No Mystery: Ruben Salazar Was Assassinated and the Man in the Middle Documentary Cover-Up

I’ve previously written about Ruben Salazar for this blog. I’ve attempted to interrogate and problematize the myth of Salazar. I’ve questioned why someone who didn’t identify as a Chicano, but instead identified as a journalist suddenly became the martyr of the Chicano Movement?

To be sure, there were other committed Chicana/o Movement activists who had been killed by the repressive forces of the police-state, yet somehow it was a middle-class Mexican American journalist who ended up symbolizing the oppression of the Chicana/o community.

Despite my critique of the Salazar as martyr construct, make no mistake about it, Ruben Salazar was purposely targeted and assassinated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department most likely working in conjunction with federal, state, and other local police agencies in the buildup of the August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium march.

But we will never know the extent of this cooperation since most law-enforcement and government documents are redacted or hidden from public view. Jennifer G. Correa, in Chicano Nationalism: The Brown Berets and Legal Social Control, for example, has detailed the role of the State in neutralizing social movements. In particular, Correa reviewed over 1,200 pages the FBI had accumulated on the Brown Berets over a five-year period.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a friend regarding the legacy of the Chicano Movement and in particular that of Ruben Salazar. My friend maintained that “We’re right back where we were pre-1970s revolution with the Mexican-Americans vs. Chicanos. Ruben Salazar vs. Oscar Zeta Acosta. We finally have the numbers, the money and the political clout…and all we want to do is assimilate and bury the past. Funny thing is, Salazar and Acosta both ended up dead.”

Indeed, that two Chicanos, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, ended up dead at the height of the revolutionary period was a wake-up call to the Chicana/o community highlighting the extent of the power of the State, and how far it is willing to go in order to keep its power, even if results in outright assassination.

In the context of Salazar, I argued that the politics of the Chicano Movement and the racism it exposed was a transformative experience in Salazar’s own search for identity and even his own quest for self-determination.

Salazar was not insulated from the injustices he reported and I contend that the politics and the circumstances of the Chicano Movement greatly impacted Salazar’s ideological position, especially in the final months of his life.

Although Salazar continuously retreated to the “system works” politics that encompassed the Mexican American Generation, Salazar was gradually “waking-up” to the realities that Chicanas/os were living under an internal colonialist arrangement. For a glimpse of this, see his on-air interview with Bob Navarro.

Salazar’s writings in the Los Angeles Times and his later reporting for KMEX-TV was a direct threat and challenge to the White power structure of American society.

Man in the Middle

Man in the Middle

With the recent release of a new documentary (April 29, 2014), Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle by Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, Salazar’s life and death is once again the focal point of several discussions regarding his legacy and his assassination.

The documentary focuses on the life of Ruben Salazar through a collection of videos, photographs, journal entries, and interviews with friends, colleagues and others, such as Sgt. Tom Wilson of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who assassinated Ruben Salazar on the afternoon of August 29, 1970.

It should be noted that Lyn Ward and Angel Gilberto Diaz were also killed on August 29, 1970. Their lives should not be forgotten.

Prior to the release of the documentary, several online blogs and news sites, began initial reviews of the documentary. All of the reviews used misleading (sub)headlines to encourage viewers to watch the documentary: “The Life and Mysterious Death of Ruben Salazar.

In general, the reviews were done by non-Chicana/o Studies scholars and by mainstream news media outlets who are not known to upset the status quo. I began questioning the misleading and false use of such (sub)headlines being promoted by these so-called “objective” news sites and so-called “cultural” blogs, indicating that there was nothing mysterious about the death of Salazar.

Besides the two sites that are linked, there were many more that paraded the “life and mysterious death of Ruben Salazar” lie that once you begin reading their “reviews” you get the feeling that they basically copied and pasted each other’s writings. It makes you wonder if they even saw the documentary in the first place.

For forty-four years, the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community has known that Ruben Salazar was assassinated on August 29, 1970 at the Chicano Moratorium by Sgt. Tom Wilson of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who shot the tear-gas projectile into the Silver Dollar Bar where Ruben Salazar was sitting that afternoon.

