Today marks the anniversary of a seminal moment in the Latino civil rights movement. On August 29, 1970, Latinos marched in East Los Angeles to protest the number of Hispanic casualties in Vietnam. An estimated 25,000 people turned out for the National Chicano Moratorium, the largest political assembly of Mexican-Americans to date. It was a peaceful gathering until the Los Angeles Police Department showed up to investigate reports of looting. Then the protest turned violent, and when the smoke cleared three people were dead, including journalist Ruben Salazar.
Forty-three years later, it is important to remember Salazar because he was a pioneering Hispanic reporter who was killed under mysterious circumstances. It is important to remember him because his death made him a hero of the Latino civil rights struggle. And it is important to remember him because the issues that he cared about continue to resonate with Latinos today.
Salazar was the most prominent Hispanic journalist of his time. He interviewed President Eisenhower, Cesar Chavez, and Robert F. Kennedy. He was the first Mexican-American columnist at the Los Angeles Times and served as News Director for L.A.’s Spanish-language news channel. On the day of the Chicano Moratorium, he covered the march and afterwards went to a bar to relax with his news crew. He was there when an L.A. Sheriff’s deputy fired a tear gas projectile into the bar. It pierced Salazar’s skull and killed him instantly. He was 42 years old.
The circumstances surrounding Salazar’s death were rightly considered suspicious. Salazar had been warned by police officers against pursuing stories about the Latino civil rights struggle. Days before he was killed, he met with members of U.S. Civil Rights Commission to express his concern that he might be targeted or framed by the police. Though Salazar was a citizen who died at the hands of law enforcement, no criminal charges were ever filed against the deputy who killed him or against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. President Nixon’s Department of Justice declined to investigate the shooting.
It’s no wonder that conspiracy theories sprang up around Salazar’s killing. The bar where Salazar was killed was 22 blocks away from the park where the march ended, and the deputy who shot him admitted that he fired into the bar without being able to see inside. According to the Associated Press, the canister that killed Salazar was “designed to be blasted through doors or windows and not shot at people.” His body remained on the floor of the bar for almost three hours before officers examined it.
Salazar’s death exposed a troubling lack of transparency in the LASD. It wasn’t until 2011 that documents were released from the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation of the case. L.A. Times columnist Hector Tobar concluded, “Salazar’s death wasn’t a murder. But it was a stupid and entirely preventable accident.” A civilian watchdog group noted that the LASD had “circled the wagons around its deputies, offered few explanations and no apologies” in the aftermath of the shooting. Yet the fact that Salazar’s shooting was not deliberate does not make it less of a tragedy.
Still, Salazar’s legacy lives on. His death led to the formation of the California Chicano News Media Association, which helped pave the way for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. There are parks and schools in Los Angeles bearing his name, and he was honored by the Postal Service with a stamp in 2008. But consider that Salazar was not a political figure, nor an activist. He was a journalist doing his job. He was dedicated to illuminating problems that plagued Latinos in East L.A., including poverty, unemployment, police brutality, and poor schools.
As Latinos celebrate the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech, we should recognize our own heroes as well. Salazar deserves to be remembered for his crusade against social injustice, and because he devoted his life to empowering his community.
Correction: “An earlier version of the story stated Mr. Salazar was killed as a result of actions by a deputy and we subsequently referred to the LAPD. Mr. Salazar was killed following actions by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputy.”
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.