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Anger and Tears at Injustice: The Death and Remembrance of Juan Patricio, A Former Annunciation House Guest

“May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for economic justice for all people. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, hunger, homelessness and rejection, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.”

I didn’t feel very blessed at all on Monday when I received these “gifts” of anger and tears during Monday morning’s reflection with the volunteer community (that included the above prayer). I felt frustrated with my anger, because there was nothing I felt like I could do about the injustice and embarrassed of my tears because I wanted to be stronger than that.

I knew intellectually, of course, that these are the emotions that make me human, that drive me to want to help make the world a better place for all, but in that moment I did not feel like giving way to my logical side. All I could feel was helplessness, sorrow, and anger. And those things don’t really make me feel all that blessed.

So let me share the story with you and see if you are blessed with anger and/or tears:

 

In 2003 a 19 year old young man named Juan Patricio was staying with Annunciation House. He had been there for a bit, instantly winning the volunteers and other guests over with his charm and happy smile.

On Saturday February 22, 2003 at about 8:30 AM Juan Patricio was taking out the trash after breakfast. After returning inside for a moment to return the trashcan, he returned to Annunciation House’s parking lot to hang out with two friends. At that moment an unmarked Border Patrol vehicle pulled into the private lot and two uniformed officers got out of the car and began asking him questions. They instructed him to put his hands on their car while they searched him for weapons and he complied with the request.

However, when an Ahouse volunteer came onto the scene to ask the officer what was going on, Juan Patricio took the opportunity to run, as he was undocumented and thus afraid that even though he didn’t have a weapon he still might be detained by Border Patrol. The first officer followed him on foot while the other got back into the car and radioed for back up.

While running and trying to hide the agent did catch up with him, knocking him to the ground. The officer removed his baton and hit Juan Patricio over the head with it, despite their official policy stating that they can only use it on the legs to knock someone to the ground. Despite the hit, Juan Patricio again got free from the officer and ran out of the alley, along the way picking up a pipe, about 5 feet long, for protection. He ended up being cornered on San Antonio Street, the street that runs in front of Annunciation House, about 2 blocks from the house. At least 5 officers who had arrived on the scene formed a semi-circle blocking access back to the house.

While the agents initially had their weapons drawn due to Juan Patricio’s holding of the pipe, they did all put them away in an attempt to negotiate with him to put the pipe down and allow them to take him to headquarters. Of course, after already being beaten in the head once, Juan Patricio probably didn’t trust them very much to not beat him again. A sixth officer then arrived on the scene, and using Border Patrol’s own radio logs we know that the last agent was at the scene for a total of 44 seconds between him arriving and the ambulance being called. It seems based on witness statements that he came from a slightly different direction than the other officials who were standing together, startled Juan Patricio so that he turned to face him, when the officer fired two bullets at him. Despite the fact that Border Patrol issued them bullets that expand upon impact, the officer still went over and started trying to put handcuffs on him, until the other officials said that wasn’t necessary and radioed for the ambulance.

And so, Juan Patricio, a 19 year old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, armed with nothing other than a pipe that he never swung in the direction of the officers according to witnesses, died there on the street, two blocks from the homeless shelter he was staying in, after being questioned on such homeless shelter’s private property. That story, and walking through the events in the places where they occurred as the story was told was bad enough. I was on the verge of tears and anger was starting to boil up inside. The death was tragic and clearly not necessary, but the events that followed put me over the edge.

Immediately all agents who were at the scene were sent back to headquarters and put in one room, replaced by a supervisor to meet with the El Paso Police Department who was assigned to investigate the shooting. He insisted that the police only be able to interview the agents at BP headquarters instead in the police headquarters. All of these actions were clearly against protocol, including having the officials leave the scene, putting them all together to allow them to get their stories together, and by not going to the police headquarters to be interviewed.

As the police were canvassing the neighborhood they found multiple women who worked as midwives who witnessed the scene and a neighbor whose house was located directly in front of the confrontation. All reported that Juan Patricio was not swinging the pipe or making any threatening movements with it whatsoever, a statement that contradicted what the agents later said happened.

The police also knocked on the door to Annunciation House to see if any of the guests saw what happened. As it turned out 8 other guests, all of whom were also undocumented, did witness the scene from the roof, which had a perfect vantage point for the scene as well. Despite strong reluctance to talk to the police, the officer and the Ahouse volunteers eventually convinced the guests to give their statements as well: all gave the same story as the other witnesses that Juan Patricio made no threatening movements during the confrontation in San Antonio Street. The police then asked them to come to headquarters to give their statements. Although the guests initially refused due to fear, the official eventually gave his word that he promised that he would take them and then return them all back to the house. They trusted him and left to give their statements.

While at the police headquarters Border Patrol showed up, demanding to have access to and then detain the witnesses because they were undocumented. While the police initially refused, they eventually bowed to pressure they were receiving from superiors and allowed them access. In the meantime one of the guests called Annunciation House to tell the volunteers what was going on, and so began the scramble to quickly assemble lawyers. The team of three lawyers did finally successfully get in and refused Border Patrol access to all but one of the guests, with the other guest having already been detained. The lawyers said that the agents couldn’t prove they were undocumented, having not actually talked to the immigrants yet, and that they would not allow the agents to speak to their clients. After many hours all the witnessed did return home, including the one who had been detained.

Despite all of the events that took place that day, the grand jury in El Paso decided no crime had been committed, and therefore did not indict anyone one any charges. The Border Patrol agent who shot Juan Patricio continued working for them. In the civil suit that was filed by Juan Patricio’s parents the judge ruled that the shooting was done in self defense. At the end of the day, injustice triumphed.

 

As someone who has always hated movies or books that did not end in good triumphing over evil this was more than I could bear. Unlike the previous encounters I’d had with these kinds of stories, this one was real. A boy three years younger than I am now, full of life and joy, was shot down by Border Patrol. The agency then proceeded to break protocol in many different ways to cover themselves. Finally, they tried to detain (to then deport) 8 people who had done nothing wrong other than trust the police officer that they would be safe to leave the shelter to give their witness statements.

By the end of the reflection, when I was reading this prayer that began this post it was all I could do to concentrate on saying the words. As soon as I finished the tears I was holding back began to flow and anger and rage and hatred began to surge throughout my mind and body. I couldn’t look at the picture of the boy whose picture was at the bottom of the page smiling up at me, not knowing what his fate would ultimately be. I still have tears running down my face as I write this now.

I have to say, these strong emotions don’t make me feel blessed. They make me feel frustrated and unable to do anything. But maybe I should quote the whole prayer:

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for economic justice for all people.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, hunger, homelessness and rejection, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.”

 

So yes, while I don’t feel blessed to have the anger or tears, I do feel blessed about what they mean about me. They mean that I care. They mean that I am capable of strong empathy with the plight of the oppressed and marginalized. They inspire me to do things like volunteer for a year at Annunciation House. And they make me want to be a college professor to pass this anger and tears to another generation of young naïve middle class kids who have never had the system not work in their favor. So while no, I still don’t feel blessed to feel angry or to cry, I feel very blessed about what it means about me and what it inspires in me. And makes me thankful to be part of a community that helps us all transform the daily injustices we witness to a calling for action and change.

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