On September 5th, 2010, Manuel Jamines was murdered by cops. LAPD Rampart Division police gunned him down, in broad daylight and in cold blood, at the corner of 6th and Union Ave in Pico-Union, a working class neighborhood in LA known for its Guatemalan and indigenous population. Manuel was a 37-year-old indigenous man from Guatemala working as a day laborer in the US. He didn’t speak English or even Spanish very well, and he had three small children in his home country. The pig who shot him, Frank Hernandez, was notorious in the community as a violent, racist, unpredictable hazard. Locals call him El Pelon, or “The Bald One.”
I first learned about Manuel’s murder the next night, when his family called for a candlelight vigil at the spot where he was killed. I arrived at about 5:30 in the afternoon, and already the streets were flooded with more than 200 angry, grief-stricken people from the neighborhood. There were some opportunistic leftists selling newspapers by then, and I think I was one of two outside anarchist agitators, but the crowd was composed overwhelmingly of indigenous people. Two helicopters circled overhead, and a few police traded glances nervously on the sidewalk. What the hell were they supposed to do? The crowd prayed and clapped and cheered and drummed on walls, daring the pigs to try something. We chanted “ASESINOS!” and “MURDERERS!” at cop cars as they slowly rolled by.
Suddenly, a young man leapt on top of a parked car and began urging us to march on a nearby police station. A chant of “JUSTICIA! JUSTICIA!” went up, and we surged forward. A cop pulled his car into the middle of the road to block us, but we simply spilled out around him and charged up the hill to our goal. We ran forward across the stretch of lawn before the station. I saw cops in riot gear loading rubber bullets and tear gas canisters into guns. As we approached a single cop in a captain’s uniform stepped forward to address the crowd. He lifted a hand to speak, and gradually some of the older people among us quieted our chants. The captain started to tell us that the Rampart Division was sticking to its story: Manuel had gotten off his bike and threatened El Pelon with a knife. “MENTIRA!” someone shouted – “LIAR!” An instant later, an old woman launched a Coke can through the air, striking the cop in the chest and showering his uniform with soda. He sniffed disdainfully and turned away. Reporters shoved forward through the crowd, eager to get the first shot of impending violence. Up ahead, I saw police inside the station barricading its big glass double doors shut.
“Que queremos? Venganza!” someone cried behind me; “What do we want? Revenge!” Some of us started to advance on the police station, tightening up shoulder-to-shoulder, but then I heard someone bellowing into a bullhorn back on the sidewalk. A particular Communist party was leading people back the way we had come, and some uncertain people were leaving the mob to follow them. The 20 of us left facing the cops looked around nervously, and then one by one turned reluctantly to join the group. Thinking the situation was de-escalated for good, I stuck around for another hour of chanting and prayer and then I left. Later, I learned that the police fired rubber bullets on the crowd later that night after dark, and people threw eggs and bottles in return before they dispersed. There were at least 4 arrests.
The next night, I met with a comrade who I’ve been helping teach a series of street protest trainings. We wrote up a one-page leaflet with know-your-rights info in Spanish and a list of police crowd control formations and signals in English. As we were printing out the hundredth copy, we got a call from a friend – “They’re shooting at us again! Get down here!”
We drove straight to Pico-Union only to find row after row of police roadblock preventing us from getting to 6th St. We saw at least 6 helicopters and heard gunfire in the distance. A block away I glimpsed a riot cop firing a weapon up at a bystander watching from a rooftop. We pulled into a Home Depot parking lot, the closest spot to the police riot we could find, and we found a young Chicano man there with blood streaming down the back of his head. We rushed him into the car, and my companion drove him to the hospital while I stayed behind to pass out our leaflets. Later, I learned he got 6 staples in the back of his head. The doctors said he would have died if he had gone any longer without treatment.
