Friday, August 9, 2013

The banality of evil: a letter from Devon Pena

On my last post on John Evans' late rationalizations and the banality of evil here, Devon Pena, professor of social anthropology at the University of Washington and secretary of the cooperative Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association in Colorado - see here,* sent me the following note which is especially good on Hiroshima and tying the recent murder of Trayvon Martin into the very similar history toward Latinos (Henry Casso had also written to me of this here). I admire Devon's activism long ago on the Santos Rodriguez case described below (I was working in Los Angeles at roughly the same time to free Gary Lawton, a black community organizer wrongly charged with the murder of two police officers but eventually freed - see here). Devon and I also had some similar/synchronic reflections on Sandy Hook and Sand Creek: see here. His writing is especially good on what I call Founding Amnesias, the long history of racist violence and its current consequences.


"Dear Alan:

I often think you and I are in a state of synchronicity; I posted this earlier today....

(go to:

or read below...)"


Racism is a form of divide and rule. Many whites also suffer - though less - to this moment (compelled to fight in unjust wars, having little medical care or social services or jobs, being in prison, as the .0001% get richer). See Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: a Political-Economic Analysis (Princeton, 1984). That too many are "normalized" not only to become racists but especially to not speak out against racism and work to destroy it - though, I should emphasize, there have been some great multiracial movements in American history - is one of the tragedies of our often self-destructive species.



Santos Rodríguez, Hiroshima, and other markers of the banality of evil
Devon G. Peña | Seattle, WA | August 7, 2013

A few weeks ago I was deeply involved with teaching a field school in Colorado and New Mexico. I kept wishing I had time to write a blog post observing the 40th anniversary of the murder of young Santos Rodríguez, who was killed by a policeman by the name of Darrell L. Cain. Unfortunately, July 24 came and passed and I was unable to write the piece.

Then a second milestone passed: The 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which was yesterday (August 6). I’ve decided that I cannot allow these two events to pass without offering at least a brief philosophical commentary.

What do these two events have in common? For me, they represent bookends for the history of racial hatred and violence that stains the heart of United States society.

The first event – the murder of Santos by a white Dallas policeman on July 24, 1973 – is no longer a controversial matter since pretty much everyone agrees this was a horrific case of police brutality and an unhinged act of violence. It is also but one, albeit especially poignant, case that illustrates the basis of justifiable and deep-seated Chicana/o mistrust of the police.

See photo here.

A photo of David Rodriguez, 13, (left) and his brother Santos, 12, as they stood by a relative’s car in 1973 was taken a month before Santos was killed. Courtesy of Dallas Mexican American Historical League

David Rodríguez recalls the murder of his brother, Santos, in a recent account published across the web. Now 53, Rodríguez recounts the 40-year-old tale in the same manner as when he testified at Cain’s trial, which I have adopted from a report published in the Dallas Mexican American Historical League:

He and his brother were pulled from their beds at the home of their foster grandfather, 80-year-old widower Carlos Miñez. The boys were placed in handcuffs and weren’t allowed to put on shoes, testimony showed. Their mother, 29 at the time, was in prison for killing her 62-year-old boyfriend. The Rodríguez brothers were taken back to the gas station on Cedar Springs for questioning in the squad car. Cain sat in the backseat with David. Another officer sat in the front with Santos. “They were trying to force us to say that we burglarized a Coke machine out of $8,” David Rodriguez said. “We had nothing to do with that that night. He was mostly questioning my brother. When he wasn’t getting the answers he wanted, that is when he pulled out his gun. He opened the cylinder with me right next to him. I couldn’t really tell if he was emptying it or filling it. He put the gun up to his [Santos’] head. He said, ‘Now you are going to tell him the truth.’” Cain clicked the pistol once. Nothing happened. The officer then told Santos there was another bullet in the revolver. Cain, according to testimony, said Santos’ last words were: “I am telling the truth.” The next shot pierced Santos’ skull. The squad car filled with the light of the gunfire. The two officers jumped out. More officers arrived. Cain’s weapon was taken. At his trial, his defense contended that the officer had believed his gun to be empty. An officer who was outside the patrol car testified that Cain jumped out of the car after the shooting and said, “My God, my God, what have I done; I didn’t mean to do it,” according to Cain’s appeal of the verdict.

On July 28, 1973, after police investigators announced that they had failed to find fingerprints linking Santos or his brother to the alleged theft of the $8 from a Coke machine, several hundred Mexican Americans marched on city hall. A Dallas News article on that date reported on the protest march: A riot ensured and two policemen were injured while 38 protestors were arrested.

Demonstrators make a brief stop at old city hall before continuing march Saturday, July 22. Dallas Morning News staff photo by Kurt Wallace

Eventually Cain was tried and found guilty by an all-white jury in Austin, Texas. He received a sentence of five years for this murderous act. I was a student at the University of Texas in Austin and picketed the trial along with dozens of other Chicana/o students.

