The family of Gilroy resident Steven Juarez and about 100 neighbors and friends took to the South County city’s downtown streets on Saturday morning demanding answers about last month’s death of the 42-year-old while in police custody.
The emotional “Justice for Stevie” march began at the scene of his’ death in Old Gilroy and ended about 10 blocks west at the steps of Gilroy police headquarters.
From Chestnut Street, the marchers wound down Sixth Street to the police station at 7301 Hanna St., chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, killer police have got to go,” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Hand-drawn signs carried by the protesters expressed anger and frustration. One read, “Justice for Stevie;” another read, “Who do you call when police murder?”
There were no uniformed officers in sight during the brief march or at the police station, as officers kept a low profile. No city officials were in sight. Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco and police Chief Scott Smithee have not commented on the death.
The march formally kicked off a “Justice for Stevie” campaign, which has the goals of holding the city of Gilroy and its police accountable for the death of Juarez. The nonprofit Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services (CARAS), based in Gilroy, is demanding answers about the Juarez death, and changes in the police department’s “use of force” policies and other policies related to how they treat suspects, to prevent deaths like that of Juarez.
The protest began at 11am in front of the house in the low-income neighborhood that Juarez and his family called home, and ended about an hour later. The marchers were peaceful, but spirited.
Rain had threatened early, but held off until the end. Frustrated voices, some amplified with bullhorns, echoed along Sixth Street.
“He was a human being, and they had no right to hurt him like that,” said Juarez’ grieving mother, Martha Silos before the march. “He was my boy, and we’re going to fight so they don’t hurt anyone else.”
“We need to get public oversight on what’s happening in this police department,” said Rev. Jethroe Moore, a member of the San Jose-Silicon Valley chapter of the NAACP. “We’ve seen the sexual innuendo that has come out of this police department, so we know they might not be as straight and narrow or as shiny as their badges proclaim.”
Moore’s statement called into question the reputation of the Gilroy Police Department, recently tarnished by a pending lawsuit from a former police dispatcher that alleges sexual misconduct by current and former officers.
As protesters gathered on Chestnut Street near the scene of Juarez’ death, there were questions from some people gathered about exactly what happened that night.
“Look at that roof, do you think that kid could have jumped between houses, Superman couldn’t do that,” said Sally Armendariz. Initial police accounts speculated the Juarez had fallen from a roof of one of the one-story bungalows, injuring his head before he fell unconscious during a struggle with officers.
A police spokesman said week they had chased Juarez on foot through the neighborhood on Chestnut Street, then used a Taser and a carotid neck hold to subdue him.
Members of Juarez’ family, including his sister Monica Juarez were suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death and dissatisfied with their difficulty finding answers. They indicated that a lawsuit might be pending.
“That’s not the end; we have something coming,” Juarez said. “Whatever my brother’s past was, that shouldn’t make a difference. He was in a tree and they Tased him down.”
The exact circumstances of what happened the night of Juarez’ death have not been revealed. Juarez’ family claims that eyewitnesses heard Juarez plead with police, saying, “stop hurting me, stop choking me.”
“When the coroners dropped him off at Habing Funeral Home, they said they would fix him up; I said no, we want to see him as he is,” Silos said. “We wanted to see him before they touched him. My daughter and Steven’s little brother took pictures. He was looking for Taser marks, and he wrote everything down.”
She said the early morning hours between the time the family learned of what occurred on Chestnut Street, up until 7am when they were informed by a coroner that Juarez had died, were torturous to the family.
“Six hours I waited for an answer,” Silos said. “Back in the day, the police would have told me right away. They told me nothing. They wouldn’t even let me pass the yellow line. I didn’t want to admit what happened, that my boy was dead. I didn’t want to think that anything like that could happen to my boy.”
People on Saturday demanded action though, and they aimed high.
“What’s the biggest event in town, the Garlic Festival?” said Moore. “If we don’t get any answers, we’re going to shut it down.”
This story was originally published on March 11 by the Gilroy Dispatch, a sister paper of San Jose Inside/Metro Silicon Valley.