A cacophony of car horns, whistles and emphatic shouts of children and adults alike followed hundreds of protesters as they marched through the streets of East Salinas.
“We want the city and the mayor to see we are a force,” organizer Ricardo Estrada said. “It’s not just a couple of people who you see on the news. We want to show them that 2,000 people came on a Sunday morning to march because that is how strongly we feel about our community.”
The march, a response to a series of police-involved shootings in the Salinas community, was sparked by the death of Carlos Mejia on May 20. Officers responded to a call from a resident, who said the 44-year-old was attempting to break into a home and threatened the resident with a pair of garden shears. Attempts to subdue Mejia with a Taser failed and he was shot after allegedly lunging at arresting officers with the shears and refusing to follow commands to drop his weapon.
Mejia’s death marked the third police-involved shooting of the year. Little more than a week before on May 9, Osman Hernandez met a similar fate. Police arrived to a scene at Mi Pueblo supermarket, where a seemingly intoxicated man was brandishing a lettuce knife. Hernandez was shot and killed after allegedly threatening officers with the knife.
“These are the people who are sworn to protect you and they’re killing your people. You don’t even know what to do anymore,” said Salinas resident Valentina Estrada. “You don’t even know if you want to call them in an emergency.”
However, according to community members marching on Sunday, the events that unfolded these past few weeks are nothing new in Salinas.
“We’re used to it,” said Salinas resident Maria Marquez, on the culture of fear that keeps people from protesting. “But to be honest, I came out today because you never rest. The police cars are out everywhere. Our family, our children, are out on the streets and we don’t know if they are safe. It has to end one way or another.”
The day’s events began at 10 a.m., when a crowd of community members and activists from all over California began to gather at Closter Park. Before leading the three mile march, family members of the victims addressed the crowd. They mourned the loss of their loved ones while chastising the Salinas police department for what they viewed as an injustice and a denial of civil rights.
In rows of two, with the families of the victims at the helm, protesters set out toward their first stop of the march — the corner of North Sanborn road and East Alisal, where Mejia was shot six days earlier.
A group of local Aztec dancers in traditional bright dress and feather headdresses trailed just behind the families, demonstrating solidarity and pride in Latino culture. The crowd held banners reading “Stop police brutality” and “Respect, dignity, justice.” Some donned black shirts with “SPD don’t shoot me” emblazoned on the front.
Fervent chants of “A town united will never be divided” drew residents out of their homes. Some tentatively peeked through their windows and others went out to the sidewalks, recording the event on their phones. Many bystanders joined the protest, which grew to about 1,000 people, as the group marched through the streets of East Salinas.
Stopping at various points throughout the march, attendees prayed for justice and the lives of the victims at the sites of the shootings.
As organizer Ricardo Estrada explains, Sunday’s march was the first step in what will be a long battle toward change. Organizers and community leaders developed a series of demands including a federal investigation of officers involved in shootings within the last 10 years. This investigation will place the officers involved in the shootings on leave and a civilian review board to deal with resident complaints against the police department.
“The police force is there to serve our community and our community needs to appreciate our police force,” Estrada said. “Right now, that relationship is completely broken.”
Organizers hope to connect families of the victims with civil rights lawyers in the coming days, as well as advocate for initiatives that will foster greater dialogue between residents and the police department.
“When people come into our city and they want to know why we’re here … well, why wouldn’t we be?” said community member Pamela Weston as the strike was winding down. “There’s a close scene of people who work together and sometimes there’s a lot of fear. But there is also culture. There is power.”