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Official Brutality and the Voice of Conscience

May 10, 2012

Just over 20 years ago, Rodney King was savagely beaten by Los Angeles Police Officers.  This incident was almost routine in the Los Angeles Police Department at the time, and would have passed without notice except for an amateur video of the beating.

Rodney King 1991

When the brutality became public, the outcry was loud and widespread, with then President George H.W. Bush calling it “sickening” and the Mayor appointing a blue ribbon commission to investigate the event.  By grabbing public attention recordings of official misconduct can spark calls for accountability, as well as discussion about the ways that the larger culture fosters  such brutality by our representatives.But in one instance even audio and video recordings of a beating worse than Rodney King’s has failed to rouse any public response.  There has been no accountability for a killing at the hands of federal agents.  Only silence in the face of that killing, silence about the poisonous atmosphere of racist rhetoric around immigration and the vigilante legislation which is its fruit.  This passive acquiescence calls progressive faith communities to witness to both the savagery of this killing and the racist dehumanization of immigrants that has spawned it.

In early June, 2010 Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a 27-year resident of San Diego and father of five children was taken, separately from the official group of undocumented immigrants, to the border to be deported to Mexico.  While handcuffed and face down on the ground with his legs hogtied, surrounded by about a dozen Border Patrol agents, he was repeatedly beaten and Tasered.  One agent stripped Hernandez Rojas of his pants.  Hernandez Rojas’ screams for help and pleas for his life are audible in an eyewitness’s recording of the event, a former National Guardsman who tried to intervene to help him.  The beating and Tasering was also video recorded by another eyewitness.   The recordings and the testimony of the eyewitnesses squarely repudiate the agents’ account of the event.   The recordings and the testimony of the eyewitnesses squarely repudiate the agents’ account of the event.  The agents literally beat Hernandez

Anastacio Hernandez Rojas 2010

Rojas to death; the injuries he suffered were so severe the San Diego coroner ruled his death a homicide. One eyewitness said she “witnessed someone being murdered.”  After two years the Department of Justice has taken no action in the case and is apparently uninterested in the recordings.This event has been exhaustively investigated by Need to Know and The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, as part of a broader investigation into the 8 immigrants who have been killed by Border Patrol agents in the last two years.  These killings include a 15 year old who was shot to death by an agent while standing in Mexico, and more than one person who was shot in the back.  In none of these cases has there been any action taken by any public agency.  These deaths themselves are part of a persistent pattern of abuse inflicted on immigrants by Border Patrol agents, ranging from this lethal violence to denying food, water, and medical treatment, and to outright torture.

These reports of persistent misconduct call for accountability from the agency whose members are involved.  But the pattern they reveal also demands an examination of the broader culture of the society that licenses the use of violence by its officials and then turns its back on the abuse of that authority.  As in the Rodney King case, the camera’s eyewitness should provoke an outcry about the drumbeat of vilifying rhetoric that renders migrants less than human and thus fuels the lawless violence against them.

But there has been no outcry.  And the shameful record of the Border Patrol makes clear that there will be no accountability unless a chorus of voices insists on it.  When no one else raises their voice, faith communities must, because, as Dr. King reminds us, the church “is the conscience of the state…the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

There are times when mounting brutality is numbing, and when the culture so marginalizes a group, as ours has done to immigrants, that violence against them does not shock or even disturb most people. Inaction by the Department whose name is Justice, and silence by institutions that proclaim brotherhood are signs of deadened souls.  Faith communities must summon and nourish the maladjustment Dr. King spoke of:  “[T]here are certain things in our nation and in our world to which I am proud to be maladjusted. And to which I hope all men of good will be maladjusted…And through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”  Faith communities can shine a light on this official savagery and illuminate the path to justice.  The first step on that path is speaking out.  Loudly and definitively.  Speaking out for Anastacio, for his wife and their children.

Sign the Petition calling on the Department of Justice to act –


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