L.A.'s Powerful East Side Stands Up for Black Lives Matter

East L.A. activists gatherat Atlantic Park to support BLM and oppose police brutality. Photo: Olivia Llanos
By Aurelio Medina

At 3:00 pm, on Sunday, June 7th, 2020; my girlfriend, a womyn friend of ours and I arrived at Atlantic Park in East Los Angeles. We approached humbly with our durable poster board signs. These proclaimed: “One Love,” “BLM,” “Capitalism is Cannibalism,” and “No Justice, No Peace, Defund the Police,” respectively in bold lettering. Although made in somewhat of a haste because we strove to be on time, they were no less heartfelt. Walking up to the East L.A. park, distinguished for its proximity to historic St. Alphonsus Church, we observed a growing crowd of peaceful demonstrators gathering to protest police brutality and the disproportionate use of excessive, often deadly force against unarmed people of color by police.
Like millions across the country and around the world, the Boyle Heights, East L.A. and Greater East Side youth assembled in the park were outraged at the brutal and unjustified killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Motivated by a sincere need to express support for and solidarity with Black Lives Matter, they were compelled as well to recall and honor those from the culturally rich and proudly Chicanx/Latinx East Side neighborhoods whose lives were taken by a more homegrown variant of “killer cops” meting out their own Bandido version of Dirty Harry-style judge, jury and executioner justice with remorseless impunity for decades.
With a welcome remarks that reiterated the urgency of embracing the Black Lives Matter movement as Latinos while at the same time calling attention to the use of deadly force by local law enforcement personnel—the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported 87 homicides by Los Angeles Police Department officers and 55 by Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ Department deputies in the six years from 2008 to 2014 alone—event coordinators emphasized restraint and peaceful protest. After detailing the march route and offering safety guidelines, organizers—among them students from Garfield High, representatives from the 50th Chicano Moratorium Committee and activists from CentroCSOinvited us to join them on Atlantic Blvd. Though they suggested we be mindful of social distancing, it was not strictly enforced. Easily filling two lanes and stretching just over two blocks, the march was on its way!
A plethora of signs, shirts, screams and smiles hidden behind face masks, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, spilled over into the hearts and out onto the streets of what, for me, has always been best described as the compassionate and powerful barrio of East Los Angeles. I was welcomed with head nods, hugs and fist bumps from friends and members of the community who managed to recognize me despite the blue bandana face mask I wore (I’m trying to stay healthy). I saw a few leaders in the community putting in the work to keep it safe and disciplined; and almost everyone seemed to appreciate how safely and respectfully organized the event was.
East L.A. stood up for BLM, some say, because its residents know the Black community's pain in a way no other primarily single ethnicity cultural enclave anywhere in the U.S. possibly can. Photo: Abel Salas
The crowd of several hundred people proceeded north on Atlantic, heard, seen and felt by those in cars rolling by and those shopping, cooking at pop-up sidewalk loncheras and washing at a lavanderia who gradually moved to the curb to smile or whistle or wave in silent agreement. A small caravan of dazzling lowriders coming from an earlier event, several bearing slogans tastefully shoe-polished on rear windshields and cardboard signs similar to ours on front and back dashboards fueled our momentum with approving honks and fists pumps into the air through lowered windows.
Like a tide overtaking Atlantic Blvd., the marchers rallied one another with call and response chants. Foremost among a handful of popular chants we shouted in unison with as much volume as we could muster as we headed to the 3rd Street L.A. County Sheriffs’ Station were: “Black Lives Matter!” “No justice, no peace!” and “Say his name! George Floyd”!
Along the way, we passed a grip of used car lots as well as mom-and-pop stores whose owners and employees came out of offices and from behind cash registers through glass doors to stand in front of their modest establishments. Most nodded approvingly or watched quietly, their faces solemn with silent respect, acknowledging in a subtle way that there was no apparent danger to their small businesses or property. There were volunteers who moved back and forth among the marchers offering water, snacks and encouragement as we made our way towards the East Los Angeles Civic Center, a complex of temporarily closed L.A. County facilities and buildings adjacent to the section of Belvedere Park south of the Pomona Freeway. Because the park includes a small lake which provides natural habitat for a range of bird species, it is affectionately referred to as “El Parque de Los Patitos.”
We turned left on East 4th Street, a residential thruway with houses on both sides. When residents emerged from their homes quickly, curious to see what the commotion was all about, their eyes grew wide for a few moments and then several turned their camera phones toward us and began filming.
The transition from Atlantic to the much narrower 4th St. stalled the march briefly when an SUV traveling in the opposite direction obligated us to split the column by taking to the sidewalks on either side of it and the unpaved area between the cement walkway and the curb as much as possible. Cars squeezing through behind the SUV were greeted with friendly gestures by march participants. Vehicle occupants were by and large polite and supportive. A few beeped their horns while waving or nodding to signal they were with us.
With demonstrators off the street, the rare truck or car breezed by leisurely. And in that moment just before our pace began picking up again, a young family in a black SUV drove slowly by. We were near enough for me to notice the child inside put down his electronic device down and peer intently at us through the window. It struck me immediately thereafter that the boy had been able to observe a large crowd of people—who looked and sounded like the people he was growing up among—marching, chanting and expressing support for Black Lives Matter.
