Is Mexican teen killed at border the Emmett Till of immigration fight?

On June 7, a 15-year-old Mexican citizen named Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca was shot to death by a border patrol agent near the El Paso-Juarez port of entry. He was allegedly hanging out near the Rio Grande with a group of friends when U.S. Border Patrol agents began firing at him and others near him. Their rationale, reportedly, was that someone was throwing rocks at them while they attempted to detain a few “illegal” immigrants who were fleeing back into Mexico. The .40 caliber bullet that killed Sergio entered his head at close range near his eye. He died instantly. He allegedly never crossed into U.S. territory.

I lost my youngest brother when he was that same age. Those kinds of deaths can rip into a family and psychologically wound them like no crisis can. So it broke my heart to consider what that family might be going through. It bothered me even more to presume how Sergio’s death might be rationalized by the U.S. Border Patrol Agency and other American officials. This has indeed been the case, as their response casts blame on Sergio for his own death and attempts to garner sympathy for those officers who shot and killed him.

As Sergio’s family and friends seem to clearly understand, Sergio did not endanger himself. By most accounts, he was a rather ordinary and law abiding Mexican teenager known for his charisma and charm. His friends were also not the reason why he was shot at close range in the head.

But, I wouldn’t even say that the officer who shot him is solely to blame. He too will be haunted by this tragedy. Who, for example, can live in peace after murdering a child? Perhaps he did lose control over his emotions and become excessively violent? But, reports of the incident bear no indication of why he might do so. He was not under attack or in danger. In fact videotaped evidence of the encounter obtained by Univision suggests that the officer who shot Sergio had his gun drawn and aimed far prior to any alleged rock throwing.

This leads me to believe that there was some psychosocial force operating in his psyche that encouraged him to be as irresponsible as he seemed to be. As Cory Robin has shown us recently in his book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, what we tend to fear personally, is usually a reflection of what we’ve been conditioned to fear politically. And quite often we find that there was never really anything for us to fear to begin with.

Bearing that in mind, rather than blaming that individual in particular, I find it more constructive to map out the discursive and/or social terrain that shaped that agent’s subjectivity and disposition, that produced Sergio’s death, and that will likely deny him and his family justice. His mother certainly does not think that justice will be theirs. In her first interview with media she commented, “May God forgive them… because I know nothing will happen.”

That qualification seems as if it is derived from historical memory about state sanctioned violence in the U.S., at its borders, and what types of persons are usually on the wrong end of conditions such as police brutality. We know quite well who are the usual suspects and targets for these kinds of tragedies. They are usually working class, African-American or Latino youth or young adults who get falsely profiled as dangerous due to the spaces they inhabit, their phenotype, or their style of dress.

Once I started gather the details about Sergio’s death, I also could not help but to reflect on another moment when a child of that age was slain by grown men in an incident that sparked debate and controversy about civil and human rights in the U.S. That moment was in 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and shot to death by white vigilantes in Money, Mississippi for not obeying the physical and discursive borders erected to legitimate Jim Crow segregation in the south.

While Emmett’s murder was not caused by a state agent, it was certainly state sanctioned as each of the men who murdered him were acquitted by a local jury. That was the modus operendi of the era, one within which state institutions often turned a blind eye to white vigilantes and even encouraged their actions as a method of maintaining what they envisioned was a morally sound civic order and yet also an apartheid style colonial rule in the south. Emmett’s death was fueled by what has commonly been referred to as “negro-phobia.”

The similar ages of both Emmett and Sergio (it was initially reported that Sergio was also 14) at the time of their death affords us an opportunity to scrutinize the shifting nature of racial politics in the U.S. and also in a moment that is commonly described as post-civil rights and that has also been strongly influenced by an assortment of transnational dynamics associated with globalization. The fact that Emmett’s death in 1955 is widely reported to have helped galvanize the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, suggests to us that perhaps the slaying of Hernandez-Huerca can spark some dialogue about crises of our day and age. While previous anti-racist struggles tended to be ethnically and racially compartmentalized, it is my hope that such conversations can also lead to more fruitful multi-racial and multi-ethnic coalitions today.

