By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
I’ve always been intrigued by the type of work that MILPA is doing in Salinas — beginning with its name, the word that describes the indigenous practice of growing corn together with beans, squash, and other crops native to this continent. It’s an organic way to provide sustenance for a family in traditional Mexican households, and its usage was MILPA’s founders’ way to honor not just their heritage (which is also mine), but also to bring about a social justice alternative tied to ancient traditions. That, in our Eurocentric society, was enough to raise eyebrows.
Then there was was the work itself. Since it was founded five years ago, the organization and its members have tackled the root causes of a social justice system that incarcerates mostly young men of color. They’ve helped revitalize Natividad Skatepark for the youth in the neighborhood. The organization hired a few former prisoners to run its operations, a fact that always appeared to rub some people the wrong way – particularly those who believe that “felons” abandon their humanity at their prison cells.
I have nothing against MILPA. Au contraire, I’ve always believed they were performing some important work, work that’s really needed when you consider the fact that African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that’s more than 5 times that of the imprisonment of whites, according to The Sentencing Project. Latinos are imprisoned at a rate 1.4 times higher than whites, but this statistic could be misleading since Hispanics can also be considered whites. Dismantling long-established systems that are inherently stacked against men of color are bound to run into trouble, and MILPA encountered a fair amount of pushback when its members opposed bringing back resource officers to local schools.
I do, however, have a serious problem with violence, and I’m very upset about how the organization has handled — and continues to handle — the Aug. 7 incident at Natividad Creek Skatepark. On that night, MILPA held an event they dubbed “Night out for Safety and Liberation,” an alternative to the National Night Out – in keeping with their tradition of organizing events that have nothing to do with law enforcement. Fine enough. Given the long history of law enforcement in this country, there are many youth of color who don’t feel comfortable around the police, so providing that alternative should not be a problem. Free country, right?
And everything seemed to be fine, according to media reports, until a young kid who appeared to be around 10 or 11 (we’ve come to learn he is 14) appeared to be all bratty and offended an older guy. This older guy (who we later learned was Louis Gutierrez, MILPA’s community liaison) responded with a menacing “What did you say? What did you say?” obviously finding the behavior offensive, daring the kid to repeat his words. But the boy did not even try: he was soon beat up by a young man, somebody who appeared to be much older than him. I saw the videos, and they were excruciating – particularly the one up close. As the young man beats up the kid, you can hear others yell, “He’s just a little kid,” a feeble attempt at trying to stop the pounding. The older man says “Let him.” So he allowed the kid to be used as a punching bag. Repugnant beyond words.
The incident was first reported a month after it happened by Eduardo Cuevas of The Californian. Until then, MILPA guys apparently denied it even took place. Subsequently we learned that the young man who assaulted the 14-year-old was 21-year-old Richard Alex Diaz. He turned himself in on Sept. 7 to the police and was charged with assault, as was Gutierrez.
The incident upset me tremendously, but I got busy and moved on, convinced the media and community would sort things out. I decided to write this opinion piece now because MILPA is seeking community support. They were at Ciclovía asking passersby to hold a sign and take photos next to the MILPA banner.
I saw an appeal on my inbox and a volcano erupted in my stomach, lava rushed through my esophagus into my throat.
Let’s see. You guys entrusted yourselves with our kids because you believe the police treat them unfairly, then turned around and ALLOWED one of our kids to be pummeled — and now this is “bullshit narrative” (as you say in your emailed appeal)? You’re being “slandered and attacked by the media due to an unfortunate and unexpected altercation?”
No, guys. You don’t get to pin this on the media. This is not “bullshit narrative.” These are the videos of participants at the event, witnesses’ accounts of what really happened. One of your employees watched and allowed a young man to beat a young boy. You organized this event, you who describe yourself as using “healing-informed, relationship-centered approaches” to develop leadership for our next generation. There’s nothing “healing” about letting a kid be pummeled. You don’t develop healthy relationships through violence.
I get that we grew up in deeply traumatized communities, in households where we were taught that an appropriate response to defiance is violence. I get that we’re replicating behavior we’ve seen all our lives. I get it that our cousins love to jump us when our tías are out shopping and it’s all “fun and games.” “Boys will be boys,” right? But guess what happens with kids who get beat up? They grow up to be beaters. Wife abusers.
I’ve had enough of that crap, and it’s got to stop.
And maybe there’s another side to the story, something that we don’t know. So what is it? Unfortunately, by keeping mostly quiet about the incident, MILPA is either trying to pretend it didn’t happen or worse, acting as if they don’t have to respond to anybody. And while it is true that the organization is probably never going to convince its detractors — they were not in MILPA’s camp to begin with — the community that always supported the organization deserves some answers. You are asking for their support but you have to first earn their trust back.
I reached out to Israel Villa, MILPA’s program and policy coordinator, who did not return my text message. When I ran into him at Ciclovía, he said the organization was preparing a statement about the issue. We talked a few minutes about what happened and how the media’s dealt with it, but since he asked not to be quoted, I’ll honor his wishes.
I don’t believe people or organizations should be defined by one incident, and as appalling as this incident was (or appears to be, given the information we have) the law is already dealing with the immediately responsible men. Also, I believe in redemption and forgiveness, and I still believe MILPA could have a place in our community as long as they apologize and acknowledge that what they did is wrong.
But the apology can’t be “we don’t condone violence.” The apology needs to be heartfelt, specific, contrite, acknowledging the fact that a wrong needs to be righted. Restorative justice, have you heard of it? A young boy was beat up and another one is now in jail. One of your adults was there at an event that you organized. As far as I’m concerned (and I know I’m not alone on this) you also damaged the community’s trust.
And how are we supposed to trust you again if we don’t really believe you’re sorry? If we don’t really believe you’ll be better, you’ll try harder? Because, given your current blaming of the incident on the media’s “bullshit narrative,” I don’t think you’re sorry. I believe you don’t understand this truly is on you, guys. And I don’t think you believe your community deserves an explanation and answers.
So tell you what: give spiritual master Jerry Tello a call and ask for his advice. I know you guys respect him, and I’m confident his wisdom and compassion will be boundless. (Salinas Councilman Steve McShane’s recent letter to the editor won’t cut it for me or many others.) Then, after you’ve reflected on the responsibility you hold for this incident, make a plan for how you’re going to make things better for your organization and our community.
Indigenous cultures of North America believed that justice was a system of balance. You had to be in balance with nature in order to be at peace. Your desire to seek support is your way to restore balance to your organization with the community, but that’s not where you’ll find it. It’s within where you have to look.
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