How African American Activists are Influencing Latinos

Black-Brown Unity to End Police Impunity rally at San Francisco's City Hall, March 2016. Photo: Ray Balberan.
Black-Brown Unity to End Police Impunity rally at San Francisco’s City Hall, March 2016. Photo: Ray Balberan.

Politicized by Black Lives Matter, Latinos across the country are calling for police reform and direct, organized actions by building coalitions with African American political activists. These actions consist of grassroots campaigns organized against police brutality and standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter activists.

Unfortunately, some Latino advocates and civil rights organizations have seldom recognized these activities. Instead, they define Latino politics as largely focused on immigration reform and combating President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration sentiment. Additionally, the lack of a Latino-led national movement for police reform seems to validate claims that police shootings rarely generate outrage in Latino communities. “You would think there’d be a lot more of an uprising, a lot of protest activity with clear targets,” stated Juan Cartagena, president of the civil rights organization LatinoJustice, during a National Public Radio segment about Latinos’ inability to mobilize like Black Lives Matter activists.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Police brutality has generated outrage in Latino communities, although it hasn’t occurred in every US city or among all ethnic groups. A small but vigorous group of Latino political activists have organized campaigns for police accountability and raised awareness about the plight affecting both groups. This activism has occurred at the local level, which contributes to its invisibility because these activities are not connected to any national organizations. However, recent events in various communities reveal the ways African American activism regarding police reform is shaping political organizing among Latinos just as it did in the 1960s.1

The Black Panther Party of the 1960s inspired Chicano and Puerto Rican activists to create organizations such as the Brown Berets and the Young Lords Party. In fact, African Americans even joined these organizations. Approximately 30 percent of the Lords’ membership included African Americans and non-Puerto Rican Latinos. Police brutality produced political organizing and even sparked urban rebellions during the 1960s and 1970s in Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities.

While police brutality and poverty united African Americans and Latinos, these coalitions often fell apart. Different interpretations of poverty among African Americans and Mexican Americans and the desire of Puerto Rican middle-class professionals to form a separate political base diminished collective efforts. White politicians also cast Puerto Ricans as a “more worthy” minority group, leading to a decline in coalition building.

A protest in New York City against the death of Michael Brown and police violence, November 2014. Photo: Christopher Lucka/Flickr.
A protest in New York City against the death of Michael Brown and police violence, November 2014. Photo: Christopher Lucka/Flickr.

This history provides some lessons for contemporary activism. Latinos are perceived as foreign, and for decades Latino and non-Latino advocates and politicians, conservatives and liberals alike, have portrayed Latinos as upwardly mobile, hard-working, and family-oriented. These portrayals have often been made with implicit references to African Americans, characterizing one group as inferior to the other. If both groups view one’s gains as the other’s loss, they are unlikely to seek to maintain meaningful coalitions.

Contemporary trends of politicization can also go unnoticed because of the way some scholars and journalists have framed African American-Latino relations. The two dominant portrayals cast the groups either as natural allies or as inherently in conflict. African Americans and Latinos are seen as competing in a zero-sum game for economic resources and political power. But reality and history are much more nuanced than this depiction.

Take, for example, the politicization of Latinos in Baltimore after the 2015 uprising. There were two major reports about Latinos and the uprising. One dealt with Latinos standing in solidarity with protesters, and the second focused on the violence’s economic toll on immigrant-owned businesses. Yet these two narratives understated how the uprising politicized Latinos in the city, which became clear the following year. In January 2016, African American and Latino youth organized a demonstration in front of city hall calling for police reform. One month later, Latino high school students cited the previous year’s protests as their inspiration to call upon city and school officials to support the city’s immigrant community. After the Department of Justice (DOJ) published a report on Baltimore’s racially-discriminatory police practices in August, the Latino community held a public forum. Attendees pointed out Latinos’ absence in the report and questioned whether the police would adopt the DOJ’s recommendations.

Similar trends have also occurred in other US cities within the past years. In Rochester, New York, the community organization Latinos Unidos staged a demonstration in front of the Public Safety Building in August to raise awareness about the shared struggles of African Americans and Latinos. “The purpose of the rally,” organizer Ana Casserly claimed shortly after the demonstration, “was the coming together of Hispanics and the Black Lives Matter movement.” She explained, “In this country, at this moment, there is a lot of discrimination against Hispanics that is similar to what blacks go through.”