After an extensive legal challenge and community pressure to obtain the files on Ruben Salazar, the Sheriff’s Department finally relented and released eight boxes of documents, photos, and videos. To my knowledge, other police and government agencies have not released their files on Salazar.

It was hoped that the release of these files by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s would finally ascertain what has been known for forty-four years: that Ruben Salazar was intentionally targeted by police agencies for his positive and empowering coverage of the Chicano Movement, but primarily for his direct challenge to the White power structure through his coverage of police brutality.

The Man in the Middle documentary, however, failed to “address Salazar’s death, which many believe was an intentional killing, though director Phillip Rodriguez says he is not among them.” “We didn’t (find) the smoking gun,” Phillip Rodriguez told the Associated Press.

Apparently, Phillip Rodríguez didn’t look hard enough or simply didn’t want to know.

Raul Ruiz, a professor of Chicana/o Studies at CSUN, has stated “I think there was a conspiracy of silence… To say this was an accident is a ludicrous assertion. My message is that people can’t get away with murder.”

Many of us had anticipated that this documentary would finally bring justice to the family of Ruben Salazar and to the entire Chicana/o community, which had been demonized and criminalized by the White power structure during the immediate months after Salazar’s assassination, especially during the coroner’s inquest that followed in September 1970.

Rather than highlighting the transformative process by which Ruben Salazar and the community challenged the State’s imposition of foreign identities on an Indigenous people by adopting a Chicana/o identity, Man in the Middle painted a negative image of the Chicana/o quest for self-determination through its depiction of Chicano Cultural Nationalism as a self-interest movement cloaked in community.

Phil Montez, for instance, stated that he and Ruben had identified the Chicano Movement leadership as “false prophets” and “phonies” who were out to make “some money.”

It makes sense, then, when you realize that the current narrative within academic circles, especially in Chicana/o Studies portrays the Chicano Movement as “flawed” and “failed.”

According to Jorge Mariscal, the Chicano Movement has been reduced and discredited as mere “nationalism” with “nationalism” being redefined negatively as sexism and homophobia.

In Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975, Jorge Mariscal observes that Chicano Nationalism has become, for scholars, the “bogeyman against which those professionals who had achieved successful careers (a success inconceivable without the Movement’s contributions) constructed their public and professional identities.

In Shot in America: Television, the State and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, Chon Noriega writes “today few Chicano scholars would accept the label of cultural nationalism, but neither would they embrace assimilation.”

Mariscal highlights the point that Hispanic professionals and bureaucrats use the term “nationalist” to discredit Chicanas/os committed “to contesting elitism and structural racism.” Mariscal adds that “the positive contributions of the Movement had become hostage to a scholarly preoccupation with a single ingredient of its complex ideological mixture – the nationalist impulse.”

And as I read review after review of Man in the Middle documentary, I failed to observe any critical textual and film analysis regarding the stealthy attack against the Chicano Movement.

As I watched Man in the Middle, I did not find any counter-statements to these assertions made by Montez and as will be seen throughout the documentary, this was not so much about the life and death of Ruben Salazar, as it was an attack against the Chicano Movement, its legacy and ideology, especially the latter half of the documentary when Julie Ruhlin of the L.A. County Attorney’s Office of Independent Review is allowed to red-bait the movement and (re)narrate an “official” version of Salazar’s death without being contested.

That those who were allowed to preview the documentary before its official public release didn’t question what essentially is a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department press release and their narration of the events of Ruben Salazar’s assassination and the Chicano Movement is beyond me.

And their complicity in not questioning a “new official” version of August 29, 1970 is revealing.

Julie Ruhlin of the Office Independent Review described the role of the Sheriff’s on August 29, 1970 without being countered by anyone: “The official Sheriff’s Department line on that one was that it was set-out to be a peaceful demonstration and that there were instigators and people coming in handing out bottles, distributing inflammatory material, and trying to incite this kind of violence [emphasis added]. You know in the end, I think they [Sheriff’s Department] were just underprepared for what happened that day and they had to end up calling resources, Tom Wilson was among those.”

Ruhlin adds: “were there intelligence officers in the crowd? I’m sure that there were. I’m sure there were undercover sheriff’s department and LAPD officers, probably federal officials in the crowd there to gather intelligence, there to see who’s in the movement. Ruben Salazar may very well have been followed that day and there may have been agents tailing him, I just don’t know [emphasis added].

