CURRENT DEMONSTRATIONS AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY RECALL THE INFAMOUS “BLOOD CHRISTMAS” CASE IN LOS ANGELES.
As this new year gets rolling, scattered protests and lots of grumbling continue over the killings of young African American men by police. As they should. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the killing-by-cop of Eric Garner in New York City (and the refusal of the criminal “justice” system to prosecute the cops) understandably caused a firestorm of protest. As they should. The anger and the protests persist today. Young black men have been fodder for unjustified abuse and killing by police for generations. And, regrettably, that is also the case for Latinos in this country – particularly Mexican Americans in the Southwest.
We should know our history. And we should not forget its lessons. The mass movement seen in the nationwide protests following the deaths of Brown and Garner could lead to some measure of justice. It could lead to changes in the way police are trained and are allowed to confront vulnerable, working class men and boys. Maybe. The justified anger and the protest demonstrations could, at least, stir up the pot of public discourse about these issues. We’ll see.
As a reporter for a mainstream broadcast outlet in Los Angeles for 30 years I saw example after example of brutality on the part of the notorious Los Angeles Police Department. The Rodney King beating that created a firestorm of outrage and eventually was the kindle for the 1992 Los Angeles riot/insurrection when the cops “got off” was just one example of such brutality. Most incidents of abuse (including killings) of black and Latino men are not caught on unambiguous, irrefutable videotape. Cops unjustly beat black men and Latinos practically every day; it’s just not always caught on camera.
In 1951 there were no cameras to capture the criminal, brutal treatment of seven young Mexican American men by members of the LAPD during the Christmas holiday. The infamous series of events became known as “The Bloody Christmas.” Chicano families in L.A. today still talk about it. It was like something out of the annals of the Nazi Gestapo in the Germany of the 1940s. We must know our history. It is, in part, the basis for understanding our present. The bloody incidents have been indisputably documented, based on medical reports and extensive eyewitness testimony.
What happened on “Bloody Christmas”?
It began at a bar and at an LAPD police station where – separately – a lot of drinking was going on to celebrate the coming of Christmas Day. At the Central police station cops were getting good and liquored up while still on duty. Not far away a handful of Chicanos and their friends were celebrating at Max Kohn’s bar on Riverside Drive, not far from Griffith Park, north of downtown Los Angeles. Two police officers entered the bar and tried to throw a couple of the patrons out of the joint. A barroom fight began.
The two cops, vastly outnumbered by angry patrons, got beaten up. They were furious, understandably. They fled from the bar, but the events of Bloody Christmas had not ended; the tragedy had just begun.
The LAPD got the names of the men who were in the bar (or at least they got names they believed were those of the guys involved in the bar fight). Police went to the homes of the seven men. Six of them were taken immediately to the Central station where they were booked for assaulting a police officer and disturbing the peace. This was at two o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day. One young man didn’t go to the station. Daniel Rodela, a 23-year-old employee of the gas company who weighed a mere 115 pounds or so “resisted arrest” when the cops broke down the door of his house.
Incontrovertible evidence later revealed that on that morning the cops handcuffed him, dragged him by his hair to the police car. They drove him to a dark corner of Elysian Park where they proceeded to beat the hell out of him, kicking and punching him mercilessly. The cops gave him a beating that would make the Rodney King beating look like something at a Sunday picnic. Rodela’s face was severely fractured. Several ribs were shattered.
He later revealed that while he feigned being unconscious, hoping the cops would stop kicking him, he heard one of the cops say: “You’d better make your [police] report good – that he resisted arrest and assaulted you with a flower pot or something.” Rodela spent weeks in the hospital, but he survived.
But the events of “Bloody Christmas” were far from over on the morning the cops nearly killed Rodela in Elysian Park .
Back at the Central police station where the cops were still drinking to celebrate the holiday season, word came about the confrontations between cops and Chicanos. A (false) rumor was spread that one of the police officers involved was injured to the point of losing an eye. That enraged the police partygoers.
A convenient target for their anger was nearby. The cops went to the jail cells where the six arrested young men were being held. Lots of witnesses saw what happened next. The cops lined up the young men and proceeded to beat them nearly to death. Evidence later revealed that the cops viciously beat the young men for an hour and a half. The floor of the jailhouse was saturated with blood.
What would you expect would happen from there? That the cops would immediately be charged with crimes? Of course not. Instead of that, the young men who were nearly beaten to death went on trial for assaulting the police. It sounds incredible, but that’s what happened – at first.
When the case went to trial the judge – no bleeding-heart liberal but a reasonable individual – could not allow the travesty to continue. Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Joseph Call said: “This case is permeated with testimony of vicious beatings and brutality perpetrated without cause, and it stinks to high heaven and all the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.” The judge released the defendants (who were victims of police brutality) and scolded the cops for unmistakably representing “lawless law enforcement.” The prosecutor referred to the Chicanos as “hoodlums and mad dogs,” but to no avail as the judge saw through the tissue of lies being perpetrated by the cops and prosecutors.
Eventually a grand jury investigation in Los Angeles looked into the matter. You’ll recall that recently the grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases decided NOT to indict and prosecute the police. In the case of “Bloody Christmas” the facts and the evidence were so overwhelming that the grand jury could not turn a blind eye to the nefarious actions of the cops. (This was at a time when cops routinely mistreated black, Mexican and poor residents and knew they would get away with it)
Remarkably, the grand jury indicted eight Los Angeles Police Department officers. Three were cleared and five were convicted of assault “under cover of authority.” It was a bit of a victory for the people. A bit of justice was attained after all. However, they received slaps on the wrist as punishment. They were sentenced to less than a year in prison. Also, dozens of cops were temporarily suspended. But the cover ups and lynch-mob tactics of the LAPD soon resumed after the dust of “Bloody Christmas” settled.
And that’s why vigilance on the part of the people is required today. The protestors today who demonstrate against police brutality are not “anti police,” as the rightwing politicians and media blowhards contend. They are “anti bad police.” There is quite a difference. And so, we must understand what’s at work in the current circumstances, but we must also know our history.