Brooklyn & Boyle's East Side Movimiento Correspondent At-Large Aurelio Medina. Photo: Olivia Llanos
We next made a right on La Verne Ave., which would lead us north again toward the park and the Sheriffs’ Station. And again, residents flocked to their small front lawns, their eyes transfixed by the pulsing current of peaceful protesters as it palpitated loudly and confidently through a quintessential East L.A. residential community. There was no property damage, looting or fear of violence. Instead, toddlers on their dad’s shoulders and slightly older kids standing alongside one another, faces flush with their yard fences, wry smiles beaming, were encouraged by their parents to take part in the inspired chants of “What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!” “If George/Sandra don’t get it…shut it down!” “Black lives, they matter here!” It was awesome to witness that spirit of hope and vision of a world based on equality and justice shared among neighbors and protesters rise upward from the concrete and asphalt arteries of East Los Angeles into the clear skies overhead.
When we got near the intersection of La Verne Ave and 3rd Street, the riot police presence was impossible to ignore. Ahead of us about a half a block away, Los Angeles County Sheriffs stood shoulder to shoulder along a string of street barricades, wearing bullet proof vests and riot helmets. Every other Sheriffs’ deputy rested a gloved hand on either a baton, a paintball gun or a tear gas launcher, poised for action at a moment’s notice. Turning to the left to avoid contact with them, the arriving marchers cut loose with new chants. In response to the obvious intimidation represented by the deployment of deputies in riot gear, the crowd countered with “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” and “I don’t see no riot here! So why are you in riot gear?!”
The energy of the crowd shifted as the intensity of the chants grew heavier. Things got interesting when a Metro Gold Line train began pulling away from the Civic Center Station toward the crosswalk immediately east at Civic Center Way en route to Atlantic Station, its final stop. Surprised by the sudden appearance of so many pedestrians amassing at the crosswalk ahead, the conductor hit the brakes, then advanced then stopped, despite having the green light. The confusion spread quickly to protesters already jarred by the sight of a militarized police force. Luckily, the marchers realized it was a safer bet to walk west a few steps and cross the twin set of tracks behind the train, then hook right toward the Belvedere Park pato (duck) side gateway adorned with tile work by Chicano artist Tito Delgado. Inside the historic East L.A. greenspace, marchers were greeted by the sight more deputies in tactical formation on the opposite side of a thin caution tape.
Marchers call L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey out and confront sheriffs deputies. Photo: Abel Salas
Gathering along the fragile barrier flutter three feet above the ground, protesters came face to face with sheriffs who posted up grimly, zip ties for arrests at their hips. Meanwhile, on the side of the thin barrier where a growing contingent of marchers had begun to assemble, family members of those fallen victim to local police violence told their stories. With obvious pain and sorrow in their voices, they recounted the grave, if scant, details they had managed to eke out policing agencies only after years of relentless requests regarding the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their sons and/or other loved ones. A few tattooed protesters, who may well have been gang members, made a point of staring down the police. A pair of OG organizers interjected themselves and politely asked marchers to take a step back from the caution tape in an effort to defuse a potentially violent escalation.
Yet as the mothers and sisters who had been asked to speak did their best get our attention, they explained that wasn’t just about their individual, personal stories or experiences with police brutality. They were there because they felt strongly that police everywhere needed to be held accountable for their inherited prejudices as well as their inexcusable use of unchecked authority, brute force and senseless violence. They were there to help by exposing the ugly face of systemic fascism and racism within the state and the two most prominent Southern California police agencies; as well as provide information on how to eradicate it or transform it.
Organizers asked us, at that point, to turn our backs on the police cordon, the deputies behind it and the Sheriffs’ Station a short distance beyond. We were encouraged to move a few yards west toward the Los Angeles County Library East L.A. Branch. There with several trees offering shade, protesters took a few moments to rest, catch up, and debrief before hearing from a few final guests. While some remained standing, others sat down on a lush, grass-covered park slope underfoot, as the final part of the formal program and closing remarks were delivered. Women who had not shared their plight earlier were provided amplification and a small pedestal upon which to stand.
Protesters salute a speaker from Minneapolis who ends with words by Assata Shakur. Photo: Olivia Llanos
Some tears were shed and fists were balled up. One speaker gave us the opportunity to repeat the words of Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” We were left with positive words to remind us that while the struggle continues, the light is getting brighter. After the final speaker, a veterano Mexica activist and long-time Chicano community advocate, had concluded his speech with a list of demands that would be forwarded to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, he invited remaining protesters to join him as he sang a traditional Native American song acappella. Making our way out of the park, the soulful sounds of a sacred indigenous song accompanied our walks back home.
Aurelio Medina was a diehard Corazón del Pueblo fan and volunteer, put in work to overcome stage-fright and perform in a pair of plays at acclaimed community theater center Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights and, most importantly, is a life-long Eastsider. Brooklyn & Boyle is proud to welcome Medina as our first ever Movimiento Correspondent At-Large. 


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