Its mind-boggling that Ruhlin, who more than likely was not even alive or too young to remember August 29, 1970, is given so much authority on the events of that day by the filmmaker Phillip Rodríguez. It is even more mind-boggling that a certain corporate “cultural” blog which reviewed the Salazar documentary prior to its release and even interviewed Philip Rodríguez didn’t even bother to ask any questions. Heck, if you even bother to listen to the interview, you’ll realize these folks doing the interview don’t even know Chicano history.

Just like the coroner’s inquest was a cover-up for the assassination of Salazar, and whose cover-up was brilliantly captured by the documentary Requiem 29, Man in the Middle works towards further covering-up August 29, 1970.

In a surrealist documentary moment, Tom Wilson, who shot the tear-gas projectile that killed Salazar, was given air-time and stated: “when I first went to East L.A., I wasn’t aware of all this subversive behavior. I thought it was outsiders. Agitation more than anything else.”

Wilson adds: “I had this deal where I sized up things, like you know you got a problem, if you come up with a solution, you no longer have a problem.”

Looks like Salazar was the problem, and the solution was to target and assassinate him.

As you watch Man in the Middle, you’ll get a real sense that the purpose of the documentary was to depoliticize the events surrounding the assassination of Ruben Salazar, while at the same time creating a myth of Salazar as someone with “interesting complications” who was just trying to fit into the melting pot like everyone else.

The message being here is that assimilation is good and Chicana/o identity and nationalism is bad. In other words, assimilation might keep you oppressed, but unlike Chicanismo, it won’t get you targeted and killed.

Do yourself a favor and get a copy of the documentary Requiem 29, which does more to question the farce of the inquest as well as the death of Salazar than Man in the Middle ever could.

Requiem 29 was produced in the midst of Chicana/o resistance against American imperialism both in the international and domestic front. The film portrayed a cultural nationalism and identity located through a Chicana/o frame of reference where “the truth could be asserted” from the point of view of the Chicana/o community. Requiem 29 was a counter-hegemonic narrative that challenged the L.A. County Sheriff’s version of August 29, 1970.

Rather than using Requiem 29 as a template to continue to seek truth and justice for a community that has historically been oppressed and exploited, Phillip Rodriguez, who has been portrayed as a “storyteller” for creating documentaries dissecting the Latino vote and the Hispanic market, clearly whitewashed the death of Salazar while giving carte-blanche to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to control the events of August 29, 1970.

As Julie Ruhlin noted without any opposition: “The D.A. takes a look at the case and says we’re not filing any criminal charges. We don’t find that there was any criminal intent here and that was the end of the story as far as the sheriff’s was concerned.”

And that is what ultimately this documentary wants us to believe, that Salazar’s death has reached the end of the story and that we should just move on.

Ruhlin and the producers want us instead to focus on the “man in the red vest.” Ruhlin adds: “he’s [man in the red vest] a mysterious figure in this whole story. He reported a man with a gun has gone into the Silver Dollar Cafe.” Wow, the “man with the red vest” is suddenly thrown in there towards the end of the documentary as a distraction. Was the “man in the red vest” an informant? Philip Rodríguez never bothered to ask.

This documentary is a distraction from the facts of August 29, 1970. Man in the Middle is a total disappointment and so were all those “cultural” blogs and “news” sites who previewed this documentary yet failed to question the new cover-up into Salazar’s death.

c/s

cultural sovereignty

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7 Responses to No Mystery: Ruben Salazar Was Assassinated and the Man in the Middle Documentary Cover-Up

  1. Jorge Mariscal says:

    In my opinion, Wilson was an accomplice by not the shooter. The patrons in the Silver Dollar were told to go back into the cafe after some of them had come to the doorway. Wilson’s role, whether he knew it or not, was to fire tear gas into the cafe in order to cause confusion. A police agent inside the case, who had probably informed authorities of Salazar’s whereabouts, finished the job at close range. Very similar MO to the RFK murder, right down to the diversion of “the man with the red vest” (in the RFK case, “the girl in the polka dot dress”).

