On the morning of May 7, dozens of Houston residents gathered to take part in the annual Joe Campos Torres Solidarity March. Torres was a Vietnam veteran who in May 1977 was arrested, beaten and tortured by police before being thrown in a bayou where his body was discovered three days later. Every year, Torres’ family gathers with local activists in Houston’s East End to retrace the path Torres was brought on the night he was killed, commemorate his life, and push for justice for all victims of police violence.
This year’s motorcade took on special significance, coming one year after the city of Houston finally issued a formal apology to the family and a month after a public plaza and memorial were dedicated in his honor.
The murder of Joe Campos Torres
Police arrested Torres on May 5, 1977, on Houston’s East End as the 23-year-old Mexican-American Army veteran was celebrating Cinco de Mayo with friends. Torres was allegedly involved in a scuffle with someone at the cantina, and the cops were called. Multiple police officers arrived on the scene and arrested him for “disorderly conduct.” Before taking him to jail, six officers took Torres to an isolated area near downtown known as “the Hole.” They proceeded to torture him.
After beating him to a bloody pulp, the officers took him to jail to be booked. Upon seeing how badly he’d been brutalized, the desk sergeant on duty refused to book him and insisted that he be taken to a hospital immediately. Instead of providing him medical care, police took him back to the Hole and brutalized him some more. From a raised platform above the Buffalo Bayou, Torres was thrown 20 feet into the bayou while reportedly handcuffed. One of the officers, Terry Denson, remarked as Torres was thrown into the bayou, “Let’s see if this wetback can swim.” Torres’s disfigured body was discovered three days later on the banks of the bayou on May 8, Mother’s Day.
After beating and murdering Joe Torres, two of the police officers, Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando, were tried in state court in a separate town by an all-white jury. They were found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to one year’s probation and a $1 fine.
Only later, after many protests, were these two cops along with the 4 others convicted of violating Torres’s civil rights. They were given ten-year suspended sentences. Denson and Orlando were additionally found guilty of assault and sentenced to nine months in prison.
The community fights back
One year after the murder, the killing of Joe Campos Torres would play a critical role in sparking the Moody Park rebellion against police on Houston’s Northside. The police arrived at Moody Park on May 7, 1978 to break up a crowd that had gathered for Cinco de Mayo. Thousands of Chicano people, fed up with constant targeted harassment from the police, went into outright rebellion. Cop cars were turned over, buildings were set ablaze, rocks were thrown at police and up to 100 people were arrested. Heard among the chants of the many who bravely fought against the police were “Viva Joe Campos Torres” and “Justice for Joe Campos Torres!”
The family never gave up the fight for justice. For over four decades they educated the public about what had happened to their loved one, organized protests, and advocated for others who lost their lives at the hands of police. Finally, after 44 long years of persistence by the Torres family and in the aftermath of a historic rebellion against police terror, the mayor and chief of police offered a formal public apology on Memorial Day weekend of 2021. This was followed the next year by the dedication of a public plaza to Joe Campos Torres along Buffalo Bayou. None of this would have happened had it not been for the persistent struggle on the part of the Torres family and the renewed uprisings against police brutality.
Demonstrators demand systemic change
Protesters met on the morning of May 7 on Canal Street, the same street where Joe Torres was arrested 45 years earlier. Those who took part in the motorcade decorated their vehicles with signs which read, “Police protect property, not people — abolish the police,” “Every cop … potential executioner,” “Cops + Klan go hand in hand,” “Jail killer cops,” and “How many more will you kill?”
From Canal Street, the motorcade traveled about nine miles to the newly-dedicated Joe Campos Torres Memorial Plaza alongside Buffalo Bayou, where a large mural of Joe Torres now overlooks the bayou. Once they arrived, speakers took to the mic to reflect on the significance of the day and the decades of struggle that finally led to the creation of the memorial. Several speakers noted that, while reforms to the system are welcome, ultimately capitalism will need to be abolished to eliminate the system of racist policing.
Gloria Rubac of Workers World Party spoke to the fact that the Houston Police Department of today, which is still killing people with impunity, is the same police department it was in 1977 regardless of what those in power claim. “These cops have not changed one bit since Carl Hampton, the chair of the Black Panther Party [in Houston], was murdered. This is a systemic problem. It’s not a few bad cops. We don’t even need the cops. If we lived in a just society where everybody had a decent job, a decent education, a decent house, food, we wouldn’t even have crime and we wouldn’t need these killer cops. So I think what we need to do is change the whole damn system!”
From the Memorial Plaza, the motorcade drove to the day’s final destination: the McKee Bridge, where Joe Campos Torres’s body was found 45 years ago. The younger sister of Joe Torres, Janie Torres, who was 10 years old when her brother was killed, spoke about how the city’s apology would not have occurred had it not been for decades of unrelenting pressure. “The apology, we made it happen. The family made it happen. Did any of the mayors ever come to us? Never, and it’s 45 years today. They never did. We made it happen.”
The deadly racist violence that was carried out against Joe Campos Torres is still being carried out by Houston police to this day, as evidenced by the case of Jalen Randle, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot by Houston police in the back of the neck last month. The struggle to end police violence and gain justice for all those who’ve suffered at the hands of police will continue. Viva Joe Campos Torres! Justice for all victims of racist police brutality!
Photo: The mural at the newly-dedicated Joe Campos Torres Memorial Plaza alongside Buffalo Bayou, where Torres was killed. Liberation photo