I also recall an editorial cartoon that appeared in the Austin American Statesman. It showed two policemen sitting in a cruiser, under the caption, “Inflation Woes”. One cop is caricatured as telling his partner: “Gee, I guess inflation has hit us also. It now costs $1 to kill a Mexican.” The cartoon was a reference to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and its refusal to conduct a full-scale investigation of the murder as a case involving the violation of the young victim’s civil rights. The DOJ concluded that Cain had already been tried by a jury of his peers and there was no further action required; keep in mind that this was the DOJ under the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Why the DOJ allowed this murderous cop to get away with a five-year sentence for the charge of “murder with malice” remains a major wound in the soul of the Dallas Chicana/o community and a stain on the Carter Presidency.

The detailed transcript of the case can be read on-line at The context of the times reveals much about what happened and why the juridical order allowed a child killer to get off nearly scot-free: Dallas was then, and remains today, a major hotbed of police brutality and racism. According to information provided by an Open Records request and posted to the Clinton Allen[i] website, Dallas has seen over 60 Black and Brown men killed, most of them unarmed, at the hands of the Dallas Police Department since 2001. A good portion of these homicides occurred in the past few years, with a record 43 officer involved shootings: 15 in 2009, 16 in 2010 and 12 in 2011. Most of these cases involved unarmed victims.

According to the appellate court transcript at, Cain “admitted that the interrogation of a 12 year old at gunpoint was not proper police practice, and he didn’t know why he had done it…” He did not know why? The absurdity of this claim reveals disregard for the life of a young Mexican American child; that is indicative of a racist mind and thuggish attitude.

Of course, the police will deny that race and racism had anything to do with the murder of Santos Rodríguez; which brings me to the next anniversary – the 68th since the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

The aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). Source: Creative Commons

The debate over the role of race and racism in the bombing of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) has raged for decades. We know what the apologists argue: It was a just war; they attacked us first, and we averted many millions more dead by bombing them. Okay, so why did we not first bomb Germany to avert the millions of dead and dying in the European theatre?

Some historians and pundits note that the Nazi regime surrendered three months prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and that the first A-bomb test was not until July 1945, about] two months after Germany surrendered. Also, US and allied bombers killed tens of thousands of German civilians during the final stretch of the war. Conventional [sic] bombing devastated industrial cities like Dresden. This, we are told, means that the attacks on Japan were not racist.

One major source for these views is a 1990 article published by Major Myron L. Hampton entitled, “Racism and the Atomic Bomb”. Hampton made the argument that Japan was hated for its infamous and cowardly attack on Pearl Harbor; it was this and not racial animus that led to the attack on Japan; that and the need to avert more casualties from conventional warfare.

Hampton quotes an infamous statement by Admiral William F. Halsey at a 1944 news conference: “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead for six months”. Oddly, he does not take this as evidence of racial animus but rather as a signature attitude associated with the visceral (and justified) response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and reports of other Japanese atrocities. Interesting that the statement “The only good German is a dead German,” never occurred to any of these leaders and pundits but, I guess, the evil acts of Jewish extermination are an insufficient atrocity to stoke such hatred.

Hampton’s refusal to acknowledge the racism underlying the atomic attacks on Japan, or the subsequent arguments made to rationalize them, ignores a good deal of history regarding racism against Japanese and Japanese Americans. We can start with the misnamed “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907. This bilateral agreement ended an earlier treaty of 1894 that allowed unrestricted Japanese immigration to the US The agreement was a response to racial violence against Japanese workers in California who were despised by whites for competing successfully in a variety of trades including agricultural labor, mining, and farming. The cartoons of the time, including those published in the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, depicted Japanese workers as a “Yellow Peril” and rapists of white women.

We can, of course, then continue with the internment of close to 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and the list of racist attacks beyond this travesty of justice continues well into the late 20th Century.

However, I wish to note two things about race, racism, and the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima (and Nagasaki):

First, when the argument is made that the bombings averted further casualties, the only thing this illustrates, in my mind, is the disgraceful American attitude of the differential valuing of life. Those who offer this rationale obviously value only certain kinds of lives, namely, in this case, that of Americans. There were an estimated 300,000 Japanese civilians who vanished at Hiroshima; how can that be an avoidance of casualties? This attitude has most recently been on display since the US invasion of Iraq where the military refused to count or disclose the number of Iraqi civilians killed. Apparently, white American lives are always worth more than brown lives.

Second, we are often told that the US is the only nation to have used such horrendous weapons of mass destruction. This is not really the case if we count chemical weapons deployed during the Iran-Iraq conflict and the use of mustard gas during World War I.

However, this is not why I object to this argument. The US was created as a white settler society by virtue of the use of weapons of mass destruction in the form of smallpox-infected blankets and other systematic acts of mass genocide against Native Americans.

