It felt perfectly appropriate when Raul Cardenas bent down and kissed the stairs of San Jose’s Superior Court. Twice. State Drug Agent Michael Walker, the killer of his brother Rudy Cardenas, had just been indicted for voluntary manslaughter after a week-long open grand jury session.
It was a triumph for the grass-roots movement to stop needless police shootings and may mark a turning point in police accountability in the San Francisco Bay Area. A new fraternity of families—Latino, black and Asian—who have lost loved ones to police shootings cheered the indictment.
From the beginning, the Cardenas family knew the district attorney's office would be more accountable if the grand jury hearings were open. This was a lesson learned from the family of Cau Bich Tran, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who was shot by a police officer in her kitchen in San Jose in July 2003. The Tran family pushed for an open grand jury. Tran’s was only the second open hearings in San Jose history.
Although Officer Chad Marshall wasn’t indicted for Tran’s death, the open hearings led to media coverage and touched off a public debate that went beyond the Vietnamese community. “The Tran family even wrote letters to the district attorney’s office about getting our grand jury case open,” says Regina Cardenas, Rudy’s 26-year-old daughter.
Gary Woods, of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, says the multiethnic group has effectively challenged the police. “The police have become very good at spin when they can target a specific community.” Woods recalls that after Tran's shooting San Jose police responded to the bad publicity “by placing ads on Vietnamese radio within 24 hours and sending reps to community centers to say how unfortunate the incident was.” He says that with a movement that extends to Latino, black and other Asian communities, “the police have more pressure on them to actually change things.”
When the families marked the first anniversary of Tran’s death, the memorial service grew to include the family of Chila Amaya, a 35-year-old Latina from Union City; the family of Cammerin Boyd, a 29-year-old black man who was killed in May in San Francisco; and the family of Rudy Cardenas, who was shot in the back by Walker in downtown San Jose.
The families testified to their common experiences—the needless shooting of a loved one, their inability to get answers, the vilification of the deceased in the media as drug users, mentally unstable or criminals, and court sessions that move painfully slow. The gathering was remarkably diverse. When Tran was killed, the memorial service was almost exclusively Vietnamese. Now, the families have a new collective identity.
Lonny Amaya’s sister, Chila, 35, was shot by a policeman in 1998 in her house in Union City. When Lonny first heard about Tran’s death he went to her apartment in downtown San Jose. “I met her boyfriend, and we just stood outside arm in arm for hours. I knew exactly what he was going through.” He adds, “Color stops being an issue once the officer pulls the trigger.”
Two months ago, the Union City Council gave Chila’s shooter, Officer Woodward, an “Officer of the Year” award. The Amayas, led by Chila’s mother, went to protest. “After my mother yelled at all the officers, the mayor asked her to go out to the lobby. As we were walking, Cammerin Boyd's mother came. I introduced them and they both cried and held each other,” Lonny says.
Marylon Boyd finishes the story. “At the time, right after Cammerin’s death, I was so traumatized, I felt like my voice had been taken. Seeing Mrs. Amaya, this small woman getting in their faces, gave me my voice back. I told her, ‘I get strength from you.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, later the words will come.’”
Marolyn’s son, Cammerin, 29, was killed last May by undercover officers, as he was getting out of a car. Cammerin was a paraplegic from a prior accident, a fact Marylon is certain the police were aware of.
Marylon knows the ties the families are making in the larger community. “When I go to the shops near my office that have Vietnamese owners, they tell me how happy they are to see me on TV talking also about Cau Tran. They felt there was not enough attention on her case, and my voice was helping getting their story out as well as Cammerin’s.”
The Coalition recently met in the San Jose Vietnamese Community Center to discuss Walker’s grand jury indictment with Tran’s lawyer. They planned a meeting with the San Jose Independent Police Auditor about the unusually long delay in medical help to both Rudy Cardenas and Cau Tran. They had already pressured the city to invest in non-lethal weaponry to prevent more needless deaths. Turning to the mostly Vietnamese audience Marylon Boyd said, “The indictment is not just a victory for our family, but it's for all of our families.”
Ray Jayadev is the director of Debug, a magazine for young people in California’s Silicon Valley, and a project of Pacific News Service.