In hindsight, we can clearly see the insanity that fueled and justified Emmett’s brutal killing. But at the time that it transpired, there was much debate in the U.S. about whether Emmett deserved the violence that was bestowed upon him. Many African-Americans and whites of the day suggested that he should have known better, he should have recognized his place in society, that he was too mischievous for his age, and should have not crossed the symbolic boundaries that he did. Those claims were legitimated by the presupposition that colonialism was a natural order of things, that it was human nature for races to be antagonistic towards one another, and that Blacks and whites must naturally stay segregated from one another.

We now can see how ridiculous all of those claims are. Emmett was a child and children are not to be murdered for being playful or adventurous in a nation that calls itself the land of free and brave persons. Regardless of what person he may have whistled at, or talked to inappropriately, his death was unwarranted. Much of the same can be argued on behalf of Sergio. While Emmett’s death was undoubtedly more severe and grotesque, the social climate that produced his and Sergio’s deaths are not too different.

Emmett was murdered at a time when anti-black racism seemed to be at an apex. Whites had taken it upon themselves to police and segregate the growing Black population of their towns and cities. Sergio was killed in a place and moment when xenophobia and anti-Latino sentiments seem to have reached epic heights as a response to a Latino population boom. Current conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border are not too different from what African-Americans faced in the south during the mid 20th century.

Emmett’s murder transpired as part of a much broader effort to legitimate Jim Crow colonialism in the south, and Sergio’s murder is describable as being produced by what might be described as “Latino-phobia’ or what the African-American rapper, Talib Kweli, recently described as “Jim Crow in Español” in the southwest. With that term, he joined a chorus of progressive African-American artists such as Chuck D of Public Enemy fame and African-American activists such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Gerald Lenoir (of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration) who have aimed to call attention to a new modality of oppression that is vehemently xenophobic by nature and that aims to scapegoat and exploit Latino immigrants as a method to justify and uphold white privilege in the U.S. Black nationalist organizations such as the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party have also incorporated the plight of Latinos and of immigrants into their militant anti-racist agendas and have risen to the defense of Latinos victimized by police during immigrant raids and roundups in many U.S. cities. Those black activists have adjusted to the demographic realities of the moment. They have also upheld the unfulfilled goals of persons like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and other black leaders who realized that the best way for them to achieve the goal of racial justice was to form strong coalitions amongst the diversity of those who are racially aggrieved.

Much of the recent calls for justice on behalf of Latinos have been raised by those who have been alarmed by the passage of a recent bill to justify racial profiling as a method of law enforcement in Arizona. As if the rather profound examples of anti-black racism that continue to make news in the U.S. were not compelling enough, the fact that we now have broad support for legislation that explicitly authorizes the racial profiling of Latinos as a method of policing, makes any claim that we are now “post-race” seem comical. In fact, the recent election of the nation’s first black president makes it more challenging than ever for progressive minds to point out sustained racial injustices to the public at large.

Considering this, it seems imperative to place Sergio’s death in broader conversations about border militarization and anti-immigrant hysteria of the past few decades. Since 1995, roughly 1,000 Mexican immigrants per year have perished at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of what is commonly described as border militarization. That strategy was designed to push immigrants to migrate in desolate mountain and desert terrains where they would run the risk of dying by overexposure or starvation. The logic in this is that the more immigrants die, the more their deaths will serve as a warning to would be immigrants of what fate awaits them. Strategically killing lawbreakers as a method of law enforcement violates the rights granted to immigrants by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and numerous Supreme Court cases have ruled that as long as any human being is in U.S. territory, he/she is granted the same rights of due process as any citizen.

