The new documentary Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle fails to address the questions raised about a possible assassination of the Chicano journalist in 1970 – or to assuage the still-raw grief of his community.
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I grew up in an alley on Whittier Blvd in East LA during the 1960s and early 1970s, about a dozen blocks from where journalist Ruben Salazar was killed on Whittier Blvd., purportedly by an armor-piercing, 9-inch tear gas projectile on Aug. 29, 1970.
On that day, which was the National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War, I was 16, and East LA was afire, literally. The death of Salazar and the death of two others, Lyn Ward and Angel Diaz, changed lots of peoples lives, including my own. Salazar’s death was more impactful for me because of what it represented; it was a loss of innocence and also, the silencing of a voice, a movement and truth. It is what motivated lots of us to go to college. It also motivated me to me to become a writer.
During that era, the streets of my community were tense. When Salazar was shot, we all knew that his body lay inside the Silver Dollar Cafe. No one was buying the story that he was accidentally killed, in large part because they did not remove his body for more than three hours after he was shot. As he was a newsman, all this was playing out in our front yard, but also before a live television audience. His colleague, Guillermo Restrepo, was telling the world that Salazar had been shot and that they were not removing his body, nor transporting him to a hospital.
Our community was also full of fury. Many of us were there in front of the Silver Dollar, or tried to approach it during the three hours, but the deputies would have none of that, chasing people away.
A tense, 16-day televised inquest found that he was killed “at the hands of another,” Deputy Thomas Wilson, yet there never was a prosecution. No trial. No truth.
Last month, 44 years later, a one-hour PBS documentary aired on his life: Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle. Those of us who lived that era waited in great anticipation . . . and I believe most of us were more than greatly disappointed. It did not reveal much that we didn’t already know.
What were we expecting? A smoking gun? Incriminating evidence of a conspiracy and a coverup? Or evidence that the government was involved in the assassination and in the effort to break up the rally and even more importantly, in the effort to destroy the Chicano Movement of that era?
The organizers of the moratorium have long felt that that was the intent; to destroy the movement. And yet, it failed, as Aug 29 unleashed a volcanic political explosion that simmers to this day.
Those of us from that era were not delusional. It in fact was the era of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO – a project created to disrupt and destroy the progressive movements of that era, including the Chicano, American Indian and Black power movements. It did involve assassinations, infiltrations, sabotage and other forms of violent disruptions.
A large portion of the documentary was focused on Salazar’s journalism. His ground-breaking journalism, which included coverage of police violence and abuse, was impressive. This did not endear him to law enforcement. He indeed was a man ahead of his times, covering the world and the barrio – the explosive Chicano Movement – for The Los Angeles Times, then later, KMEX Spanish-language TV. From hard-hitting journalist, to LA Times columnist, he became an astute chronicler of the movement and his community.
However, as far as the documentary goes, what most of us wanted to know was whether, in fact, Salazar was assassinated. What we got from the documentary instead was what appeared to be the LA Sheriff’s department’s version of what happened that day. Yet we already had that version by the night of Aug. 29 and especially during the 16-day inquest.
The inquest was akin to a staged platform for the Sheriff’s Department to blame the protestors for the attacks by law enforcement against the 20,000-30,000 peaceful rally goers. The primary message of the documentary, when it dealt with Aug 29, was that the protestors attacked the Sheriff’s deputies. This “attack” on the deputies, who were there in a massive show of force, along with LAPD officers – who just happened to be there in waiting in full riot gear – gave them no choice but to go on a vicious rampage against the peaceful rallygoers (Requiem 29).
That’s the storyline the Sheriff’s Department promoted from day one; it was outsiders, it was communists, it was Fidel Castro’s boys, etc., etc. who were responsible for the rally, the ensuing riot(s) – and, by inference, the death of Salazar. If the protestors had not attacked, Salazar would be alive to this day.
This was a narrative repeated by law enforcement throughout that era. Anytime people rose up to protest inequalities, it was always “outside agitators” stirring up “the natives,” who were at fault. There were no legitimate grievances; there were no indigenous revolts, just outside agitators brainwashing and goading the masses. In effect, tragically, it was this longstanding “official” version the filmmaker apparently chose to depict.
With that as the narrative and background, it was easy to understand why there was no mention of other inquiries, other than a Justice Department investigation that was kept under wraps for all these years, of course, finding no prosecutable crimes. No mention of COINTELPRO. No mention of possible FBI, CIA or military intelligence files or involvement, etc. It’s not that the filmmaker did not inquire; he may have, it’s just that in the documentary, none of this is broached.
I will be the first to admit; many of us see these events through a 1970 lens; we had questions, and we wanted answers. We had rage, and it hasn’t gone away. Our community was heavily militarized during that era. We lived that. Sheriffs patrolling the streets and alleys of East LA in force . . . those are my memories . . . of our community being attacked by law enforcement and then the demonization of our community and movement; it was our fault. And so many of us feel a sense of betrayal by this documentary. But it can’t be betrayal because this filmmaker was not part of our community. Perhaps he is but a filmmaker “caught in the middle.” Regardless, my 16-year-old lenses tell me that the filmmaker did not probe . . . far enough.
And yet, my adult lenses tell me that what my community looked for can, or will, never be found in documents. If COINTELPRO, the FBI, the CIA or military intelligence at one time had incriminating files or evidence, they are long gone. And what we wanted was not so much evidence, but justice. Yet justice, first and foremost, requires truth.
The 44 years between the events and this documentary are a long time, and so, why after all these years, even after this documentary, do the questions not go away? Probably because my community lives with an open wound.