Revolutionary Worker #1115, August 19, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
“What I don’t understand is that in the paper they said they shot 30 or 40 times. It doesn’t take that many shots to shoot out the tires. And it doesn’t take that many shots to kill a man. And yet they kept going and going and going. After they’d killed him they pulled him out of the van, handcuffed him, didn’t give him any medical attention and the cops were giving each other high fives. I don’t understand that.”
Friend of Julian Celaya
On July 21, 25-year-old Julian “Boo Boo” Celaya reportedly stole two 12-packs of beer from a liquor store in Fresno, California. Minutes later he was murdered in a hail of police gunfire. The cops may have fired as many as 45 shots.
Three days earlier, on July 18, Rene LaCentra, a 45-year-old unemployed white woman, was shot three times by Fresno police after a car chase through downtown. Police say they went after LaCentra after she made an illegal turn. Today she’s in the jail infirmary with wounds in the chest, shoulder and arm.
On July 16, two days before cops shot LaCentra, they killed Roderick Lee Bartolette in a northwest Fresno hotel. The cops claim they were doing a drug investigation and that Bartolette was part of a shoot-out.
Six days, three police shootings, two deaths. The Fresno pigs are on a rampage, and anger among the people of Fresno is boiling to the surface!
Proletarians in the
Fresno is a city of 427,000 people, California’s sixth largest, smack in the middle of some of the most productive farmland in the U.S.—the Central Valley. The city sits halfway between the San Francisco Bay Area to the north and west and Los Angeles to the south.
Fresno is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.—nearly 40% of the people are Latinos, up from 30% a decade ago; 37 percent of the people are white; 11% Asian/Pacific Islanders; and 8% are African-American. 85 languages are spoken in the city schools.
Big agribusiness is king in the Fresno area. Over 200 crops generate $3 plus billion in business. And the city reflects the harsh realities of capitalist agriculture in the U.S. today. Tens of thousands living in Fresno are immigrants from Mexico or migrant farmworkers, who follow the crops to survive. These are the proletarians who feed us all, yet they’re paid minimum wage, if that. Today wages in Fresno are among the very lowest in the U.S., while, of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Fresno ranks number 1 in unemployment —12.8% in June of this year, nearly three times the national average.
It doesn’t take long driving through Fresno to realize that there are many, many poor proletarians here, crammed into single-story cottage-type wooden houses, or blocks and blocks of run-down apartment buildings. The big, fancy houses are to the north—behind security gates.
Fresno has a history of being run like a brutal company town, complete with payoffs, corruption, and police running amok—like something straight out of the movie L.A. Confidential. And in recent years Fresno has been the home of a high-tech Violent Crime Suppression unit, a SWAT team which has become notorious for its military-style murder and brutality. The recent police murders are exposing much of Fresno’s sordid underbelly of police murder and brutality to the light of day, and have fired the people with a sense of outrage and urgency.
The Murder of Julian Celaya and the Anger of the People
According to the Fresno Bee, on Saturday, July 21, Julian Celaya took two 12-packs of beer from a liquor store and got in a van. The store clerk called police and told them the license plate number of the van, saying that Celaya had threatened to shoot him. Cops spotted the van, stopped it and ordered its four occupants to get out. Three people did, but Julian got into the driver’s seat and stepped on the gas.
The people and the cops tell two different stories about what happened next. The cops first said they started shooting when Celaya backed up the van toward them, supposedly “brandishing a gun.”
But as many as 50 eyewitnesses from the neighborhood saw the killing and many have spoken out. They described how cops had opened fire on the van as it pulled away and how they continued to fire after Celaya, wounded, crashed into a cop car positioned to block the van’s path. One man said he first heard 10 to 15 shots, followed by 15 to 20 more after the van stopped.
Another man from the neighborhood told the Fresno Bee, “He didn’t shoot at them. He just took off.”
Then cops dragged Julian from the van, handcuffing his lifeless body and dropping him to the ground, “They grabbed him and slammed him down” a man told the Fresno Bee, “I didn’t see them take no vitals or anything. They just left him there.”
Police will not say how many times Julian was hit but witnesses say that he had wounds in his head, arms and legs. People recounted how Celaya was left on the ground as a cop walked over to a front lawn sprinkler to wash the blood off his hands.
After two days of sticking to the gun story, the police department admitted to the Fresno Bee on Monday that Julian had had no gun.
The murder of Julian occurred on the 100th anniversary of the Fresno Police Department. On that day police from the SWAT and other special forces were showing off their weapons, motorcycles, and tasers at the Fresno Convention Center. More than one person has told the RW that cops were also seen at an unofficial celebration, drinking in a local Hofbrau, high-fiving each other after the murder.
On Monday, July 23, 50 people gathered at the site of Julian’s murder to tell the press and Julian’s family what really happened and counter police lies. As cops came close to the gathering, people confronted them, yelling “murderers” and calling the cops “trigger-happy.”
The police are keeping a tight lid on information on the killing of Roderick Bartolette. Here is what’s known at this point about the incident. Police say that they were just about to arrest Bartolette at a northwest Fresno motel when he opened fire on them at close range. No witnesses or family members have come forward to confirm or deny the police’s story. Activists in Fresno are trying to find out more about what happened.