Border militarization has also encouraged aggression from police officers that has resulted in an epic increase in shooting deaths in recent years. A report issued by the U.S Government Accountability Office in 2006, claims that shooting deaths of immigrants have more than doubled since 1995. A special United Nations envoy was even sent to the San Diego-Tijuana border to conduct an investigation about immigrants being shot to death. Quite often those shootings have been justified via claims of deadly rock throwing by immigrants. Those rock-throwing immigrants apparently have great arms, great enough that they should consider careers in professional baseball rather than in the construction or restaurant trade. I could not help but to think of how I have never seen a white college aged activist gunned down for hurling a rock, a bottle, or any sort of debris at police officers during their volatile protests for animal rights or against corporate greed. It seems quite common. They often pelt officers and destroy businesses, yet are never punished for doing so by a bullet in the head. Considering this, it is imperative to note that all eyewitness accounts that have been aired in the media thus far have declared that Sergio ever threw a rock or even held one.

When placed in this broader context, an important question to ask our selves is what purpose does violent anti-immigrant repression serve? Despite the billions of dollars we have invested in it, border militarization has certainly not stopped the flow of immigrants into the U.S. In fact the only factor that has stemmed the tide of immigrants from Latin America in recent years has been the economic downturn of 2008. In addition, many sectors of our economy have been dependent on undocumented immigrant labor for years now. If we think that we are in a financial hole now, I don’t think that many Americans have a clue of how much deeper that hole might be if it weren’t for undocumented immigrant laborers working in the hotel/restaurant industry, caring for our children, cleaning our homes and businesses, maintaining our landscaping, constructing our buildings, picking our fruits and vegetables, or processing our meat.

Immigrants are also not stealing jobs away from working class African-Americans as what is often reported. Earl Ofari Hutchinson and others have shown in great detail how this discourse is a myth used to encourage black-brown conflict and to get African-Americans to support right wing political parties and pundits.

Right-wing pundits have also justified the recent rash of xenophobia by suggesting that the U.S. is under foreign invasion, that immigrants have a conspiracy to take over the U.S., alter its national identity, change its language, abandon its morals, spread exotic flu bugs, and lead it to ruin. The U.S., however, is not designed to be a fascist state but a liberal democracy. It is intended to avoid uniformity of language, race, religion, ethnicity, or language as prerequisites for human or civil rights. Fascist tendencies, however, seem to become popular in moments of economic anxiety, when we develop an anti-intellectual emphasis amongst our populous, and when we undermine the abilities of our schools and colleges to offer us the most sophisticated and diverse curriculums one can imagine.

Unfortunately, we have seen recent initiatives in the Arizona and Texas public school systems to undermine our children’s abilities to think critically about diversity and in communities that are rapidly diversifying. As the world is becoming a smaller place as a result of globalization, we must expand the mindset of our youth so as to adjust to that reality. Undermining or criminalizing African-American studies, Latino studies, or any ethnic studies programs and/or curricula is self-destructive

Neo-liberalism has also altered our global political economy, creating for the immigration dynamics we are now face with. Manufacturing industries have shut down their plants in U.S. cities, leaving masses of poor and working class blacks and Latinos unemployed and making them susceptible to our growing prison industrial complex or military recruitment. Those industries have migrated to the “third world” where they can squeeze a larger profit out of non-unionized workers to whom they owe no benefits, in addition to lax environmental restrictions than what they’d face in the U.S. The invasion of foreign industries into places like Latin America has ruined local economies and set off waves of displaced workers seeking better means for economic survival in the U.S. or Europe.

So, we have effectively created the impetus for waves of immigration, have rewarded undocumented immigrants for coming to the U.S., while also violently repressing immigrants as the course of national economic, social, and moral decline. While militarizing the border helps to make immigrant workers more exploitable in the spaces we trap them into, killing loads of immigrants makes no economic sense. But it is still a form of injustice that deserves our attention. In the early 1990s, we militarized our inner city communities as an effort to clean up our cities and make them safer. Roughly 20 years later we can see that this effort has not worked. Crime and an assortment of seemingly self-destructive behaviors are still rampant due to a lack of opportunity, hopelessness, and despair amongst our inner city youth.