Meanwhile, I ran to the east side of the parking lot, where I saw a crowd of maybe 50 or 60 people. I started giving out the leaflets, but a couple minutes later police began advancing on us, coming south from 6th Street. A squad leader shouted something I couldn’t make out, and they shot rubber bullets at us indiscriminately. People all around me ducked, screamed, and ran panicking away from the phalanx of riot cops. I saw a woman to my left crumple to the ground as a projectile slammed into her back. An instant later, two cop cars pulled up and blocked our way out, forcing us back into the parking lot. With nowhere to run, some people threw a hail of stones and bottles back at the police to keep them at bay.
A couple minutes later, they stopped shooting and secured a police line blocking anyone from going north. I met up with two friends in the confusion, and we walked west until we found a north-south street that wasn’t barricaded off. We walked up to 6th, turned right, and arrived at the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae, where we saw 4 dumpsters in the street that looked like they’d been lit on fire earlier. A small crowd of spectators was gathered there, looking north on Bonnie Brae, where we saw people running, police cars, flashlight beams, and heard gunfire. About 10 minutes later, the cops had moved out of view, and we walked up Bonnie Brae. We saw trash cans in the street and small trees that had been knocked down. We called some friends, regrouped on 4th Street, found out which of us had cars nearby, and organized a patrol to look for injured people. We didn’t find anyone, so we returned to 6th and Union, where 30 people were gathered around a newspaper box that had been converted into a shrine for Manuel, covered in flower wreaths, candles, and photographs. They told us at least 22 people had been arrested, and they were organizing a crew to go to Central Booking and drive people home after they got released.
The following night, Pico-Union could have been any third world slum facing the suppression of an uprising. Snipers lay on top of a supermarket and at least two apartment buildings, six helicopters continued to circle overhead and sweep the ground with bright searchlights, and cop cars saturated the streets. At one point, a pig stuck a shotgun out the window of his car and cocked it loudly, trying to intimidate one group of youth on a corner. By sunset, more than 600 people had turned out. We lined the sidewalk on either side of the block where Manuel died. No one chanted. Occasionally someone would scream “asesino!” at a passing car, but for the most part we were silent as the grave. A line of perhaps 40 riot police stood in the middle of the road.
By 9:30, the crowd had grown to over 700. At one point, someone behind me flung a bottle at a passing car. Moments earlier, six anarchists I had invited showed up with a circle-a anti-borders banner, and, a little unwisely, in black bloc gear. None of them had thrown the bottle, but they were white and clearly not from the community, and masked up to boot, and were therefore natural scapegoats. They hadn’t yet been there for three minutes when the police line opened up and an extraction team of five cops ran out. In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t run or take cover. We just stood there, huddled together behind the banner, watching as the middle cop raised a gun to his shoulder and fired a rubber bullet straight at us. The next few seconds are a blur in my memory. No sooner had the comrade to my left hit the ground than the police pounced, two holding him down while the other three jabbed out with their batons to force the rest of us away. Then, the armed pig appeared to put the gun to my friend’s lower back and shoot him at point blank (I later learned this was a scare tactic, that he’d actually shot the concrete next to him, but the damage to our morale was done). The crowd split in two, and most of us stampeded east while a smaller group ran off to the west. As I was swept up in the mad rush for cover, I saw black smoke billowing up from a pair of trash cans someone had lit on fire and threw into the street. Police held their nightsticks horizontally with both hands and shoved us back onto side streets. I saw three people, including my friend, cuffed and dragged away.
The next day, I heard terrible news from a local community organizer: two of those arrested were undocumented and had been turned over to ICE. That night, only about 30 people came out into the streets. The police presence was still heavy and visible in Pico-Union, but its residents had, for now, been terrorized into submission.
There have been subsequent peaceful demonstrations every night since then, composed of both the Guatemalan community and the self-appointed organizers of opportunistic leftist parties. The threat of repression still hangs in the air, and the police continue night and day to patrol the streets and skies, but the rebellion has been contained. It is a fragile social peace, however, and the tension is palpable at every nightly vigil at 6th and Union, where the shrine to Manuel still stands as a monument to all victims of the state. Consider this the first dispatch from an ongoing wave of struggle. As long as the police continue to murder immigrants with impunity, they will suffer the consequences when the people of Pico-Union rise again.