Richmond leaders reflect on Cinco de Mayo beatings in 2002

on May 14, 2012

The Cinco de Mayo celebration on the 23rd Street corridor has become one of Richmond’s grandest events

But it wasn’t always that way.

Ten years ago, the street and the holiday became synonymous with an incident that would become a turning point in the city’s history, ushering in a new generation of political leaders and a renewed commitment to citizen oversight of the police department.

Those were the themes explored at “2002 5 De Mayo Richmond Police Riot: What Really Happened and How It Changed Richmond Forever,” a community forum that drew about 50 people and elected officials to the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s downtown offices Friday night.

Panelists, including victims of that night’s violence and former members of the Police Commission discussed the events of the night in 2002 and how they contributed to the changes in Richmond in the years since.

The 2002 incident occurred when police arrested about two dozen people along the 23rd Street corridor during crowd control efforts. The Cinco de Mayo holiday in those days was associated with unruly crowds and little cooperation between neighborhood organizers and police.

Several people, including some children, claimed officers beat them with clubs and flashlights, pepper-sprayed them while they were handcuffed and denied them adequate medical care while they were detained at police headquarters.

“We kind of stumbled into this situation,” said Andres Soto, a longtime local activist and one of the victims. “But what came out of it was a coalition of progressive-minded people who would change the city.”

On that night in 2002, Soto was with his two sons, Che and Alejandro, and several others, including some small children. The groups was confronted by officers near the corner of 23rd Street and Lowell Avenue and told them to clear the area, Soto said. After a heated verbal exchange, the group was arrested.

“It was a power move,” Che said. “(Police) wanted to embarrass us and make an example, parade us around in front of our neighbors.”

A Police Commission investigation concluded that officers used excessive force and racially abusive behavior against Latinos that night. A federal lawsuit filed by a dozen plaintiffs was settled out of court in 2004 for about $175,000, Soto said.

The panelists Friday included Soto and his two sons, as well as former police commissioners Rick Ramos and Bob Sutcliff.  The panelists agreed that the incident highlighted what they said was the flawed leadership of then-Police Chief Joe Samuels, as well as tensions between the department and the city’s growing Latino community, and the need for stronger civilian oversight of police.

“What happened then couldn’t happen today,” Sutcliffe said. “The department has come full circle, particularly under the leadership of [current Chief] Chris Magnus.”

It had other effects as well, particularly on Soto’s young sons. Che read a lengthy poem that he wrote in the aftermath of the event, a mix of rage and sensitive insight. Alejandro would go on to law school and then local politics in Berkeley.

“This situation helped shape me into who I am today,” Alejandro said. “My analysis of society awoke that day.”

Soto, whose local profile was raised by the event, lost a subsequent City Council campaign in 2004. He was opposed by police and fire unions.

But Soto channeled his energies into the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has emerged in recent years as arguably the city’s most powerful political coalition, and backs current leaders including Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

“This is very important history to be known, and we have come a long way since then,” McLaughlin said, addressing the crowd from her seat in the audience. “The culture of our police department has gone through a process of change.”

Friday’s event came less than a week after a weekend-long Cinco de Mayo celebration in the city, which drew thousands to the 23rd Street corridor, which is now a bastion of the growing Latino business community.

“Look at Cinco de Mayo in Richmond today,” Ramos said. “The level of cooperation between the police and the community is totally different now.”

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