Young People in the Rio Grande Valley Receive Rough Treatment from Authorities

By Nick Braune

Youth in the Rio Grande Valley (on the Tex-Mex border) face frequent attacks by various authorities who increasingly consider youth as “the other.” I’ll offer a few examples momentarily; but first, some context. The Valley, with some of the poorest counties in the country, is over-policed — progressives here even speak about the “militarization of the border,” referring to the semi-occupied atmosphere inside the Border Patrol’s “checkpoints.” And perhaps because local to federal authorities know that if resistance sentiment should arise in the long-impoverished Latino population of the Valley and similar places, it would massively involve youth, the authorities tend to focus their attention (suspicion, irritation, snap judgments, etc.) toward young people.

If socialist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-87) were here, she would mock the various official claims that authorities must police the young people to prevent them from acting irrationally. Dunayevskaya would say that the officials are not worried about occasional irrationality in youth but are far more afraid of the opposite: the insights and reflective qualities of young people. Authorities are afraid of “youth as reason,” so youth are consistently targeted in tense areas.

True, no group formally voted to target youth, but with a hundred little nervous vectors almost spontaneously nudging in one general direction during the evolving economic and social crisis, no one had to vote; there simply evolved a more watchful mentality toward the young, and a “smack ‘em down quick” mentality. (I am reminded of the town of Raymondville following the onion field strike of 1979. The documentary “Valley of Tears” shows how after the strike, for some crazy reason, the authorities – they had supported the rich onion growers — began kicking many Mexican-American kids out of the high school. Raymondville activist, Juan Guerra, just out of law school, set up his own “school” in a garage to combat the expulsions, and with help from those youth, waged a bitter fight to get on the school board.)

Here are four examples of ways youth, viewed as “the other,” have been smacked recently in the Rio Grande Valley.

First, there have been continuing reports that the Evins Regional Juvenile Facility is Edinburg still has not created a safe climate for the youth held there. The Justice Department intervened in 2006, and in 2008 a reform plan was worked out to keep inmates from beating each other and to keep nut-case guards from beating the young inmates.

But on May 5th The Monitor of McAllen reminded us that problems are lingering on there; it told the story of a 17-year-old youth, Brandon, who had felt so terrorized that he “secluded himself in the isolated security ward…He has refused to rejoin the general population for seven months after a beating he received from other inmates.” (I wonder if Evins provides proper psychological help for youth with PTSD.) In case you are wondering, Brandon was sent to Evins, to undergo hell, because of a graffiti charge — this is how to treat youth?

Second, a Brownsville Mexican American, Francisco Dominguez, was tried as an adult and given 20 years in prison this summer for killing his Anglo high school drama teacher, who was prominent in Valley cultural circles. The prosecutor refused to see the 16-year-old as a victim, although there was evidence the kid and other male students had been lured several times to the teacher’s house to do odd jobs and were asked to pose with their shirts off to show off muscles. Dominguez was very vulnerable psychologically, starved for attention by the father figure who also introduced kids to some male stripper friends at his home.

I spoke with Dominguez’ attorney, who was startled at the way the state aggressively prosecuted the youth and refused to give any credence to the kid’s explanation that he had stabbed the teacher (who outweighed Dominguez by 100 pounds) in self-defense during a sexual assault.

Why didn’t the jury listen to Dominguez’ side of the story? A partial answer: On his first night after being transferred to an adult facility, the youth had been interrogated by a Texas Ranger, and confessed. Because no lawyer was present at the 10 p.m. interrogation, which took three hours, and because the interrogation was not videotaped, it is not surprising to me that the Ranger got Dominguez to confess that he had killed the high school teacher not in self-defense but as part of a planned robbery. The kid signed the statement. Afterward, the youth could not explain well why he had confessed the way he did to the Ranger if the confession wasn’t true.

(Some students in a South Texas College philosophy class recently critiqued the standard Reid Technique of interrogation to see why it is so successful — so “successful” that it results in many false confessions — and the students even discovered that in England it is illegal to use that interrogation technique on juveniles. A 40-year-old Texas Ranger, experienced in interrogation, can get an insecure, scared 16-year-old to confess to anything.)

A third case of youth being targeted was exposed in The Monitor this year; the piece criticized an Edinburg Justice of the Peace who has thrown 137 teens (17 or older) into jail on truancy-related issues. “Some students stayed as long as 49 days, continuing to miss classes and in some cases jeopardizing their chance of graduating.” (Although judges cannot legally send a youth to jail for truancy, the JP would incarcerate them on “failure to appear” charges related to truancy, or incarcerate them if they failed to pay off truancy-related fines. Jailing kids for skipping school — is this sensible?)

