Santos Rodriguez, right, stands with his brother David next to a relative’s car just a month before Santos’ death in 1973.
Today marks an ignominious scar in the history of Dallas, Texas. It’s the 40th anniversary of the death of a 12-year-old boy by a Dallas police officer playing a game. It began innocuously enough. In the pre-dawn hours of July 24, 1973, Dallas police received a report that three boys were spotted fleeing a gas station where a vending machine had been burglarized of $8. Officer Roy Arnold spotted the youths, but couldn’t catch up with them. Yet, he thought he recognized two of them, brothers David and Santos Rodriguez. They’d been in trouble before. He summoned his partner, Darrell L. Cain, and the duo drove to the East Dallas home of the boys’ 80-year-old maternal grandfather, Carlos Miñez, who didn’t speak much English.
The officers immediately took custody of the boys, handcuffed them and drove them back to the scene of the crime. The boys proclaimed their innocence, but the policemen demanded the name of the third suspect. Cain sat in the back seat of the squad car, next to David. He figured a way to get the boys to talk. He pulled out his gun and emptied it of bullets, before pointing it to the back of Santos’ head.
The Rodriguez brothers had too much against them from the start. They were a little more than a year apart in age; born to a teenage mother and an illegal immigrant father. David, Sr., had already been deported to México, and their 29-year-old mother, Bessie, was in jail; charged with killing an abusive boyfriend a few years earlier. All of that fed into the myth much of Dallas’ White society held of the city’s Hispanic citizens: illegal, uneducated Mexican immigrants who had too many kids too soon and bore a criminal mindset. That was pretty much the same view of Dallas’ Black residents. At the time, less than a quarter of Dallas citizens were non-White. Hispanics clustered mostly in the western and eastern edges, while Blacks were relegated to the increasingly impoverished southern sector. Both groups had tolerated disrespect and harassment from police for decades. Then, it all came to a boil that dark summer morning.
“I bet I can get him to talk,” Cain said, emptying his gun. Pressing the barrel of the firearm to the back of Santos’ head, he again demanded the name of the ubiquitous third burglary suspect. He pulled the trigger, and there was a click. Santos again feverishly denied knowing anything about the incident. Cain pulled the trigger a second time, and a flash of light flooded the car, along with the smell of gunpowder. He’d missed one bullet left in the chamber.
“You’re going to be alright,” a terrified David shouted to his brother, as the officers bolted from the vehicle like frightened little animals. Blood filled the car floor. Santos wasn’t alright.
That was it; that was the catalyst for the city’s minority populations. The city erupted into a frenzy of protests and violence that had besieged other metropolitan areas years earlier. I was 9 years old that summer and, albeit obsessed with my new German shepherd puppy, I stopped to look at the fiasco; my naïve and innocent mind trying to fathom what happened.
As one might expect in those days, given the city’s history, Cain wasn’t really held accountable. He lost his job and went on trial in Austin where the case had been moved because of local publicity. He was found guilty by an all-White jury and sentenced to 5 years in prison; he served only half. In 1978, the U.S. Justice Department refused to prosecute Cain under federal civil rights statutes, since he’d already been tried in state court.
While Cain adamantly insisted the shooting was an accident and described himself as traumatized in a 1998 interview with the Dallas Morning News – the only time he’s spoken publicly about the tragedy – it seemed the culmination of a long series of events that had occurred for as long as anyone could remember. Police stopping Black and Brown people on the street; forcing their way into residents’ homes in the dead of night; pulling them over for the most mundane of traffic-related transgressions. The civil rights movements that had rattled the nation for years finally reached the streets of Dallas – avenues trembling with anger and tension. Every forest fire needs just one tiny spark to inflame the dry brush. We were slightly less than a decade removed from the Kennedy assassination. And then, this happened.
It was truly a different time. Today, Hispanics make up 42% of Dallas’ population, while Blacks comprise about 25%. Roughly half of the city’s police officers are non-White, as are nearly half of police sergeants. Dallas has a Black police chief, David O. Brown. If juveniles are suspected of criminal behavior, a judge must approve of any interrogation.
In light of the recent George Zimmerman – Travyon Martin case, I wonder, though, how much has changed. In general, the U.S. wasn’t consumed by the kind if violence we see now. There were no ‘Right-to-Carry’ laws. Police across the nation try their best to interact with the public, instead of behaving like ravenous vultures. The Rodriguez event seemed so long ago, and of course, it really was. But, whenever a child dies, it always hurts. No one can ever make up for it; we can only try to move forward.