34 Shots for Gonzalo Martinez

Police Murder in Downey, CA

Revolutionary Worker #1167, September 22, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

Darkness reaches down all the way to the ground in the wee hours. Its shadows hide hard edges, and its soft fingers gently tuck the world into bed, covering the earth like an eyelid. But here, on a street in the southern California town of Downey, the night is bright with light, and everything is hard. Flashlights, spotlights, and a helicopter's beam all focus on a car pocked with bullet holes, only a fringe of shattered glass in its windows.

Gonzalo Martinez sits quietly in the driver's seat. Two policemen aim their guns at his head as more black-and-whites arrive, then an ambulance. Calmly, almost leisurely, the cops walk around, talking to each other. With a dozen guns trained on him, Gonzalo exits his car. His right arm is raised in a gesture of surrender while his left arm, already wounded, dangles limply at his side. He is unarmed.

In the next instant, the police open up with a machine gun and handguns, strafing the neighborhood with dozens of bullets. At least 34 shots are fired at Gonzalo, and five or six rounds rip through his body. Gonzalo remains upright for a few seconds. Wisps of smoke curl around his convulsing body, then hang in the space that was his when he crumples to the pavement. A police dog grabs him by the leg, shakes him like a rag doll. He's still alive, but the police put him in a body bag and zip it up. It's only when they put him in the ambulance that they unzip the bag. With medical attention, Gonzalo might survive, but the cops just stand there. Finally, the ambulance slowly drives away, never turning on its siren. There is a hospital only 3 minutes away, but they don't take him there. When he finally gets to a hospital 20 minutes away, Gonzalo Martinez is DOA. He was 26 years old.

It's 2 a.m., February 15, 2002 and a neighborhood full of eyewitnesses--including one with a video camera--has seen and heard everything,. There will be no gentle sleep here tonight.


Downey is "Small Town, USA" in transition. Even though it's a close-by suburb of L.A., one of the most diverse and dynamic concentrations of cultures anywhere, Downey has always tried to keep its claws dug into traditional American culture. What used to be an almost all-white, middle class community with a socially conservative and politically backward population is now a town where 75% of the residents are Latino, many of them immigrants. But the power structure remains basically unchanged: a "good old boy" network, open racism, and a gun-slinging police force with a history of brutality.

The Martinez family has nothing in common with that. Gonzalo's father Norberto works in a furniture factory, his mother in local real estate. They came to Downey from Argentina almost 30 years ago and have raised three sons here. Gonzalo, known as "Gonzo," was the oldest. He worked 65 hours a week so he could help his parents financially. He helped support his grandmother and put his 22- year-old brother Sebastian through college in Argentina. And he was always there for his 16-year-old brother Norberto. Gonzalo loved to joke--everybody who knew Gonzo will tell you a story about how he made them laugh. Gonzo was planning on moving to Argentina; the U.S., he said, was just too racist.

The day he was murdered was Gonzalo's day off, and he had escorted his grandfather to a Valentine's Day celebration at his retirement home. After the party, he went to the Stardust, a local bar where he and his friends often hung out and danced. The police also hang out at the Stardust, lying in wait in the parking lot for patrons to leave so they can follow them, harass them, give them a ticket, maybe arrest them. Everybody who goes to the Stardust knows about the police in the parking lot. The night Gonzo was murdered, they were there. When he got in his car, they followed him. Soon, they signaled him to pull over.

Gonzo had never been in trouble with the police. He probably got scared, and he took off. They chased him onto the nearby freeway, and his car crashed into a guardrail. When Gonzalo tried to back his car up, police opened fire. They claimed later that he was trying to kill them with his car and that they feared for their lives. An eyewitness told the family that when Gonzalo backed his car up, the police were hanging way back, far away from Gonzo. He was clearly not a threat.

Wounded and alone with the police on a deserted freeway, Gonzalo must have feared for his life. He drove into a residential neighborhood. This is where the cops rear-ended his car, drew down, and waited two minutes for more police to arrive. A freelance videographer, who'd picked up the chase on his police scanner, turned on his camera. Gonzalo's execution was caught on tape.

After the smoke cleared, the police saw the cameraman hiding in the bushes. They demanded his tape and tried to take it from him. Emboldened by a neighborhood full of eyewitnesses, he refused. Later, he turned his tape over to Channel 52, a local Spanish-language television station, who fed it worldwide. The video generated outrage when it was shown on TV throughout Latin America, particularly in Argentina where the shooting was compared to the Rodney King beating.

The day after the murder, the police issued a press release that said the cops shot Gonzalo because they couldn't see his right hand and they thought he was holding a gun. After the video was shown on local Spanish-language television, they changed their story, saying it was actually the left hand they couldn't see. (While the video was briefly aired on local Spanish-language television, it was virtually whited-out in the English-language media, and the mayor of Downey brags that he hasn't even looked at it.)

Later, the city released a coroner's report that repeats the police claim that Gonzalo was "observed" making a "furtive" movement with his wounded left arm. Coming from someone who wasn't even present at the incident, this "observation" by the coroner is an outright lie designed to bolster the police department's justification for opening up with a machine gun on an unarmed man.

Another outright lie: the police say that they gave Gonzalo orders in both English and Spanish for him to get out of his car with his hands up. The police say that he refused to comply. The eyewitnesses and the freelance video, however, prove that the order was never given in Spanish. In fact, the video shows that when the police, in English, ordered Gonzalo to get out of his car, he got out of his car with his right hand up and his wounded left arm dangling helplessly at his side. Within seconds, the police opened fire.

