A Unified Front against Police Brutality: How Chicano/as and Their Allies Challenged Police Repression and Violence

Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Latino/a; Race


Historians focusing on the formation and nature of the carceral state have written on its dramatic effect on peoples of color living within the United States. While scholars such as Kelly Lytle Hernández and Edward Escobar have demonstrated the problems of policing and police brutality in Los Angeles, more work is required to illuminate the ways in which activists in local communities resisted the forces of inequality and institutional racism and how these communities organized across racial, class, and gender lines to challenge racist policing.
This panel demonstrates how people of color organized to challenge racially biased policing and brutality. It offers a cause study of three different states, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Texas, to situate the agency of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and whites in several diverse communities. First, Brian Behnken shows how the killings of two members of the Black Berets (the New Mexico offshoot of the Brown Berets) and the subsequent protests of Chicano/a activist groups thereafter forced law enforcement to reconsider its racially biased policing measures. Though largely an effort to save face, law enforcement including Albuquerque’s Chief of Police initiated a series of reforms because of the outspoken protests of the Latinx population. Katherine Bynum explores the vibrancy of coalition-building activist groups in which the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and the Bois d’Arc patriots, a white working-class organization, built a triumvirate alliance in the aftermath of three police-related shootings in the early 1970s. Her paper demonstrates the power of coalition-building and their determination to end the forces of institutional racism and class antagonism in local and municipal politics. Finally, Sergio González examines how a rising Brown Power movement led by Chicano/a and Puerto Rican activists collaborated, albeit tentatively, with Milwaukee’s predominantly white-led religious organizations to confront law enforcement’s disproportionate harassment and surveillance of the city’s Latinx population. González illuminates the ways in which religion constituted a vital aspect of broader mobilizations in the national Latino civil rights movement.
The three studies broaden our historical understandings of inequitable and racially biased policing and how activists across the nation turned to coalition-building, religion, and civic reform initiatives to demand police accountability. The studies will also illuminate the effects of police repression and how it impacted Brown Power era movement activists and forced them to strategize within existing structures, to form new and potent interracial relationships, and to initiate widespread methods of grassroots organizing to challenge the effects of institutional racism.

Papers Presented

The Birth of the Triumvirate Alliance: Black, Brown, and White Organizing against Police Brutality in Dallas, Texas

This paper examines the dynamic relationship between black, brown, and white community organizers in the fight against police brutality in Dallas in the early 1970s. Activists from each group had often worked independently of one another throughout the 1960s—forming temporary alliances via the labor movement, through coordinated efforts to desegregate Dallas schools, and together in the War on Poverty. However, three highly controversial police-related shootings in the early 1970s pushed the Black Panther party, the Brown Berets, and the Bois d’Arc Patriots, a white working-class organization, to form a triumvirate alliance to address the pressing housing and gentrification crisis, to access quality jobs, and to end police brutality. This paper demonstrates the larger significance of cross-racial coalitions of the long civil rights movement by arguing that black, brown, and white activists forged an interconnected network that allowed activists outside of these organizations to communicate and collaborate. The triumvirate was not a limiting alliance. On the contrary, it allowed activists from each organization to bridge new relationships with other activists who were also working toward similar goals of police accountability.

Presented By
Katherine E. Bynum, Texas Christian University

“The cops regard us as the enemy”: Faith Institutions and Latino Activism Against Police Harassment in Civil Rights-Era Milwaukee

This paper examines the contentious relationship between Milwaukee religious organizations and grassroots Latino activists engaged in anti-police brutality mobilizations in the late 1960s and 1970s. During the early 1960s, Wisconsin ecumenical religious coalitions collaborated to provide Latino communities with the educational, health, and social services denied them by state agencies. By the end of the decade, a rising brown power movement led by groups such as the Latin American Union for Civil Rights and the Young Lords challenged the predominately white-led clerical leadership of these organizations to confront disproportionate police harassment and surveillance of the city’s Mexican American and Puerto Rican populations. Spurred on by Latino youth’s growing anger toward extralegal state violence and constant “stop, frisk, and questioning” tactics employed by city police, Latino organizations demanded that faith institutions support grassroots efforts to replace the city’s police chief as well as direct their economic and social capital towards initiatives such as seminars for patrolmen on Latino culture and active recruitment of policemen of Latino descent. This paper contributes to a larger project calling for historians of Latino communities to understand the role of religion in midwestern and national Latino civil rights movements not just as an additive component of grassroots mobilization, but also as a constitutive aspect of broader mobilizations in the twentieth century. This paper draws from a larger project that examines how the movement and reordering of people, religion, and cultural practices drove the creation of spaces open to cross-cultural and transregional interactions in Latino Wisconsin during the twentieth century.

