Written by Patricia Sunderland
Since March of this year, I've had the murder of Luis Rodriguez going through my mind. He was killed by police officers in Moore, Oklahoma in the parking lot of a movie theatre.
I watched the horrific video posted on the Facebook page of Don't Shoot on March 14. The video was from the cell phone of Luis' wife, Nair. To hear the escalation, horror, and fear in her voice as she realizes that he may no longer be moving, and her pleas for Luis, "Papa," to please talk to her as well as begging for someone, anyone, to tell her he is alive is almost unbearable. To witness police and medical personnel interacting with Luis' body while an officer engages in calming and diffusing actions with Nair, including keeping her from approaching Luis as well as gently confiscating her phone, only increases the nauseating realism.
Yet it is not only the reality of the death of Luis Rodriguez and the NSFL (Not Safe for Life) qualities of this three-minute video that have made it stay in my head. It is also the question of why his death was not a national news story as were the 2014-15 police-caused deaths of Baltimore's Freddie Gray with a spinal cord injury, the asphyxiation of cigarette-seller Eric Garner in New York City, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the shooting of Laquan McDonald as he staggered in the middle of a Chicago street. If a swirl of cultural realities, stereotypes, and assumptions were at work in catalyzing Luis' death, in what ways have they also been at play in its aftermath?
Luis' death occurred in the very early morning of hours of February 15, 2014. The video was released 10 days later. The story and the video did appear in local, national, and international as well as Latino and special interest news outlets, for instance The Oklahoman, CNN, Daily Mail, Latinos Post, and Counter Current News. Yet, it was not a "big" news story. You are not alone if you do not remember it or if you never saw the video before just now.
From the news releases and the legal documents for a civil lawsuit filed in 2015, the circumstances and events of the case appear fairly straightforward. Luis, age 44, his wife Nair, and their then 19-year-old daughter, Luinahi, went to the movie theatre and together watched a movie, Robocop. The theatre served alcohol and although there were security officers working at the theatre (two off-duty game warden officers and one off-duty Moore police officer), local Moore police were summoned because of intoxicated patrons in the theatre.
However, Luis and Nair were not the intoxicated patrons. The autopsy revealed no alcohol in Luis' bloodstream. Rather, in the parking lot of the theatre, Nair and her daughter had a dispute and Nair slapped her daughter. In fact, in the video you can hear Nair telling the officer that their daughter "has been treating us like crap" and that she was the one who had slapped her.
An observer had witnessed the slap and reported it to the police who had come to the theatre. In police framing, this constituted a "domestic incident" and "domestic abuse" in need of investigation as can also be heard on the video. Presumably the observer who alerted the police must have put an "incident" and "abuse" frame on the slapping event as well. If not, why report it?
When the police went to investigate, they stopped Luis and asked for his identification. Luis, meanwhile, was following after his wife, who was angrily on her way to the car and he was trying to get to her to calm her down. He ignored the police request and continued to try to follow his wife. This led to the officer's use of pepper spray and a physical struggle in which Rodriguez was forced down and held to the ground by five officers for handcuffing. His death was caused either by asphyxiation or cardiac arrhythmia catalyzed by rough treatment and beating.
Luis was a large, dark-skinned man; Nair a smaller, light-skinned woman. Culturally, here we go again - the dark-skinned man seems assumed the perpetrator of the domestic incident and the fact that he did not immediately comply with the officers' request signified danger. Luis ends up dead, even though, the reality of his actions were to calm his wife and the reality of his life was of a church attending religious man with a steady blue-collar job as an electrician's helper. By all accounts, he was a calm soul, the kind of person who didn't look for trouble.
The dark skinned man as the violent perpetrator is such a familiar cultural story. The framing of slapping as "domestic violence" (the way Moore's police chief labeled it in a news conference) versus "discipline," (the way Nair labelled it in June 20, 2014 video on the Justice for Luis Rodriguez Facebook page) is also familiar. The killing of dark-skinned men by law enforcement officers, and the lack of criminal charges or convictions, is a far too frequently repeated cultural reality.
But, there lurks another cultural question. Did we not hear of this case because they were Puerto Rican? Does this Black Life end up not mattering as much because it somehow does not fit so neatly in the cultural narrative box? Is it easier to think about Florida's Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and to pit Black and Hispanic lives as opposing cultural categories? Trayvon Martin was an African American teenager killed in 2012 by the multi-racial Zimmerman, generally referred to as Hispanic.
Maybe. In fact, the final text line on the Wikipedia post about the shooting of Trayvon Martin reads: "The 2013 acquittal of Zimmerman on the charge of murdering Martin, inspired a Facebook posting that included the phrase 'black lives matter,' which later became the name of the Black Lives Matter movement."
In the tripartite White-Black-Hispanic cultural imaginary of the US, it is somehow easy to conveniently forget the Hispanic part and also to forget that Hispanic often ends up with a truly short end of the stick. Many years ago, I did program evaluation work together with Vilma Santiago-Irizarry at NYC's Rikers Island jail. We would often sit in on empowerment groups held for female inmates. Vilma had a special eye and insight in this setting as she had worked as an attorney before training in anthropology. As someone from Puerto Rico, she also had a special eye and ear for what it means to be labeled as Hispanic or Latino in the US. I remember the particular day when the group conversation revolved around which inmates got what goods, benefits, services, privileges, favors and so on. The Hispanic women were distinctly at the bottom of the barrel on this score. As Vilma basically remarked about this exchange when we later talked about it, "Latinos are always the last, don't fool yourself, always the last."
Very recently, I was also reminded of this when I watched the March 2016 "Why is the 1% So White?" episode of MTV's Decoded, an MTV news show featuring Franchesca Ramsey. (If you have not yet seen a Decoded episode, do so, the show is fascinating from both an anthropological and popular culture point of view). In this one, as part of the discussion of education's role in continued racial disparities and the fact of US school funding based on property taxes, the point was made that the national median value of a white homeowner's house was $85,800; for black homeowners, $50,000; and for Latino homeowners, $48,000. The bottom of the barrel. Again.
As a US territory, Puerto Rico has always been a special case - not a state, yet also not a country in its own right (Puerto Ricans hold US passports). But this non-normative situation seems to continually confuse. As an editor's note at the end of an Oklahoman article published a few days after Luis Rodriguez's death read: "An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Luis and Nair Rodriguez immigrated from Puerto Rico" in 1992. You cannot immigrate to a country of which you are already a part.
Puerto Rico for the US is also always a special cultural case. Is it so much so that this killing and the horrifying cell phone video do not become a nationally well-known story? Or is it just that there are too many such stories? Wikipedia lists 15 killings by police for February 2014. Maybe there are just too many to know them all? Nonetheless, cultural matters still provide the clues for which cases we know and which we do not.