I bring this up because, for me, there is a continuous thread of racial violence across the entire trajectory of US history. This white settler colonial society was born in violence and it expanded via violence. The propensity to use violence is the core cultural attribute of so-called American Exceptionalism. This is true for the violence of slavery; the burning times; the genocide against Native Americans; the lynching of blacks; the murder of Mexicans; the internment of Japanese Americans and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the daily lived structural and political violence in contemporary attacks on black, brown, and red bodies by white men – from Darrell L. Cain to George Zimmerman.

This history of racialized violence is endemic and normalized. For me this is the epitome of the banality of evil, a concept first used by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt in the title of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s thesis was that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

The same holds true with the case of the American cult of violence that links the murder of Santos Rodríguez in 1973 with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. This also holds for the atomic attacks by the US on Japan, which after all normalized the use of weapons of mass destruction – a problem that has plagued us ever since rather than being a problem since 9/11/01.

Until we recognize and collectively rebuke this culture of violence, we as a nation will remain chief embodiments of the banality of evil, all the more so since we fashion and declare ourselves the defenders of the free and democratic world. Until our nation becomes accountable to the rest of humanity for its evil embrace of continuous war and violence, we will remain incapable of serving as a true beacon of freedom, peace, and democracy.

May we have the courage to face down our demons and may the memory of Santos Rodríguez and Hiroshima serve us well as bookends to the forging of a new library of non-violence and peacemaking.

[i] Clinton Allen, an African American, was shot dead in Dallas on March 10, 2013. The body has seven gunshot wounds – one in his left arm, five in his chest, and one more in the back, from a bullet fired at close range. Clinton was unarmed. Allen was killed by Clark Staller, who has not been charged with any crime. In fact, he still works for the Dallas Police Department. The last time a DPD officer was tried for killing a civilian was the case of Darrell L. Cain for the murder of Santos Rodríguez.

Posted by Devon G. Peña


I received the story of Israel Hernandez-Lach from Gabriela Garcia at (the story was also in the New York Times today here):

A letter R scribbled on the side of an abandoned McDonald’s. That’s all it took for Miami Beach police officers to chase down teenage art student Israel Hernandez Llach, tasing him repeatedly, until he lay dead on the ground. A friend watched in horror as cops high-fived each other.1 And now, a Florida community is once again searching for answers about the brutal death of one of its teenagers.

Israel may have been running from police because he was an immigrant from Colombia, who had just recently received his papers, and he feared deportation. He was an art student who won awards for his paintings and had two sculptures displayed at the Miami Art Museum. His business designing skateboards had just started taking off.

Had the police followed protocol, Israel would have been charged with a misdemeanor of criminal mischief for scribbling on a wall. It’s highly unlikely he would have even faced jail time. Instead, the unarmed teen lost his life due to unnecessary force.2

And the cop responsible for Israel’s death had already been the subject of six previous complaints of battery, excessive force, and courtesy and respect violations. Two years ago, he’d been suspended for violating the department’s drug testing policies. Yet, MBPD allowed him to continue working as a police officer.3

This isn’t the first time a brutal incident like this happens in Miami Beach. Just 2 years ago, eight Miami Beach Police officers fired 100 shots at an intoxicated motorist, killing him and wounding four innocent bystanders. Those officers have yet to face charges. And there are many more stories like that one.2

Israel Hernandez Llach's death won't be the last unless we hold the Miami Beach Police Department accountable. And the best way to do that is by blowing this story up so that the department and attorneys general can’t ignore it and hope it goes away. If thousands of us sign this petition and raise our voices, the media will take notice and the pressure on the police department will multiply.

As classmates begin to plan out the next stage of their lives, Israel’s parents, sister, and friends are left with a gaping hole. And the worst part is, it could happen to any teenager, scribbling on an abandoned wall or jay-walking in the middle of the street or driving with a broken taillight. Until we speak up, there will be no justice.

For more on the campaign, see here.

Gabriela, Arturo, Jesus, and the rest of the team

1. "Friends and family mourn teen who died after tasering by police," Miami Herald, Aug 8, 2013.

2. "Seeking Answers After Youth's Death in Police Stop," NY Times, Aug 8, 2013.

3. "Israel Hernandez Killing: Officer Who Tasered Teen Put on Leave, Family Ask Feds for Probe," Miami New Times, Aug 9, 2013.


*The original settlers of Southern Colorado brought with them a form of land settlement and irrigation that was based on principles of equity, shared scarcity and cooperation in which water was viewed as a resource in place, rather than a commodity. This type of water system is called an acequia. Acequias continue to be the lifeblood of residents in Southern Costilla County – they not only serve to provide the water for the farms on which 270 families depend, but they also serve as a conduit for community services and support.

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