Presented By
Sergio M. González, Marquette University

Police Slay Two Berets: How the Police Killings of Antonio Cordova and Rito Canales Spurred Criminal Justice Reform in New Mexico

Antonio Cordova and Rito Canales walked into a trap and paid for it with their lives. Both men were in their early twenties, active members of the Chicano movement in Albuquerque as well as the Black Berets (the New Mexico offshoot of the Brown Berets), and had committed themselves to opposing police brutality. When they attempted to break into a dynamite shed at a construction site, a contingent of law enforcement officers from multiple police agencies awaited and killed the two men. The circumstances of the killings were as conflicted as they were complex. So was the aftermath. Spurred by massive protests organized by the Black Berets, which included a broad swath of Burqueños, the city and state governments developed reforms that rebuilt trust between law enforcement and the Mexican American community and revised police procedures in a number of important ways.
This paper examines this conflicted and complex history. I argue that the gross illegalities committed by the police who killed Canales and Cordova exposed the problematic nature of southwestern policing in ways that few New Mexicans outside of the Mexican American community understood. That exposure as well as the agency and activism of the Chicano movement in New Mexico forced law enforcement to inaugurate reforms. These reforms served as a way of saving face for police, but they were also supported by a number of police officials, especially Albuquerque police chief, Donald Byrd, who forthrightly believed that reforming the police was good for the city and state.

Presented By
Brian D. Behnken, Iowa State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Eddie Bonilla, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Presenter: Brian D. Behnken, Iowa State University
Brian Behnken is associate professor in the Department of History and the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State University. He also has a courtesy appointment in the African and African American Studies Program at ISU. His research and teaching interests include comparative race relations, civil rights, and media studies. He is the author of two monographs, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and with Gregory Smithers Racism in the American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito (Praeger Publishers, 2015). He has also edited four collections of essays, most recently Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth Century United States (University of Georgia Press, 2016). His current book project explores the history of the Mexican American community and its relationship with police agencies in the Southwest from the early 19th century to the early 21st century, tentatively titled Brown and Blue: Mexican Americans, Law Enforcement, and Civil Rights.

Presenter: Katherine E. Bynum, Texas Christian University
Katherine Bynum is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Texas Christian University. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of North Texas, where she worked for the UNT Oral History Program and wrote her thesis on the Second Red Scare and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas higher education. Bynum has worked for numerous oral history projects, including as a 2015 research assistant for the Civil Rights in Black and Brown Oral History Project, for which she also served as project manager from 2016 to 2018. Bynum contributed to the forthcoming publication of an edited anthology, entitled Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Oral Histories of the Multiracial Freedom Struggles in Texas. Her chapter details the history of black and brown grassroots organizing against police brutality in Dallas. Her dissertation focuses on the long struggle of grassroots organizing against police brutality in Dallas.

Presenter: Sergio M. González, Marquette University
Sergio M. González is an assistant professor of Latinx Studies at Marquette University. A historian of twentieth-century U.S. immigration, labor, and religion, his scholarship focuses on the development of Latinx communities in urban areas in the American Midwest. González’s first book, Mexicans in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), offered a concise introductory history of Mexican settlement and community formation across Wisconsin. His current project explores the relationship between religiosity, Latinidad, and social justice movements in twentieth century Milwaukee, exposing how Latino immigrants of diverse national, ethnic, and class backgrounds turned to their religious faith and institutions to fashion new identities, create sanctuary, and fight for economic rights. González works to bridge his academic scholarship to broader audiences through involvement in groups such as the Wisconsin Labor History Society, the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, and other local labor and immigrant justice organizations.