37 years after José Campos Torres murdered by Houston police

Still Fighting to Stop Police Terror

May 19, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Two events marking the 37th anniversary of the police murder of José Campos Torres were held in Houston last week. Torres was murdered by six Houston cops on May 5, 1977. They beat him brutally. They handcuffed him and threw him into Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston. One of the murdering cops said, "Let's see if the wetback can swim." Joe Torres drowned in the bayou.

For one year people in Houston, especially on the Northside where Torres had lived, struggled for "Justice for Joe Torres!" This fight was led by a group called People United to Fight Police Brutality, which had been initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Party. Only two of the killer cops faced any criminal charges—they were convicted of "criminally negligent manslaughter" and given one year of probation and a $1 fine! The case then went to federal court—the cops who murdered Joe Torres were given suspended sentences and one year for assault. People were furious. The courts of Texas declared that the life of a young Chicano brother was worth $1 and the federal courts had also let the cops off!

Poster from the Revolutionary Communist Party during the battle to free the Moody Park 3.

On May 7, 1978, people on the Northside were celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Moody Park. A full contingent of police came to bust up the celebration. As Travis Morales, who was the leader of People United, said at a program at the Northside library marking the 20th anniversary of what happened that night, "...several thousand Chicanos and Mexicanos rose up in Moody Park. To shouts of 'Viva Joe Torres' and 'Justice for Joe Torres,' police cars were overturned and burned. The police were met with rocks and bottles and driven out of the Northside for several hours. Almost one year to the day after six Houston pigs beat José Campos Torres within an inch of his life and then threw him into Buffalo Bayou to drown ... people got a little sweet taste of justice."

People took over several Northside streets that night, hundreds of them chanting "Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that's what the rich call democracy." Houston crackled with tension and conflict in the days and weeks following the Moody Park rebellion, and its reverberations were felt across the country. Five days after the rebellion, Travis and two others were arrested and charged with "felony riot," and faced over 140 years total in prison.

A lengthy legal and political battle followed, and as Travis said in his talk, during the trial he "testified that the day after the rebellion we supported it in a press conference and called for dropping the charges against all those arrested. The three of us testified that we were revolutionary communists who were about making revolution to overthrow this system of oppression and misery. And after we testified to all that, we walked. They were never able to send us to prison. The people had rebelled, we stood with them, and when the battle was finally over in 1985, we were free."

Joe Torres's nephew, who was one of the main organizers of this year's events, explained that the purpose of the events was to commemorate his uncle's life, and to bring this to light so that the police terror will stop happening. He, other family members, and community activists have formed a Joe Campos Torres action group to raise awareness, including raising funds to place an historic marker in honor of José Campos Torres at Moody Park by the civic center and at the location on the bayou where Joe Torres was murdered.

The first event was a screening of a film, The Case of Joe Campos Torres, followed by a panel discussion. People from the neighborhood came out—older people who had been a part of the struggle at the time and youth who had heard people talk about it, along with people from other strata who wanted to find out what really happened. The film itself and the discussion reflected sharp contention over different summations and lessons to draw from this period, especially the Moody Park rebellion. These debates carried over to a music celebration on Saturday night at a neighborhood taqueria honoring the life of Joe Torres.

One of the most sharply debated points centered on whether what happened at Moody Park was a rebellion or a riot—a conscious act or "mindless violence." A couple of the panelists at the film showing spoke of the Moody Park rebellion as a response by people to the absolute injustice in the murder and verdict. A professor on the panel talked about the systematic oppression of the people, and how the repression and brutality carried out by the police is a "structural problem" in America. He went on to describe how he sees the violence of the state as illegitimate.

Another sharp point of controversy was over the role of the police. There were different programs and solutions put out at both events: some argued there is a need to establish a civilian review board; some said that the problem with the police boils down to a few "bad apples"; some argued that what's needed is more community organizing. All this was sharply contended with BAsics 1:24: "The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people. It is to serve and protect the system that rules over the people. To enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in. The law and order the police are about, with all of their brutality and murder, is the law and the order that enforces all this oppression and madness." And it was contended with the need for revolution—nothing less.

In the midst of all this debate, the revolutionary pole was welcomed by many, and debated by others. Some who attended these events were hearing about revolution and BA for the first time; other people said they'd read Revolution newspaper before. And a couple of people came hoping to see Travis Morales again. One teacher talked about how great it was when Morales spoke in her class, and she said she wants to get back involved. One person said that he has been aware of Bob Avakian and the RCP, then added that he realizes that he doesn't know enough, and took a BA Everywhere packet to read and wants to get together to talk about the campaign to get BA out everywhere.

There was much lively debate and struggle over big questions and as BAsics cards, "No more generations of our youth..." were passed around, people struggled over questions like, is revolution possible, and what is the role of leadership, or do we need it at all? One older guy told a story of witnessing his friends being murdered by the Houston police in the '60s, including Carl Hampton with the People's Party II (an offshoot of the Black Panther Party). His conclusion: revolution just doesn't work. We challenged him and others to look at what kind of world we live in, and how it doesn't have to be this way, and why they need to engage with BA and join in the movement for revolution, as they're learning more about it.

A revolutionary (Travis Morales' wife) spoke on behalf of Travis. She was invited to speak by the Torres family, and at both events she spoke to the lessons of the Moody Park rebellion: that it is right to rebel against injustice, and what it means for today. At one point, she asked the audience, "Do we want our children and grandchildren to be here 20 or 30 years from now, looking at yet another of these outrages, asking 'How Long Will This Go On'?" People yelled out "NO!" She said that in order to end these outrages, like police brutality and murder, destruction of the environment, the degradation of women, and all the other outrages, it will mean getting rid of this system, through revolution, and she challenged people to join the movement for revolution.

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