We’ll keep fighting for Noel Aguilar

February 4, 2016

Michael Brown reports from Long Beach, California, on the latest attempt by family members of victims of police violence to win some measure of justice.

IN THE hours prior to the mid-January march for Noel Aguilar, killed by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) deputies in May 2014, Mary Herrera, who was in the midst of making final-minute preparations for the day's protest, said her phone kept "blowing up."

The incessant calls weren't from a family member or friend, however. Instead, when Herrera finally answered one of the calls, minutes prior to the protest, she recalled being surprised by who was on the other end.

"It was the Long Beach Police Department," Herrera said. "I didn't get his name, but the officer asked for the march's route and offered his assistance. I said, 'Nah, we're okay.' He suggested we call 9-1-1 if we needed assistance. I said, 'Some of your partners killed Noel.' And then he said, 'Oh, I know.'"

Prior to hanging up the phone, Herrera asked the officer how he obtained her number, to which he replied: "Your number's on file." "They were obviously trying to intimidate us," Herrera said, when asked why she thought the police were offering "assistance" for the protest.

Protesters in Long Beach block a commuter train to demand justice
Protesters in Long Beach block a commuter train to demand justice (Sanchez Montebello)

Despite the obvious harassment attempt by LBPD, the January 16 protest went forward, in a day that included a three-mile march from North Long Beach to downtown Compton, a die-in that blocked a Metro Blue Line train from passing, and protesters blocking-in a parking lot at the Compton LASD station, which prevented police cars from exiting.

The unpermitted march, which was flanked on many sides by Bakersfield-based Brown Berets, took up an entire traffic lane for its duration. Onlookers exited both businesses and apartment buildings along Long Beach and Compton Boulevards to raise fists in support and snap photos.

Traffic traveling in the opposite direction of the march featured an almost endless honking of car horns by drivers in solidarity, presumably after they saw sizeable banners and signs adorned with Aguilar's image and hashtags of his final words: #Ididnshootnobody and #Imdying.

"It just made me feel good," Herrera said, who was mostly at the front of the march pushing a stroller with her and Aguilar's 1-year-old daughter Noely. "I didn't expect that kind of support, because when we were giving out t-shirts with Noel's (picture), not that many were there at first. But then the protest grew, I think due to people being mad about the video."

Protest attendee Martha Willis, whose son Antoine D. Hunter was shot and killed at age 24 after a traffic stop by Compton LASD deputies Gregory Rodriguez and Timothy Lee in June 2014, has been organizing alongside Aguilar's family since losing her son. Willis described the march as "filled with love and not revenge against the evildoers that hurt us."

Willis added, "The bond comes from just being human. The pain we share makes us even stronger."

THE VIDEO of Aguilar's execution carried out by deputies Albert Murad and Jose Ruiz was released a few weeks after it was received by his family's attorneys. The video corroborated all initial direct-witness reports that claimed the deputies shot Aguilar in the back multiple times after he was already on the ground.

The video also exposed several lies concocted by Murad and Ruiz, including a claim that Aguilar tried to "take a deputies gun." The deputies' claimed to investigators that each urgently yelled "gun!" before firing their weapons--and also that Aguilar shot Murad, who was in fact shot by his fellow deputy Ruiz.

The pretext given for Aguilar being stopped by the deputies, who were patrolling outside of their jurisdiction, was that he was wearing ear buds while riding a bike – a fact the LASD obscured for months.

The video begins in an apartment complex courtyard with both deputies atop Aguilar, who was writhing under their weight. Moments later, Aguilar can be seen wiggling a hand free and clutching a gate's fence after a gunshot from Ruiz skidded under his stomach and hit Murad. After Murad yelled he was shot, to which Aguilar says, "I didn't shoot nobody." Seconds later, Ruiz unloads a shot into Aguilar's stomach. Murad pulls out his gun seconds fires three point-blank range shots into Aguilar's back.

Throughout the rest of the video, Aguilar's body goes still after he yells "I'm dying." But instead of rendering first aid or calling for help, deputies sit atop his handcuffed body, suffocating the life out of him, ensuring that he'll never be able to recount his version of events. Herrera said that Aguilar's body was left uncovered for more than six hours.

Aguilar's lawyers have asked for a further medical examination to determine whether deputies deliberately tried to "asphyxiate" him. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also called on LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacy to reopen the case.

Lacy's office, in typical rubber-stamp fashion after police-on-civilian shootings, cleared both deputies of criminal wrongdoing last year. The district attorney's office hasn't charged a police officer in LA County for an on-duty shooting since 2001.

"I was shocked when I first saw the video," said Damion Ramirez, a co-founder of the Young Survivors-Legacy Support Network, a multiracial, working-class organization comprised of families of victims of police terror, which has been organizing an on-the-ground fight back for several years. 'I've seen a lot of videos, but that video left me physically shaken. I was in a rage. Noel's family's narrative hasn't changed since day one, and the video vindicates them."

Ramirez, who has been organizing against police terror since his friend Michael Lee Nida was killed in 2011 by Downey, California police officer Steven Gilley, talked about the importance of viral videos.

"Every single family that doesn't have a video needs you to watch this one," he said. "There were 300 to 350 people in the street because there was a video. This isn't cartoon-like or gratuitous violence where you don't see the blood, or death right in front of you. This connects people."

THAT NO one outside of Aguilar's immediate family and a small group of local organizers knew about his case should come as no surprise. In addition to police-led demonization efforts of victims, the Los Angeles media engages in smear campaigns and omits facts and context of these shootings on a regular basis.

The New York Daily News' Shaun King, in his widely read column, wrote after watching the video: "I had never heard of this case until now. Looking at old press coverage, I understand why." He later wrote, "A week later, in their feature on the story, the Los Angeles Times reduced Aguilar's humanity down to being a "transient" – only advancing the notion that he was some form of subhuman who may have deserved death."

Herrera said that fighting back for Noel is in part motivated by the way she's been depicted by the police and media. She says the effort has transformed her personally by making her realize that "even though we haven't solved the problem yet, we're still organizing together and supporting each other as we go."

Ramirez also talked about the importance of organization, and what justice for Aguilar would look like. "Unity, solidarity and organization are the answers," he said. "We need to continue to organize, so that communities can organize themselves and won't need to call police. Justice for Noel means we've got to have an entire system change."

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