In the early hours of a cloudy morning in May, a 23-year-old Mexican American man found himself surrounded by six Anglo Houston police officers. By then, the man, José Campos Torres, had been badly beaten. He stood on the edge of a drop of about twenty feet overlooking the murky waters of Buffalo Bayou, near downtown Houston. “Let’s see if this wetback can swim,” one of the cops said, in what were likely the last words Torres heard before he was pushed into the bayou. His body was found two days later, on May 8, 1977, drifting near the water’s edge. Such a story had been and would remain a familiar one in American life: law enforcement officers holding the power of life and death over a young man of color.
In 1970s Houston, however, there were many citizens who didn’t assign much meaning to Torres’s death, even as the story made the front pages of the newspapers. Most of the city’s inhabitants were focused on Houston’s sunny future, just rising on the horizon. Oil prices were exploding, and the most sophisticated civic and business leaders were intent on transforming a small but ambitious city into a world-class metropolis, with fancy restaurants, international boutiques, teeming freeways and business deals 24/7.
That much of the Houston Police Department was out of sync with Houston’s more forward-looking dreams was something that many were willing to overlook. Or, maybe, some of HPD’s officers got a different message, the one transmitted by those deeply invested in the established power structure of what was, in many ways, still an overgrown East Texas town. Latinos, even those born in Houston, as Torres was, were often dismissed as “Mexicans” in those days. They made up 15 percent of the city’s population but only 6 percent of its police officers. Black residents, who comprised 26 percent of the population, accounted for just 5 percent of the force. The tone set by the department brass meant that the worst cops had a free hand to treat Houston’s minorities any way they pleased, under the aegis of maintaining law and order.
That was certainly the attitude of the police officers who arrested Torres on that cool spring night. He was a Vietnam veteran who had grown up in a large, poor family in Houston’s East End barrio. Torres’s official military photo, the kind displayed with pride in first- or second-generation Mexican American homes, was widely circulated after his death; it showed a handsome young man in uniform allowing himself a hint of a smile. But Torres didn’t have an easy time of it. He had trouble finding and keeping work after his discharge from the Army, and when he drank heavily, which he did often, he became at best hostile and at worst aggressive.