    • admin says:

      Dr. Mariscal,

      Thank you for your reply. A few years ago, I heard Dr. Raul Ruiz speak at Salazar Park as part of August 29, 1970 commemoration. It was at this time that Dr. Ruiz began sharing the news that he was writing a book on the deaths of 8/29/70. His claim based on his research was that Salazar was shot at point blank range. I agree with your assertion. It is incredible that with the exception of Dr. Ernesto Vigil, there were no Chicana/o scholars or movement activists of the period who were interviewed on air to counter the claims made by the LASD or even to challenge the narrative that was presented by Philip Rodriguez. There is a strong backlash against Chicanismo and this documentary reflected it.

      David
      B.A. and M.A. in Chicana/o Studies de CSULA

  2. S|J|R says:

    The fact that Tom Wilson was interviewed made me sick to my stomach. And not just that but that no one challenged him or asked him any questions? He might as well have been on FOX News. He simply smiled, slouched in his comfortable chair and shrugged. “What, me worry?” Disgusting.

    That Salazar’s own daughter believes it was an accident is mind blowing. You wanna talk about denial and willful ignorance? Have a second helping.

    FACT: The feds started a file on Salazar waaaay before he even dreamed of covering the Chicano Movement. They were on him when he was in Cuba as a journalist and put pressure on him. And he coughed up information on Black Panther, Stokely Car­mi­chael! In other words, Salazar became a patsy for the feds way before he got into anything heavy with Chicanos. This was conveniently left out of the documentary.

    It’s not that hard to do the math, especially considering the time period! Here you have a Mexican-American journalist guy that the feds are already suspicious of, who then, finally, starts discovering his own identity and then gives a voice to one of the most feared civil rights movements of the period? And he dies by “accident”?

    If you believe that you probably also believe all the other “subversive” voices of the era were either silenced by “accidents” or convenient lone gunmen.

  3. Ernesto B. Vigil says:

    The fact that I have been published leads people to call me “Dr. Vigil” because they assume I have a doctorate; I don’t a doctorate or MA and my BA was in an experimental program that lasted less than 3 years. Phil Rodriguez was clear with me that the focus of his documentary would be Salazar the person/journalist, not the Moratorium or the exact manner in which Salazar died. I accept his position, but believe the Moratorium was purposely disrupted by federal and local agencies and that ALL agencies involved need to be examined, e.g., the documentary clearly shows by statements of Guillermo Restrepo that Salazar was being followed at the time he entered the Silver Dollar, so who was following him and how can this be proven? THAT is a question that should have been asked LONG AGO and someone should have put work into addressing that question. The attack on the Moratorium, INCLUDING Salazar’s death, needs to be examined and his death needs to be seen in that context. A FULL examination would be needed, no one has yet taken on the task of seeking information from various government sources, the government is not enthusiastic about revealing documents from federal agencies, and Freedom of Information Act requests require YEARS to process. But it is important that those concerned NOT make proclamations UNTIL they have done the research. I have read a comment that Salazar gave the FBI information on Stokeley Carmichael, but I also read the FBI documents about this and recall that Salazar told the FBI that he – Salazar – had NOT attended the event in Havana where Carmichael spoke and therefore could give the FBI no information on what was said. In fact, the wording in FBI documents on this matter can also be interpreted to mean that Salazar was dodging the request made of him, but anyone who says so must be clear in saying that this latter position is a matter of interpretation. A small error in interpretation of the data can easily result in erroneous conclusions, which is the reason I urge people to COMPLETE all the possible research BEFORE making statements. Lastly, it is getting very late in the game to start research that should have started decades ago.

  4. El Tarasco - Fuck the Aztecas says:

    As Mr. Vigil suggests, Chicano history is best served by serious people who do the work and not by those who merely run their mouths.

    The makers of the film you criticize, did actual work. They did successfully sue law enforcement for the release of public records and did uncover unknown facts about a DOJ investigation into the Salazar death incident.

    There are many reasons that the Chicano movement sputtered out – tolerance for mamónes with empty rhetoric and lack of rigor was one of those reasons. You boys do a disservice to the Chicano cause.

  5. El Tarasco - Fuck the Aztecas says:

    Phillip and Tom Saenz shot the sheriff, bitch. What did you do besides indulge in old fantasies?

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