Rene LaCentra: Shot for making an illegal left turn
Rene LaCentra was shot on the afternoon of July 18. It all started when she made a left turn against the light and police started chasing her. LaCentra told the Fresno Bee she didn’t stop because she was scared, “All of the sudden there was a whole herd of police chasing me. I wish I would have stopped, but I didn’t know what to do. I’m really sorry I didn’t stop.”
A horrified Fresno Bee columnist, who just happened to be coming out of a public hearing on Fresno’s police SWAT teams when the chase began, wrote: “A police helicopter circled overheard and someone joked that maybe we’d get a SWAT demonstration. Then shots ran out —bang, bang, bang, bang. They weren’t as crisp or as clear and those in the movies but they were more chilling because there was the sickening certainty that the blood would be real.”
The chase went through the City Hall parking lot and as cop cars blocked the exit, LaCentra crashed into the building’s glass doors. Then she tried to get away, hitting a police motorcycle positioned to block her path. The motorcycle cop jumped off his bike and along with three others started firing on LaCentra. “They didn’t say, ‘Hold your hands up or anything.’ They shot me up and then said, ‘hold your hands up’ and they dragged me out of the car,” LaCentra said.
Police are running out the story that LaCentra was trying to get them to kill her. But LaCentra says, “I have to take care of my mom and dad and my kids. Why would I want to die?”
Protest and Outrage
People in Fresno are furious and there have been meetings, protests, and spontaneous outpourings against these latest crimes by the Fresno cops.
Julian Celaya was married with four kids under age six. His wife has been too upset to talk about the murder, but his uncle Luis and brother David have been outspoken and active in seeking justice. According to the Bee, during a meeting between the family and the police, David told Fresno Police Chief Dyer, “As you know the past is the past and we should all be forgiven for the past, but my brother wasn’t given an opportunity to be forgiven. His court date is six feet underground for stealing beer.”
On Thursday, July 26, following a community meeting the night before, people held a protest at the police department, called by the Central California Criminal Justice Committee. There were Chicano activists and community members, middle class people, and white youth, as well as African Americans. Julian Celaya’s family came from a barbecue they had put on to raise money for Julian’s funeral. The local press was out in force—two TV stations, radio stations, and the newspapers. One Asian woman, a reporter from a local network affiliate, was heard telling a protester, “Look, you’re preaching to the converted, I grew up in the projects here, I know what the police are like.” When one white woman showed up with a sign defending the cops, it was ripped from her hands and torn up.
Many people who came to protest were victims of police brutality. One Chicano youth told the RW he gets arrested on the basis of racial profiling about every two months. A Black man recounted how his daughter had been arrested and hog-tied by police when she went down a one-way street the wrong way. A woman whose boyfriend, Delfino Guerrero, was shot 10 times and killed by the Fresno police on September 11, 2000 joined the protest. Last October 22 she had demonstrated with others against the police at Fresno’s courthouse. She said she’d been trying to get justice for Delfino, but had gotten nowhere. She’d almost given up, but when this latest murder occurred, she felt she had to come out, speak out, and try again.
Anger is running deep and broad in Fresno. The Bee is full of letters to the editor expressing concern about the actions of the police. One activist told the RW, “We’re getting ordinary mainstream people picking up their ears and saying this is wrong and has got to be investigated.… People are really pissed, in general, and worried and want to see something happen.”
Fresno’s power structure is alarmed at the rising outrage over the actions of their police. The Fresno Bee, which has a reputation for usually just repeating police propaganda, editorialized: “One doesn’t have to be a wild-eyed anarchist to be upset by recent events in Fresno. These problems must be addressed and corrected, and soon.”
But Fresno’s police, government officials, and political powers aren’t scrambling to get to the bottom of the problem and solve it—they’re scrambling to do damage control—to divert the people’s struggle into safe channels and to cover up what really happened in all these shootings.
The mayor and Police Chief Dyer have held well-publicized meetings with Julian Celaya’s family and have promised to investigate the killing. But at the same time, the police are keeping all the information, including police reports, from the three recent shootings a tight secret.
There have also been promises made to community activists to change police procedures and establish some form of police oversight board. But in 20 years not one single cop has been charged as a result of any on-duty shooting. It is clear that the silence from those supposedly doing the “investigating” is meant to protect, not expose, the police or bring them to justice, because their power, their position, indeed the whole unjust social order they sit atop, rests on police violence and terror against the masses of people.
There was a grim reminder of this cold reality on August 5, right when various officials were expressing “concern” about the situation. In nearby Hanford, 32-year-old Michael Correa was murdered while in police custody. County officials are claiming that his head injuries weren’t caused by the police. But one witness has already come forward who saw cops hit Michael twice on the head, even as he appeared to be unconscious.
The RW would like to thank all the activists and community and family members we talked to in Fresno for their help. This coverage would have been impossible without it. For more information about protests in Fresno, see www.fresnoalliance.com.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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