The situation is so serious that the ACLU has announced a federal class action lawsuit. The Monitor, (7/10/10) reports: “Francisco de Luna spent 18 days in jail last year for a list of offenses as minor as wearing saggy pants to school. Elizabeth Diaz was kicked out of her high school for excessive absences — incurred during two weeks she spent locked up for missing class… The lawsuit alleges that local justices of the peace routinely failed to offer teens access to attorneys and to verify whether they had the financial means to pay off their fines on their own.”

The Monitor quotes an ACLU attorney: “The schools and the county should be providing services that will help keep these kids in school instead of punishing them to the point where they cannot return to school.”

As a fourth example, let me conclude by sharing an interview I conducted for my weekly column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, August 18, 2010. I spoke with Victoria Garza, an intelligent, socially conscious young woman (perhaps early twenties) who describes herself as a mother, a musician, and a member of the G Collective in Edinburg, where she lives. Although this interview involves a relatively small incident, it may provide some insight into the current situation in the Valley.

Braune: If I understand correctly, the Edinburg police recently overstepped their boundaries in response to a routine noise complaint they claimed to have received. Briefly, what happened? And what was the attitude of the police?

Garza:A little after 9 p.m., I was informed about a police officer outside my house. I immediately went outside to address him. We were having a punk show so everyone was coming inside the house and the music was stopped, because we figured it might be a noise complaint. I found the officer banging on the front window, pointing at someone inside, yelling, “YOU, COME HERE!” I asked what was going on and the officer was demanding to see the owner of the house. I remained calm and repeated, “I live here, what’s going on?”

He continued to yell, demanding to see the owner, so I explained that no one here owns the house because we rent it. He then asked for my ID. I lost my ID a month ago and haven’t had time or money to replace it, so I said politely, “I don’t have an ID, but I can give you my information.” I gave my first and last name, address, and date of birth.

He said that there was a noise complaint and that it’s against a city ordinance to have amplifiers in our house. I told him that I was unaware of this ordinance and that it was my understanding that we can have a reasonable loudness before 11 p.m. I calmly explained that enforcing the ordinance tonight doesn’t make sense because we were using the same speakers we practice with. He then said that there is a fine of $500 and went to his car to get the citation. I waited.

When he came back, he asked for my middle name. I told him and he told me to put down the food I was eating, grabbed my wrist, and handcuffed me. “I have a warrant for you.” Being barefoot, I asked if I could get some shoes, and the officer scoffed and said, “They can bring them to you.” I remained calm and respectful; he was aggressive, rude and macho.

Braune: I understand you had an unpaid fine, so your friends went down, paid it, and you were released. Were the young people doing anything to antagonize the police?

Garza:Not at all. Everyone came inside the house in a calm manner because no one likes to talk to police, who have a reputation for aggression. They had no reason to harass anyone either, people were just hanging out in the back porch: no pot smoking, no minors drinking, nothing besides the loud noise at 9 p.m., and that stopped immediately.

Braune: You explained last week to me that your house provides a space where young people can talk, chill and enjoy common culture. (I personally visited your Edinburg collective last spring for a potluck dinner fundraiser.)

Garza:Yes, we host an array of events, from thought-provoking films and skill-building workshops to punk shows and Son Jarocho workshops (Afro-indigenous music from Veracruz). We provide one of the few “venues” where people under 18 can go for shows and events.

Braune: Often police attitudes (like anger, rigidity toward youth), their “community interactions,” are puzzling.

Garza:I don’t know why the police get hostile. Maybe it’s a power-trip, or when they don’t find just the response they expect, it makes them angry. They definitely don’t expect us to know our rights, such as our right to refuse them entry without probable cause. Everyone here knows to go inside when cops show up, shut and lock the door, locate the people who live at the house, and remain quiet until we figure out why they are here by someone going outside to talk. They may think they can push their way into our home, but we don’t let anyone in if we don’t trust them, and we don’t trust the police.

Braune: Any follow-up?

Garza:Yes, because of this incident, our collective recently handed out ACLU “Know your rights” flyers at Edinburg’s National Night Out. Everyone we met agreed the police are usually aggressive. Some already knew some rights they had, like not consenting to an unlawful search. My advice to young people is to remain calm and respectful. Don’t talk back or resist arrest. Most importantly, learn your rights.

Braune: Victoria, thanks for your comments.

A youth terrorized in Evins for graffiti offenses, another one targeted by a Texas Ranger (and a vigorous prosecutor) for fighting back against a predatory teacher, 137 teens going to jail for truancy, local police trying one evening to rattle the G Collective which is reaching out to youth — listing these examples admittedly does not prove anything. But older people in the Valley should seriously examine the hypothesis that the younger generation is being targeted as the suspect “other.” I doubt, however, that the youth will want to wait until the older people wake up: Although the young appear to have few allies, they do have reason on their side.

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