The recognition of commonality is a persistent theme in Latino political activism. After the shooting of the unarmed forty-three-year-old African American man Keith Lamont Scott, Latinos who marched with protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina in September 2016 echoed this sentiment. With a bandanna partially covering her face and a Mexican flag held high, Yanira Fuentes Barajas—a long-time resident of Charlotte—declared, “I am part of this movement because in the Latino-Hispanic culture, we go through similar situations.”

After the urban revolt, a diverse coalition of community members and local and state organizers created the organization Charlotte Uprising, which has addressed police violence against Latinos. “We are working closely with undocumented folks, Latinos, and Afro Latinx around the death of Josue Javier Diaz,” the group tweeted after an officer-involved shooting in January.

The most effective interethnic coalition building between African Americans and Latinos occurred in San Francisco. Angered by recent police killings of several African American and Latino males in the city since 2014, five protesters known as the Frisco Five vowed to wage a hunger strike until the police chief resigned. “We see so many execution-style police murders of young Black and Latino men—it just doesn’t stop,” said teacher and then-hunger striker Cristina Gutierrez. The hunger strike lasted for seventeen days. Activists’ efforts and the subsequent police shooting of an unarmed African American female driver led to the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.

Washington DC, April 2015. Activists and supporters affiliated with the #DCFerguson movement marched in solidarity with the Baltimore protests of the killing of Freddie Gray. Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr.
Washington DC, April 2015. Activists and supporters affiliated with the #DCFerguson movement marched in solidarity with the Baltimore protests of the killing of Freddie Gray. Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr.

While these activists have mobilized political campaigns with African Americans, there is no consensus regarding how police violence affects Latinos. Far too often, when some activists address this topic, there is a tendency to focus only on undocumented immigrants or border violence, which neglect native-born Latinos as if they are not affected by police brutality.

Despite this politicization, Latino activism appears to have operated under the radar. Since the rise of Black Lives Matter, journalists and activists have asked why Latinos haven’t formed a parallel movement. Police brutality is an issue that affects Latinos, so this is a logical question. But the answers vary. Highlighting the undocumented population, several activists have noted documentation status as a crucial factor limiting political engagement. Others claim the perception of foreignness makes police killings of Latinos appear as an anomaly free from social context. Some advocates have even cited cultural reasons for Latinos’ supposed docility. “We Latino citizens of the United States suffer from a rage deficit,” wrote Héctor Tobar in an op-ed for the New York Times. All these arguments have overlooked the current politicization of Latinos.

Latinos are largely a young population and they face similar marginalization as African Americans in areas such as education, housing discrimination, and police harassment. Both groups have lived and continue to live in the same neighborhoods (although proximity doesn’t always lead to cooperation). In 2016, a GenForward poll reported that two-thirds of young African Americans and four in ten Latinos said they or someone they knew had fallen victim to violence or been harassed by the police. As a result, politicization seemed inevitable.

This doesn’t mean that a “Brown Lives Matter” movement will emerge, despite the wishes of some activists. The possibility of a Latino-led national movement parallel to Black Lives Matter is highly unlikely for several reasons. First, as writer Sabrina Vourvoulias has noted, Latino activism has always been restricted by citizenship, geographic location, and national origin. Historically, pan-Latino activism has been limited to a few cities where multiple groups lived in close quarters, such as the south side of Milwaukee and San Francisco’s Mission District. Second, some advocacy groups, like the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 40 large Latino groups, have placed most of their energy on immigration. This reinforces the perception that Latinos are a single-issue group. Third, not all national origin groups have experienced the same degree of discrimination in the United States. Lastly, the term “Brown” situates mixed-race people as the norm for Latinidad and excludes Latinos who are Black, white, and Asian.

Nonetheless, Latino activism will probably continue to adopt the methods and language of Black Lives Matter for the next several years as long as meaningful police reform fails to be enacted. While organizing for police accountability remains local, it will not abate anytime soon. Rather than anticipate the creation of a “Brown Lives Matter” or a “Latino Lives Matter” movement, documenting activism at the local level can provide clues for how Latino politics—with a blend of African American political activism—will take shape in the future.

  1. Afro-Latinos have participated and stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Aaron Fountain

Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. His research examines high school student radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. He has published articles in several outlets including Al Jazeera America, the Latino Rebels, and The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @aaronfountainjr.

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