“On November 13, 2014, a Bakersfield police officer shot and killed my cousin James.”
“I’d seen police shootings in our community for years before James lost his life. But like many people, I turned a blind eye. What could I do? The problem seemed so much bigger than me.
“With James’s death, it was different. By then, I had a family of my own; the father of six. Gordo – our nickname for James – was my kids’ role model, the kind of adult I hoped my children would grow up to be.
“James worked hard to improve his life, getting healthier and losing 189 pounds in the months before his death. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy his hard work.
“When a loved one is murdered by the police, it’s an open wound you don’t heal from. The trauma doesn’t only affect close family members, it affects everyone around you.
“I had to show my children we couldn’t sit back and let this injustice stand. I was tired of feeling unsafe in my own community.
“I joined the STOP Coalition chapter in Bakersfield. The coalition is a statewide, family-led grassroots organization working to end police violence. Every Friday at 5pm, we protested outside the police department, calling for justice for James. As we got more organized, we started an annual walk for justice to remember loved ones lost to police brutality.
“We knew police brutality was affecting Black and brown families across the state and the data shows it. In California, even though 6.5 percent of the state’s residents are Black, 19 percent of those injured or killed by police are Black. And while Latinos comprise 40 percent of the state’s residents, nearly 47 percent of those injured or killed by police are Latino.
“We got in touch with groups in Oakland, Sacramento, and Los Angeles to learn about their efforts and support each other. I got involved with the statewide Let Us Live campaign to ensure no other family has to go through losing a loved one at the hands of the police.
“For the past several months, we’ve been fighting for the passage of AB 392: The California Act to Save Lives, to secure police accountability at the state level and change how police interact with us in all of our communities.
“Introduced by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), AB 392 updates the state’s use of force laws to hold police officers accountable and encourage officers to avoid using deadly force at every possible opportunity. This law sets one of the toughest standards in the nation, strengthening police scrutiny at the state level.
“Our campaign brought together families and advocates all around California to fight for justice and accountability for our communities.
“It was not an easy fight. I learned a lot about the political process as I saw our original bill get modified to fit Sacramento’s political realities. But, our efforts paid off.
“In August 2019, Governor Newsom signed AB 392 into law. I along with dozens of families and advocates, including the Let Us Live campaign and the Alliance of Boys and Men of Color, joined the Governor to mark this historic moment.
“While I am hopeful about AB 392, and proud of showing my children what it looks like to stand up for what you believe in, our struggle is not over. Until we finally get true justice, and officers are held accountable for their actions, we still have a long road.
“When I see our local police, I see a missed opportunity. I remember as a kid, we used to rely on the police for everyday help. We treated them as valued partners in the community.
“Now, as parents, we have to teach our kids to be careful when they interact with a cop. We have to have ‘the talk’ and explain the cost of not following our instructions may be paid with their life.
“This sends the message that our young people don’t belong in our communities. We have to tell a different story. I want to share the story of the STOP Coalition and the Let Us Live campaign to show that communities of color are making a difference, and our hard work can pay off.
“I’m staying involved in struggles for justice, for my children and grandchildren. I want them to have the future that James couldn’t. We owe it to Gordo and so many others like him, to show up and fight for our loved ones and neighbors.”
Jesse Rodriguez is an active member of the STOP Coalition chapter in Bakersfield and the statewide Let Us Live campaign in California. His cousin James de la Rosa was killed in a police shooting in Bakersfield in 2014.