Words by John Micheal Torres and Yasmine Gonzalez
Lying paralyzed in his hospital bed, Jorge Gonzalez watched the video of police kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. “They did that to me,” he struggled to tell his sister through tears. The 23-year-old Monte Alto resident had his neck broken by Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office deputies on Easter weekend 2020. He died of complications from his injuries on July 15.
Jorge Gonzalez’s struggle to hang on to life and his ultimate death played out as George Floyd’s death sparked a summer of uprisings demanding that our governments defund the police and invest in communities.
The similarities between George Floyd and Jorge’s encounter with police were not lost on Jorge’s family.
“I still remember being in the hospital with my brother watching the news when the case about George Floyd came up,” Katia Gonzalez recalls a year later. “My brother broke down in tears trying to say that’s what happened to him. I will never forget the tears and the fear that I saw on his face.”
While protests led to accountability for George Floyd’s murderer last month, the Rio Grande Valley is still waiting on this first step towards addressing a problem that goes far beyond Jorge’s case. Despite advocacy by the family, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez quietly concluded his department’s investigation. In August, a grand jury declined to bring charges. Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra has so far failed to fire the officers over their misconduct. As the nation takes stock of the halting progress of the year since George Floyd’s murder, it is time we demand action from our local leaders.
Jorge was undocumented and worked harvesting cabbage and watermelon. He didn’t make much, but he provided for his young wife and toddler son. On the weekends, he liked barbecuing for his family.
The night of his assault by sheriff’s deputies, Jorge and his wife were attending an Easter barbecue at a friend’s trailer in Monte Alto. They stayed late after making arrangements to sleep over. Jorge drank and fell asleep in his friend’s yard.
Deputies arrived enforcing the county’s stay-at-home order. Officers woke him up, tripped him, tased him, and knelt on his neck, breaking it.
According to investigators, Jorge told the deputies he couldn’t move. He pleaded for help. “I’m not breathing,” he said, echoing George Floyd’s words.
Instead of treating his injuries, jail officials tried to cover them up. In a haunting booking photo, officers hold his head in place, bulges showing where officers broke his neck.
It’s not a coincidence that the most mundane interaction—one that the sheriff’s office shouldn’t even have been handling—turned deadly.
An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune shows that Jorge’s case was neither isolated nor random. Police deployed handcuffs and ticket books thousands of times in some of the Rio Grande Valley’s poorest communities, dishing out fines as high as $1,300 to enforce stay-at-home orders.
Lawmakers have saturated the Rio Grande Valley with police. This militarization of the border has meant poor, Latinx residents live in constant fear of being stopped by law enforcement agencies that police our movement in a way that other Texans do not experience. ProPublica found that Rio Grande Valley law enforcement used the stay-at-home orders as a pretense for even more stops and arrests. Law enforcement in larger, wealthier and whiter communities like Austin and San Antonio refrained from using the orders to criminalize residents.
Rio Grande Valley residents who took to the streets to protest George Floyd’s murder inspired Jorge’s family. They called La Unión del Pueblo Entero, where Jorge and his sister were members. LUPE and Divest/Invest RGV have been working with the family to fight for justice ever since.
By ignoring these demands and declining to even fire or charge the officers, Sheriff Eddie Guerra and District Attorney Rodriguez sent a message that Jorge’s death was acceptable. That the life of a young father is an appropriate sacrifice to a policing system that does not provide safety to poor, rural communities.
This May 30th, Jorge would’ve turned 24 years old. His son, Jason, will grow up without a father. And his mother, sister, and wife will forever feel a void where his smile and warmth used to be.
“He was so young,” Katia says. “It’s heartbreaking how people who are supposed to protect us from the criminals are the criminals themselves.”
It is not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter protests have inspired Latinx families of victims of police brutality to speak out. We know that Jorge’s life did not matter to those deputies or the system of policing they represent. We know that the lives of poor, rural RGV residents like Jorge won’t truly matter until we win systems of public safety that affirm Black lives and all lives. We can take steps toward that future by demanding that Jorge’s murderers be fired and the sheriff’s office be held accountable to the community.
John-Michael Torres is Communications Coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero; Yasmine Gonzalez is a member of Divest/Invest RGV