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Fraternity of the Fallen

Bonds of grief cross ethnic lines for victims of Bay Area police shootings

By Raj Jayadev

IT FELT perfectly appropriate when Raul Cardenas bent down last month and kissed the stairs of Santa Clara County Superior Court. Twice. The killer of Cardenas' brother, Rudy, had just been indicted for voluntary manslaughter after a weeklong open grand jury hearing. The hearing was so replete with dramatic moments that it felt like a movie, and Raul's kissing scene is what you'd hope to see before the credits roll.

For the first time in California history, a law enforcement agent, state Drug Agent Michael Walker, has been indicted in a shooting death by a grand jury. For those following the case, though, the historic decision was almost eclipsed by the growing phenomenon seen outside the courtroom. A tragic and compelling fraternity of Latino, black and Asian families who have lost loved ones to law enforcement has formed in the Bay Area. They show up at each other's court hearings, rallies—even kids' birthday parties.

Feeling betrayed by police, city governments and the legal system, they have turned to one another to create a club of undeniable moral force—half emotional support group, half united front. From different ethnicities, cities and languages they are uniquely bonded by a mix of grief and outrage, and they have by default created a multiethnic movement against police shootings.

The last time all the families came together was in San Jose, the weekend before Michael Walker's hearing began. It was originally a 1-year anniversary memorial service for Cau Bich Tran, the San Jose 25-year-old mother of two who was killed by a police officer in her kitchen last year.

The officer thought she was wielding a butcher knife, but it turned out to be a Vietnamese vegetable peeler. The memorial service grew to include the family of Chila Amaya, a 35-year-old Latina woman from Union City also shot in her house by a police officer; the family of Cammerin Boyd, the 29-year-old black San Francisco man shot to death in May; and the family of Rudy Cardenas who, at the age of 43, was shot in the back by Michael Walker in downtown San Jose.

Cardenas was the victim of mistaken identity. Walker thought he was chasing another man when he pulled the trigger.

At the memorial, all the family members were lined up next to the stage, waiting to speak. Seeing a mother hold a poster-size picture of her dead son's graduation picture hits you right in the heart. Seeing her next to a 20-year-old who just lost her father breaks it.

Twenty-five-year-old Regina Cardenas told the story of her father's killing with words already familiar to her audience. Representatives from the Tran, Amaya and Boyd family have already spoken, and their tales all unravel the same way—unwarranted shooting, an inability to get answers, a vilification of the deceased in the media (they were drug users, mentally unstable, had criminal pasts), then court proceedings that move painfully slow. What is remarkably different about this memorial is how diverse it is. When Cau Tran was killed in July 2003, the memorial directly after her death was almost exclusively Vietnamese. The infusion of black and brown faces are a testament to the Tran, Cardenas, Amaya and Boyd's new collective identity.

From the side of the stage, 44-year-old Lonny Amaya looked like a proud uncle as he watched Regina speak to the crowd. He whispered, "I know what they are up against, so we have to help. Families need help even knowing what questions to ask." Amaya is perhaps the veteran of the group, the one who has walked the road the longest. His sister Chila, 35 years old at the time, was shot in her house by a Union City police officer in 1995. In the years that followed, the family filed and won a wrongful death suit for $1.5 million against the officer and city. The city appealed the decision, and the week prior to the group memorial service, Lonny received news that the appellate court had upheld the original decision. The amount has now become a benchmark, a point of reference for families like the Trans who are only beginning to navigate through the civil court system. The Tran's first settlement discussion with the city and Walker will start Sept. 12.

Strength in Numbers

Lonny Amaya first heard about Cau Tran's death while he was at the San Jose flea market. "I thought, no, why does another family have to face this?" He asked a police officer where the incident took place and went directly over to the apartment in downtown San Jose. "I met her boyfriend, and we just stood outside the apartment arm in arm for hours. I knew exactly what he was going through." When I asked Amaya what he thought about families united over ethnic differences he smiled and said, "Color stops being an issue once the officer pulls the trigger."

As is the case for all of the families, the Amayas have been both supporters and the supported. Two months ago, Officer Woodward, the shooter of Chila, was awarded an "Officer of the Year" accommodation from the Union City City Council. The Amayas, led by Chila's mother, went to protest. Lonny Amaya had never seen his mother that full of rage. "After she had yelled at all the officers; she even spit in Woodward's face. The mayor asked her to go out to the lobby. I didn't want anything to happen to her so I walked her out. As we were walking, Cammerin Boyd's mother came in. I introduced them, and they both cried and held each other."

Over the phone, from her office in Oakland, Marolyn Boyd finished 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.' Mrs. Amaya replied, 'Don't worry, the words will come.'" Marolyn Boyd, a lawyer who has since proven to be a prolific speaker, then went on to contest the accommodation.

Marolyn Boyd is the latest member of the fraternity. Her son, 29-year-old Cammerin, was killed by undercover officers in San Francisco this past May as he was getting out of a car. Cammerin was a paraplegic from a prior accident, a fact Marylon Boyd, after doing her own investigation, is certain the police were aware of. This is another running theme—these mothers, fathers, sons and daughters have become their own private investigators.

Marolyn Boyd is aware of the connections the families are making in the broader community. "When I would go to the shops near my office that have Vietnamese owners, they tell me how happy they are that they 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." For her, the cross-family relationships have also meant something more than multiethnic coalition building. "For me, it's also knowing that you're not by yourself dealing with the horror and loss."

Almost immediately after her son's death, the Cardenas family contacted her. "I had heard about their father, but once you have been affected too, you realize how hard the fight is. I was struck that these young girls were fighting so hard." When I talked to Marolyn over the phone, she talked as much about Rudy Cardenas as she did her own son—and with as much fire. She is totally invested. "My feelings toward Walker is the same as Cammerin's killer, there has to be repercussions."

The Cardenas know that other families, even those who have not come forward, are living through their pain and victories. Regina Cardenas sat in the San Jose Vietnamese Community center discussing the grand jury indictment of Michael Walker with Tran's lawyer and supporters. She told a group of nodding heads, "The indictment means a little bit of justice for all of the families." The group in front of her, now called the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, is pushing for changes in law enforcement practices in San Jose based on issues they saw surface in both the Tran and Cardenas cases. In this gathering, they planned the meeting with the San Jose Independent Police Auditor to discuss the unusually long delay of medical care of both Rudy Cardenas and Cau Bich Tran.

Felicita Ngo, the Tran family lawyer, congratulated Regina on their victory, even if it's only a preliminary step before the trial. The grand jury hearing for Chad Marshall, the shooter of Cau Bich Tran, did not charge him with an offense. "Even from the beginning, the Trans were fighting not just for themselves, but so another innocent person would not get shot. That's why the Cardenases mean so much to them. They were hoping their fight would have stopped his family from even going through this."

On Aug. 2, immediately after Michael Walker was arraigned, just outside the courthouse, the media swarmed the Cardenas family for their reactions. Both daughters, Regina and her younger sister, Corina, were surrounded; Raul, Rudy's brother, was already being interviewed by the Spanish media. A late-to-arrive radio news reporter saw Lonny Amaya sitting on the nearby bench, emotionally spent, near tears, and approached him. "Are you part of the Cardenas family?" Lonny told him he wasn't related, and the reporter drifted away. More to himself than the reporter walking away, he said, "We made history today."

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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