Paramilitary repression and police brutality continue unabated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border three years after the assassinations of Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes in Oaxaca, Mexico and Fong Lee in Minneapolis, MN
By Steven Renderos & Sylvia González
November 1, 2009
Two different people – different stories, different places, – separated by nearly 2,000 miles, were connected three years ago when their lives were cut short by gunfire. Fong Lee and Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes suffered a death inflicted by the gunshots of police and paramilitary officials. For Cervantes, it was one gunshot wound to the chest; for Lee, three gunshot wounds in his back, and five more to the front. Cervantes died seeking justice during the popular movement in 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico, while Fong Lee died as a result of deeply rooted racism and police brutality in communities of color across the United States.
The stories of Lorenzo and Fong tell the tales of paramilitary repression during the popular movement of 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico and police brutality and racism in the Hmong community in Minneapolis- and how they play out in different sociopolitical contexts. While their lives ended tragically, their stories continue as their family and community members are fighting back, building unity, and defining “justice” and “dignity” on their own terms and based on their own experiences.
Background on Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes
In the summer of 2006, a broad-based movement exploded in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. What first began as a teacher’s sit-in at the main plaza of Oaxaca by the Seccion 22 (teacher’s union) soon culminated into a popular movement where thousands of community members raised their voices against abuses from the state government, years of fraudulent elections, and more than 500 years of injustices. On June 14th, 2006, bombs of tear gas were thrown from paramilitary helicopters to peacefully protesting teachers and community members under the orders of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. For more than five months, el pueblo reclaimed spaces in the city, built barricades at busy street intersections, and exercised self-determination by taking back over 12 radio stations and one television station.
On August 21st, 2006, an announcement was made on the commercial radio station, “La Ley”, one of 12 radio stations that el pueblo Oaxaqueño took back during the 2006 popular movement. The announcement urged people to hit the streets and defend the radio station and antennas, an important apparatus that was used as an organizing tool to disseminate information and mobilize gente to action. Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes, husband and father of four, responded like thousands of other people did: they took to the streets to reclaim what transnational corporations had robbed from them-the media. The PRI political party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Institutional Revolutionary Party) and paramilitary troops driving in unidentified vehicles, better known as the “Convoy of Death”, were sent under the orders of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz with clear intentions to violently repress el pueblo from occupying the radio stations and antennas. In the early eve of August 22, 2006, paramilitary troops opened fire on el pueblo that selflessly stood up to defend the radio stations and antennas. Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes was shot and murdered under the orders of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz of Oaxaca that day.
Background on Fong Lee
On the evening of July 22, 2006 a group of young teenagers were cruising near a park on their bikes. One of the teenagers riding his bike was 19 yr old Fong Lee. Before I continue, that description, regardless of location is probably reminiscent of the harmless activity of a lot of teenagers across the world that evening. But this is North Minneapolis and the teenagers are Hmong and through the lens of the Minneapolis Police Department this scene is suspicious.
The police officers gave chase to the teenagers assuming that the youth might be dealing drugs therefore excessive force is justified. Fong Lee is chased down into a school yard, here is where the account of events diverge, the official police documented story is that Fong Lee was carrying a gun. One of the officers giving chase, Jason Anderson, “feeling” his life and the life of his partner was in danger because a young teenager running away from him was holding a gun, shot Fong Lee a total of eight times.
Video footage suggests Fong Lee was unarmed.
Here are the details of July 22nd which still remain unclear. For starters, no drugs were ever found on Fong Lee. The gun which Fong Lee allegedly had, never turned up Lee’s fingerprints and there’s further speculation that the gun found at the scene was supposed to be in the custody of Minneapolis P.D.
Regardless of what story you choose to believe, the life of Fong Lee was lost that evening at the hands of a police officer with the Minneapolis P.D.
Seeking Justice for Lorenzo Sampablo
La lucha sigue three years after the assassination of Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes and 26 other people that gave their lives up during the 2006 movement in hopes for social transformation. Amidst money bribes from the PRI government to silence the death and memory of Lorenzo Sampablo, the family members openly rejected the money and have instead launched a campaign to seek justice for Lorenzo Sampablo and the 25 other peoples who died during the movement. Along with legally filing a lawsuit, the family is reaching out to other community members in resistance. The family has participated in numerous caravans within Oaxaca and across Mexico to thread together local resistances and collectively envision strategies and analyses across sociogeographic boundaries. As Trinidad Sampablo, sister of Lorenzo, reminds us, “We are not just fighting for Lorenzo. We are fighting for all who have fallen. I would like for us to be united to seek justice…that we not forget the names of our family members that gave their life to a noble cause, a better world”.
Seeking Justice for Fong Lee
In the aftermath of the slaying of Fong Lee, the Hmong community responded by hitting the streets and protesting this egregious act. They mobilized the Hmong community as well as other communities who are very familiar with abuses from the police department.
The Lee family responded by hitting the court system. The court case revealed how badly the police department handled and investigated the case as well as a certain bias as to what evidence was acceptable and what wasn’t. While Lee’s alleged history and participation in gangs was allowed in the court case, Lee’s killer, Officer Anderson’s history of police misconduct and discriminatory actions were not.
The jury in the case was made up of all white individuals. The mainstream media’s coverage of the case didn’t seek to answer some of the many questions and gaping holes swirling the case. Ultimately factors like discrimination, excessive force, police brutality were not considered legitimate points of prosecution. In a system supposedly set up to achieve justice, it seems more barriers were in place to avoid accountability.
Ultimately, Officer Anderson received a Medal of Valor for his brutal act and was acquitted of all charges. So what happened to the brave police officer? He was dismissed from the police department shortly after the case wrapped up for officer misconduct.
Looking back in order to move forward
As we consider the big, inter-connected picture between Lorenzo and Fong, we are reminded that repression is global in scope and rooted in local contexts, shaped by different histories of colonialism and white supremacy. And while there is repression, there is an overwhelming feeling of resistance and hope in Oaxaca, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, where people are putting an end to the impunity of paramilitary repression and police brutality. They are reclaiming their destiny, grassroots organizing for change, and building another more dignified world.
For this year’s el día de los muertos we write this article-ofrenda and honor the lives of all those who died at the hands of injustices, including Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes and Fong Lee, two people whose spirits remain vibrantly alive in the struggle to seek justice.
About the authors
Sylvia González is a xicana from Wisconsin and daughter of Mexican immigrants from Jalisco and Oaxaca. She is currently in Oaxaca reclaiming her indigenous roots/resistencia and collaborating with CASA Chapulin, a transnational solidarity organization committed to building un base desde abajo y sin fronteras.
Steven Renderos is from Los Angeles, California a son of Salvadoran immigrants. He is currently the Media Justice Organizer at Main Street Project, a grassroots cultural organizing, media justice and economic development initiative based in Minneapolis, MN.