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  • Gabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Police Brutality Defined My Journalism Until the End

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Dear Subscribers: 

I hadn't started my first day on the job as a full-time OC Weekly staff writer when my phone pinged with a text message calling me into early action. 

Anaheim police left Vincent Valenzuela in a coma after a rough arrest, a tip that came from a friend of a friend. Within the hour, I met up with his sister and ex-wife. We tried to piece together the puzzle of what happened the day before on July 2, 2016 by seeking answers at nearby businesses.

A manager at a coin laundromat didn't pass along surveillance footage when asked about it. Had she, we would've seen two officers approaching Valenzuela at a washing machine before using their Tasers on him. Across the street, another manager at 7-Eleven, where Valenzuela lost consciousness forever, seemed petrified when we asked about video footage.

I identified myself as media; he gave me a useless corporate office number.

But something terrible did transpire in the parking lot over Fourth of July weekend, as another worker let on while emptying trash out back. Only, Valenzuela was in no shape to give his side of the story. The family gathered in the lobby of West Anaheim Medical Center later that day, unable to see him. The police considered the comatose 32-year-old father to be under their custody until an attorney intervened. Valenzuela got pulled off life support a week later. 

Still, for as gut-wrenching as the whole day turned out to be, the truth took time to reveal. A small measure of justice? Even longer. 

As the nation burns following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I can't help but return to the Valenzuela case.

The two shared a common cry before dying: "I can't breathe!" 

In the 7-Eleven parking lot, officer Daniel Wolfe put Valenzuela in a supervised carotid artery hold, a euphemism for "chokehold." Once the body camera footage became public, it showed Valenzuela turning purple in the face before going unconscious.

The whole encounter began that day with a call of a man pacing back-and-forth in front of a home. At the laundromat, Wolfe heard a glass pipe break before confronting Valenzuela about it. 

In 2017, the Orange County District Attorney's office cleared all officers involved in the death, but a civil case carried on. 

Last November, a jury in Los Angeles found Anaheim police to have been liable for Valenzuela's death. His two children were awarded $13.2 million, by far the biggest payout for a police brutality case in the city's history. 

Physical evidence showed Valenzuela suffered a broken hyoid bone in the anterior neck region, but after taking the loss in court, Anaheim wanted to shift the focus on meth found in his system. "Ultimately, this incident speaks to the devastating impacts of drugs on people, families and communities," a city spokesman told media outlets.

So much for navel gazing. 

The story on the civil trial also turned out to be my curtain call on the police brutality beat. Within days of filing the report, OC Weekly folded. 

As for those carotid artery holds: the Anaheim Police Department still hasn't bothered banning them. 

The beat goes on. Who'll pick up pens in our place? 

- Gabriel San Román

Like what you're reading so far? To keep the Tallest Mexican in OC's Slingshot! newsletters going Venmo: @Gabriel-SanRoman-2. Follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook! Don't forget to tell your friends to join the San Roman syndicateby subscribing! 

Mouse Muckraker

The famed Disney animators' strike began on May 29, 1941 following the firing of 16 union organizing employees, including Art Babbitt. At one point during the five-week walkout, Babbitt, an acclaimed animator, antagonized Walt Disney, who had to drive through the picket line, with a bullhorn. A flustered Disney got out of his car, took his jacket off and wanted to fight before picketers got between the two. 

The bad blood continued after the strike; a condition of its settlement included the rehiring of Babbitt. Disney felt personally betrayed by Babbitt, who became a Screen Cartoonist's Guild union leader, and even took it out on Goofy! 

For those who don't know, Babbitt is credited with developing Goofy as a character in 1932.

"Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured colored boy and a hick," the animator wrote in a 1934 memo. "His brain is rather vapoury. He laughs at his own jokes, because he can't understand any others. He is very courteous and apologetic and his faux pas embarrass him, but he tries to laugh off his errors. He talks to himself because it is easier for him to know what he is thinking if he hears it first." 

Shiftless, good-natured colored boy? Yikes! Or should I say, "Gawrsh?" 

After the animators' strike, Disney forever associated Goof with being Babbitt's creation. At one point, he even confessed to Harry Tytle, his right-hand man, that of all the Disney characters, he never once liked Goofy. 

Aw, shucks!

Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina

Naranja Notes

No "By the Bylines" this week.

But with police brutality protests exploding all over the country, including in OC, there's still a pandemic raging. A car parade protest organized by Unite Here Local 11 cruised through John Wayne Airport on Thursday to make their dissent known. HMS Host, a highway and airport food service company, informed 260 workers last week that it would be ending their health insurance extensions effective June 4. 

The company laid off the workers at the onset of the pandemic. Its decision on health insurance prompted much anxiety among staffers who protested for longer extensions. 

"I suffer from diabetes and my entire family depends on this healthcare," said Miguel Macias, a laid off cook at John Wayne Airport. "What am I supposed to do if one of my kids gets sick or if I run out of my medication?" 

The fight over health insurance is nothing new. Host workers hit the airport with a picket demanding better pay and affordable health insurance back in December after the company's "last and final" failed to impress. At that point, they'd been in bargaining for almost two years. 

"It is a shame that HMS Host plans to take away its workers’ health coverage in the middle of a global pandemic," said Ada Briceño, Co-President of Unite Here Local 11. "Now, more than ever these workers and their families need to be kept safe and healthy and extending health coverage during the global pandemic will do that." 

Only, folks wouldn't know about it from local news outlets. Along with police brutality, labor is another beat that's quickly vanishing. 

Photo courtesy Maria Hernandez, Unite Here Local 11

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