have to happen to Tony?" Baez said.
She channeled her outrage and suffering into action. She learned that Livotti had been reprimanded for using excessive force in the past (as part of his disciplinary action, his commanding officer rode along with Livotti the day Anthony Baez' died) but still remained on the streets, protected by a blue wall of silence that allows many unwarranted abuses of power to continue.
Summit participants - the majority in their teens and early 20s - didn't seem surprised to learn this. When a speaker asked them who had experienced an encounter with law enforcement, almost everyone raised their hands. Some shared stories of their own experience with police: "It's wrong from them to label us like that," said one guy. Another young woman pointed out that abuse happens so often "you're used to it." A few people took the opportunity to be interviewed, in private, following the summit.
(The summit and the interviews, conducted by filmmaker Tami Gold, are part of an ongoing dialogue in conjunction with the P.B.S. POV documentary Every Mother's Son, which includes Baez' story.)
Recent reports by the NAACP, LULAC, and Amnesty International that document an alarming number of instances of racial profiling and police misconduct corroborate the audience members' testimony. (The San Antonio Police Department has denied racial profiling is a problem in the city.) Taken together, they suggest that incidents such as Anthony Baez' are indicative a systemic pattern of abuse that has historically targeted black and Latino communities with impunity.
While repressive law enforcement tactics have come from pandering to white voters' fears of urban crime-a coded way of speaking of poor, minority city dwellers-in recent years, according to Gold, there's been a dramatic increase in cases of police abuse targeting majority white areas. Addressing this problem, she says, "is in everybody's interest."
Summit participants emphasized the need for an effective civilian review board that has the power to back its findings, under the public's watchful gaze - unlike San Antonio's hard-won commission that lacks real authority. "You can't find out what's been done once an officer's disciplined," noted Cathy Clay-Little.
Many participants challenged the criminal justice system and urged other youth - and their allies - to speak out against police abuse. "How do we start the process of teaching each other?" Faviola Torralba asked, encouraging participants to share what they learned with their friends.
Ultimately, Iris Baez reminded everyone, the power rests in the people's hands. "You have to go out to the community so they will know you. You have to be the eyes, ears, mouth of your community. You have to do something. You are the leaders of your community." •
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