We created those conditions of despair and then seek to punish young people for their acts of desperation and cries for help. Our only response to that crisis has been to open and fill more prisons or send youth of color to the military. In a similar fashion, militarizing our borders is not stopping immigration. In fact billons of U.S. tax dollars are being spent and wasted. We’ve helped to create conditions of despair in Latin America and in our own cities, and we are now killing folks for acts of desperation. It is my fear that the militarization of our inner city communities and borders is then an anesthetic maneuver. It makes us feel better but it does not address the source of our pain. We can lock up or kill thousands of disposable peoples, but we are also fertilizing the grounds for the growth of new ones. The death of persons like Sergio Hernandez Huereca will then seen as perfectly justifiable in the minds of many Americans. But it is not by any means. He did not do anything to any American or any U.S. law enforcement agent. He did not deserve to die. Yet we killed him.

It would be easy to blame whites for these contradictions but we would be incorrect in doing so. In his book Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders, Sociologist Pablo Vila has demonstrated that Latinos in the city of El Paso, Texas, (the city near where Sergio was killed) generally support a militarized border despite the fact that many of them are of immigrant stock themselves. Also, over 50 percent of U.S. Border Patrol Agents are Latinos themselves who have dedicated their lives to rather vehement anti-Latino measures. I would not be surprised to hear in the coming days that the Border Patrol Agent who gunned down Sergio was a Latino. His race/ethnicity will likely be politicized as a rationale for how and why Sergio’s race was not a factor in why he was slain.

We’ve seen this before in cases of police brutality towards African-American and Latino youth who have been unjustly killed by black or Latino police officers. In 1997, 18 year-old Ezekiel Hernandez was shot by a Marine sniper stationed covertly near his family’s farm in Redford, Texas. Ezekiel was racially profiled as being an immigrant drug smuggler by a Marine who was also a Latino. Like Sergio, Ezekiel was merely hanging out near the Rio Grande when he took a bullet. He also died. Besides the three year age difference between the two victims, the only difference between Sergio’s and Ezekiel’s death was that Ezekiel was a U.S. citizen. That case serves as a reminder that most Latinos are not immigrants and that racial profiling does not depend upon a white profiler. Both deaths were encouraged and have been justified by border militarization.

Border militarization did not inaugurate anti-Latino violence in the U.S. It has merely built upon a tradition. From the moment when the current U.S.-Mexico border was forged after an act of military aggression by the U.S. towards Mexico, systemic violence towards Latinos has been a proven method for the U.S. to reinforce its sovereignty and nationalism in times of economic crisis. Latinos were violently repressed in the 1930s and 1950s as they were scapegoated as the source of national economic and social decline. Those moments witnessed the targeting of U.S. born and immigrant Latinos alike. In retrospect, we can see the mistakes made in those moments. But, we cannot see how we are repeating the same mistakes now. In his book, Lynching in the West, Ken Gonzales Day reveals that Latinos were lynched in the southwest at a comparable rate as African-Americans were in the south during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Studies conducted by the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch show that blacks and Latinos have also been wrongly targeted for police harrassment and mass incarceration in our cities in the mid to late 20th and now early 21st centuries. If one counts the number of Latinos falling victim to border militarization, then Latinos can be described as the group who are most victimized by police brutality in the U.S. While international human rights organizations have been quick to identify these crises, the fact that we normalize them is indicative of deeper dilemmas. Pride can blind us from reason.

