July 22, 2005


Suzie Peña Killing Should Unite, Not Divide, Blacks and Latinos

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant LAPD officers gunned down 13-year-old Devin Brown following a car chase last February, blacks took to the streets in rage and protest. Black leaders loudly demanded that the officer who shot Brown be fired and prosecuted. Blacks’ furious reaction to the Brown killing stands in stark contrast to their response to the recent the killing of 19-month-old Suzie Marie Peña.

Police shot the toddler in the head during a shootout with her father, Jose Raul Peña in South Los Angeles.

The shooting again called into serious question the long-standing turbulent relations between the LAPD and L.A.’s minority communities. LAPD violence against blacks and Latinos has continually gotten the department into hot water, and tagged it as America’s poster police agency for abuse. But the Peña killing also called into question the troubled relations between blacks and Latinos in the city. The shooting of a toddler should have been more than enough to raise howls of protest from blacks.

It didn’t. Brown was an African-American child, and Peña was a Latino child. The disparity in reactions to the two shootings strikes to the heart of the rocky state of black and Latino relations, which continue to be discolored by fear, mistrust and outright violence. The day before young Peña was gunned down, a young African-American woman was shot on a Los Angeles freeway. The assailant was described as a young Hispanic male. That in itself did not mark the incident as a racial hate crime, but the shooting didn’t happen in isolation.

During the past few months, Los Angeles has been hit with a spree of freeway shootings. Many of the victims have been black, and witnesses have described the assailants as Latino males. These shoot-ings have come on the heels of fistfights and group brawls between black and Latino students at several Los Angeles high schools. The wariness of many blacks toward Latinos even extended to L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during the city’s recent mayoral contest between him and former mayor James Hahn, who is white. Though Villaraigosa markedly bumped up his total votes among blacks from his previous campaign four years ago and made a mighty effort to promote diversity in his campaign, many blacks still voted for Hahn because they feared that Villaraigosa’s win would diminish black political power in L.A.

Blacks’ wariness, even hostility toward Latinos hit home when a local black activist, normally progressive on most issues including police violence, berated me for attending a press conference called by noted Latino civil rights attorney Luis Carillo, who represents the Peña family. “Why are you supporting them, when they don’t support us?” she asked angrily. The “them” was Latinos. I patiently explained that a toddler had been killed and that that should evoke outrage. But she would have none of it. She continued her attack and insisted that Latinos didn’t protest when blacks were gunned down. I countered that many Latinos did protest when the police victimized blacks, but that fell on deaf ears.

Her insensitivity to the Peña killing was not isolated. In the days immediately after the shooting, African-Americans were careful to express sympathy for the child, and mildly questioned police tactics. However, they did not see Peña as a victim of the same type of LAPD violence that has claimed countless black lives over the years. Only a handful of hardcore black community activists showed up for candlelight vigils held at the shooting scene.

Carillo was deeply troubled by the mute response from African-Americans to the killing. He sees the shooting as a golden opportunity to unite blacks and Latinos in struggle, not only against police violence, but also around the unemployment, poor schools and gang violence that slam both black and Latino communities. The attorney called on black and Latino leaders to organize a march for peace and justice.

Those leaders should answer Carillo’s call. A black and Latino peace and justice march could serve as a model of ethnic cooperation for other cities that have also experienced tense race relations. If that happens, Susie Peña would not have died in vain.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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