Seeking justice for a father killed by police

December 4, 2013

Michael Brown reports on the struggle by Rigoberto Arceo's family to win justice for a loved one gunned down by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies.

WITH MACKLEMORE and Ryan Lewis' hit song "Can't Hold Us" blaring from a portable speaker system-on-wheels, demonstrators began a march on November 16 in the Los Angeles County city of Cudahy, where Rigoberto Arceo was killed by a sheriff's deputy six months earlier.

"He helped anyone, anytime," said 11-year-old Christopher Arceo, attesting to his father's character, during a pre-march vigil.

Urged on by numerous honks from passing motorists, Christopher, his mother Yoana Munoz and her other son Nathan led dozens of sign-holding supporters in one of the latest protests for another unarmed, innocent man killed by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) deputies.

During the past two years, a working-class, multiracial coalition of families, dubbed the "Justice Warriors," has led a grassroots effort to confront police terrorism by organizing protests in communities such as Anaheim, Reseda, Compton and Pomona.

Christopher, perhaps inspired by the ongoing protests, took the initiative and planned the November 16 action.

Christopher Arceo (right) stands with his mother and brother at a protest demanding justice for his father
Christopher Arceo (right) stands with his mother and brother at a protest demanding justice for his father (Greg Silva)

Munoz explained that her son had asked several weeks prior to the protest if he could organize a march for his father. "He just came to me with the idea," she said. "Everything from the music selected, the candlelight vigil, the march--he planned it all."

Munoz, who was engaged to marry Rigoberto this fall, said one of her favorite parts of the protest was Christopher's selection of his dad's favorite music. Christopher's performance of a tribute song to his father, performed at the end of the demonstration, stood out to her because of "the way he personalized it." She added, "That was really touching."

Growing to more than 80 people, the protest in Cudahy, a working-class community 30 minutes south of downtown LA, was loud and visible. Chants of "Honk for justice!" and "No justice, no peace! No racist police!" filled the air.

Family members of Michael Lee Nida II (killed by Downey police); Manuel Diaz, Martin Hernandez and Joe Whitehouse (killed by Anaheim police); Andy Avila (killed by Pomona police); Javier Arrazola Jr. (killed by Los Angeles police); Ignacio Ochoa (killed by the LASD); and David Silva (killed by Kern County sheriff's deputies and the California Highway Patrol) attended the protest.

One of Munoz's attorneys, Humberto Guizar, said he was inspired by Christopher's efforts. "I don't feel like a lawyer here," he said. "I feel like family. It puts in me the need to fight harder for this case."

RIGOBERTO'S KILLING in May was one of several throughout Southern California by police, including three by the LASD. Along with Rigoberto, who was 34 years old, LASD deputies also killed Ignacio Ochoa, age 37, and Terry Laffitte, age 49, both unarmed.

Rigoberto was killed after he and his sister, Maria Arceo, were stopped by deputies on the street where he lived. According to Rigoberto's family, he and his sister left a Mother's Day celebration that evening after his brother told them he had an altercation with another man outside of his apartment.

Maria told the Los Angeles Times in June that she and Rigoberto left the celebration and went to the apartment to de-escalate the situation. However, a short while later, after they left, deputies pulled up behind the vehicle she was driving a few doors away from Rigoberto's residence.

The LASD's account of what happened next and those of Maria and two other witnesses are vastly different.

LASD Sgt. Rich Pena told the media at the time that Maria was stopped for "matching a vehicle description" which was linked to an earlier "confrontation." Pena added that after deputies ordered Rigoberto out of the car, he ignored their commands, "approached" the deputy, got into a "physical confrontation" and tried to take the deputy's gun. After the deputy supposedly retained his gun, he then fired a single shot into the upper torso of Rigoberto.

But Maria says that her brother's "hands were in the air the entire time." Maria told the LA Times that Rigoberto complied with deputies' commands and walked toward the rear of the vehicle with his hands up, but then she heard a shot. Afterward, Maria said she saw her brother "disappear" from the window where she watched his shooting unfold. Neighborhood resident Armando Garcia and his cousin, both of whom were barbecuing in a front yard at the time, corroborated Maria's recount of events.

According to his family, Rigoberto was shot in the heart. Afterward, Rigoberto was taken to St. Francis Medical Center, where he happened to also be employed as a biomedical technician. There, coworkers immediately recognized him. Brother Richard Hirbe, the director for spiritual care and medical ethics for the hospital, told the LA Times that after seeing Rigoberto, "The heart of the hospital stopped for a moment."

THE LOVE Rigoberto enjoyed among his family and coworkers extended to his community. Days after his death, nearly 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in his neighborhood, and in June, more than 100 people marched to and packed a community center. There, they forced the cancellation of a town hall meeting, which was to feature city officials and sheriff's spokespeople attempting to whitewash Rigoberto's killing.

The mere fact that members of the community would look unfavorably on the LASD and remain skeptical about its versions of events should come as no surprise to anyone following the agency's recent history. The systemic nature of LASD brutality isn't confined to the streets, but also its jails, which are currently under investigation by the FBI.

Couple that with what many believe to be the LA County district attorney office's continued rubber-stamping of cop-on-civilian shootings as justified, no matter how egregious, and you have a recipe for frayed confidence in "our protectors."

"Honestly, I didn't pay attention to this problem or even know how serious it was," Munoz said. "I was oblivious to police violence. Growing up, we all had this image of police being the good guys. I was so ignorant of it. Meanwhile, Rigo, actually--years before he was killed--would always warn me, 'Not all cops were good. They're always messing with people.'"

Fortunately, a long overdue and family-led resistance to police violence continues to take shape and gain momentum, not only in southern California, but throughout the state.

Connecting the dots between systemic police terror and the larger economic and social system it protects, forming alliances with allies fighting against intersecting issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline and the New Jim Crow, will be essential in creating the sort of mass movement necessary to challenge the status quo.

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