In addition, MALDEF has recently shown that anti-Latino hate crimes have increased by roughly 50 percent in recent years. Some of the more known cases have been the murder of Jose Ramirez at the hand of four white teenagers in Shenandoah Pennsylvania who screamed warnings that the violence they wailed down upon Ramirez would also target any Mexicans in their predominantly white town, if they did not choose to leave on their own will. Those teens were acquitted of murder charges due largely to arguments that practiced misplaced patriotism. A few years later, Marcelo Lucero was beaten and stabbed to death in Los Island New York after a group of white teens and young adults went “beaner hopping” a term they used to justify their anti-Latino vigilante violence as a method of recreation. The boldness through which those vigilantes have operated seems reminiscent of one previous time period in particular…the Jim Crow South.

The recent rash of anti-Latino and anti-immigrant hysteria in the U.S., does not mean that blacks have been made immune from such conditions. The victimization of Rodney King Jr., Taisha Miller, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Shaun Bell, and Oscar Grant by abusive police are clear examples of that. Similar to how not all recent Latino victims of police brutality have been immigrants, not all of the aforementioned black victims have been African-Americans. Diallo was an immigrant from Guinea and Louima was from Haiti. Their immigrant status, however, did not spare them from anti-Black racism. The presence of more African and Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. is yet another reminder of how we must diversify our perspectives on civil rights in this day and age so that they are attuned to more prominent trans-national dynamics. Latinos are also now the nation’s largest “minority” group and join blacks at the bottom of nearly every socio-economic scale measuring health and success. These conditions create the impetus for creating the kinds of coalitions that our most adored civil rights persons began to envision long ago. Let’s not drop the ball.

Considering that history and those facts, there is some usefulness in drawing comparisons between the Emmett Till case of 1955 and the Sergio Hernandez Huereca case of 2010. It helps facilitate a dialogue about. If my own imagination has not been compelling enough, some of the first pictures published regarding the Sergio case are of his mother, Maria crying in tragedy as she addresses the media about the slaying of her child.

For those of us familiar with the Till case and the important role played by his mother, Mamie Till, the comparisons need no further explanation. Pictures of Ms. Till weeping before journalists, helped to galvanize solidarity for her and for the countless numbers of black victims that her son’s case symbolized.

I presume that my comparison between the Sergio’s and Emmett’s cases will disappoint if not agitate many African-Americans, whites, and Latinos alike. Many African-Americans will cringe at any suggestion that their history is in any shape or form comparable to another minority group. Their opinions are likely to be fueled by fears that a Latino take over will de-rail their struggle for civil rights and leave their dreams for equality unfulfilled. They might even justify Sergio’s killing via some xeno-phobic logic that one would assume is more likely to come from the minds and mouths of conservative whites.

Comparably, I am certain that many Latinos will also either essentialize their plight as exceptional or will stand by those Border Patrol Agents who killed that child as a method of accentuating their “American-ness” and non-Latin American-ness. They will ignore or conceal their own immigrant pasts and detach themselves from relatives in Latin America while claiming that ungrateful and elitist Latinos such as myself have no idea of what it is like to deal with immigrant scoundrels undermining the quality of their lives. Those same Latinos might also cringe at any comparison with African-Americans and deploy anti-black prejudices to justify their position. But the popularity of those opinions should not sway progressive minds and hearts from doing what progressives have always done…. Build strong coalitions across race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and class that advocate social justice and better the quality of life for us all.

Ultimately, however, I must confess to sharing the pessimism of Sergio’s mom. I do not think that Sergio’s slaying will spark much dialogue or activism around the civil rights of immigrants or Latinos. He will be buried in a few days and many of us will be deaf to the cries of injustice that will be aired during his funeral. Within a few weeks time, we will forget about him. His name will not register in the annals of U.S. history as did Emmett Till’s because he was an immigrant, because he perished in a moment of anti-immigrant hysteria, because he was at the border, because he is a Latino at a time when there widespread ignorance about Latino history in the U.S. Despite all of that, I still feel responsible for both Sergio and Emmett. They are my younger brothers and they should not die in vain.