A few months ago, Gonzalo's parents began receiving anonymous letters that contain what the writer alleges are "inside stories" about the Downey police department. For example, the city recently announced that now--seven months after the murder--it has in its possession another videotape of the incident taken from one of the police cars present at the scene. So far, no one from the city has actually produced that tape or let anyone view it. According to the anonymous letter writer, this official police tape, which was supposed to be sealed as evidence immediately after the shooting, "disappeared" from the police station for 10 hours with two of the cops who'd been present at the shooting. One of these cops is a computer graphics expert.

While the city won't divulge the names of the officers involved in the shooting, it is known that they are still on the streets. According to the anonymous letter writer, the cop who shot Gonzo with the machine gun has a documented record of racial profiling. Shortly after Gonzalo's murder, this officer received Downey's "Officer of the Year" Award.


From the day Gonzalo was murdered, his family has been fighting for justice. They go to every City Council meeting. They stand outside before the meeting, walking up to all the police and calling them murderers, demanding justice. Then they go inside. They're never on the agenda, so they try to speak from the floor. Sometimes the Council will let them, sometimes it won't.

One night, a cop kept looking at the parents all through the meeting. Norma Martinez, Gonzalo's mother, remembers that she got very nervous. "I said, `Could this be the guy who killed Gonzalo?' After the meeting, he started talking with Gonzalo's friends. Finally, I went closer. Then he said, `First, I just want to say I'm sorry for the death of your son. I feel sorry.' I said, `Do you mean that? Because you're the first policeman to say he's sorry.' He said, `Of course I mean it.' I asked, `Can I hug you?' and he said, `Yes.' A few days later we received an anonymous letter that they'd fired him."

When students at Downey High School tried to hold a car wash in Gonzalo's honor to raise money for his family, the police threatened them and shut it down. Since the murder, police cruise up and down the Martinez's street. Their younger son is harassed by police. A helicopter frequently buzzes their house. Their phone sounds as if it's tapped. Their mail has been tampered with: the latest in the series of anonymous "tipster" letters was opened, dipped in water to make it unreadable, then put back into their mailbox, torn envelope and all.

Norma explains why she's so persistent: "It's hard to fight, but if you quit it's a victory for them. So I keep pushing."


During the last week of August, after six months of silence, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article about Gonzalo's murder. The article distorts the recent widespread and righteous outrage over the videotaped police beating of Donovan Jackson in Inglewood by saying that this response is due to the fact that he was African-American, whereas Gonzalo's murder didn't get the same strong response because he's Latino. After six months of covering it up, the L.A. Times is now hypocritically using the murder of Gonzalo Martinez to try to drive a wedge between African-Americans and Latinos, two sections of the people whose circumstances of life demand unity.

A few days later on August 31, 200 people stepped up the demand for justice for Gonzalo. People from the neighborhood, students from Downey High, local businessmen, families of other victims of police brutality, and activists from all over southern California marched down Downey's main street and rallied at the police station. Seven members of Norberto's union attended. There were immigrants and people born here, many African-Americans, a group of anarchist youth, white folks, a local college professor of Middle Eastern descent who'd just been released from a 30-day racial-profile detention the night before.

Norma Martinez told the RW , "Look at all this support! This unity here is so important. It gives me heart. In the L.A. Times they said, `The Martinez family said why do the African-Americans get more attention?' I never said that! I asked them why they [the L.A. Times ] didn't pay attention to my son. It's because we're Latino." Norma went to a protest against the beating of Donovan Jackson: "I see in Donovan my own son who is 16 years old. When I saw them beat Donovan, it wounded my heart.... So that's why we went there."

"I want justice for my son. I want those cops in jail. He didn't deserve to die. We need justice. The police department, they executed my son. They shot [at] my son 34 times.... We need justice, and we need it now. Now! I want to see the police that killed my son in jail!"

At a rally at the police station, Taliba Shakur from the Donovan Jackson Justice Committee said, "We came to show solidarity.... This was a crime on the people from the police and it needs to stop.... This can no longer be a Spanish problem, a Black problem, a L.A. problem or a Oakland problem... Let the police, the politicians, and the whole government know: we're tired of this and we're not taking it any more! We need to seriously get busy with this and unite. Whenever you hear about somebody getting brutalized or killed by the police, come out. It doesn't matter if they're a different color or a different neighborhood. Come out and support. This is a thing about oppressed people, and we need to have it stopped. Not another victim later!"

A man spoke on behalf of the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality: "We want to stand in solidarity with the Gonzalo Martinez family. We got to stick together as a people. We know all too well in Watts what the police do, how they brutalize and murder us.... They were talking about al-Qaida the other day, and I said, I got more chance of being murdered by the police by being a Black man on the street than I do of some al-Qaida. What we talking about here is it's gonna take a struggle. We gotta unite, we gotta fight."


Gonzalo's father Norberto says, "We promise, me and my wife, to our son. `We will continue to fight this, son. No matter what, we continue. No matter how many times they come to intimidate me, I won't shut my mouth.'...

"What they did to my son is like what I saw the junta do in Argentina 25 years ago. The police, the military, the generals, they murdered people and everything was covered up. Here, the government is protecting these criminals, these police. They know what's going on, the city council, the district attorney, the FBI. How can police be walking through a neighborhood with a machine gun! You read the newspapers--they make the police sound like heroes since 9/11. It's not true! Police brutality was happening before 9/11, and it's continuing now.

"What this country did to my son, I have no words to describe it. But what happened to him happens to many people, and now the police are being given more power, more brutality. I can't sit down over here and cry all day and don't do nothing. For my son, I have to fight for justice."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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