- "A Bunch of Tough Hombres":Police Brutality, Municipal Politics, and Racism in South Texas
"Everybody knew the McAllen police were a bunch of tough hombres, especially the Boys on C shift," reported the Dallas Morning News on March 29, 1981. "Working the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift along the border is like being at war, the cops said. You have to be tough. The Boys on C shift worked at being tough." Many of the "Boys" wore black T-shirts with gold letters bearing "the legend, 'C Shift Animals.' They even had their own slogan: 'Kick…and Ask Questions Later.'" Only days earlier, the public had become aware of their misdeeds, revealed in six years of booking room videos recorded by the McAllen Police Department (MPD) and subpoenaed by a civil rights attorney. On these videos Anglo and Mexican American officers alike confirmed suspicions that they had beaten, kicked, and abused prisoners—in virtually all cases, working-class Mexican Americans.1
Station KGBT in nearby Harlingen played television footage of the beatings, bringing a flood of outrage. "One woman, like many of the callers, was almost in tears when she thanked us over and over again for showing such terrible things going on," noted a representative of the station. "She said as soon as she got through talking to us, she was going to call the McAllen police to demand an answer [as to] why those things had happened."2 She was not alone. "The police switchboard was lit up for hours after the tapes were shown on TV," declared James C. Harrington, the attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had secured the videos and released them to the media.3 As investigators probed the scandal, some pointed to the mayor—already locked in a heated, racially tinged political race with Ramiro Casso, a Mexican American challenger—as an enabler. On May 3 the News reported that "the federal grand jury investigation of accusations of [End Page 787] brutality by McAllen police has broadened to include the possibility of a cover-up of the incidents by Mayor Othal Brand and other city officials."4
This study tells the story of the 1981 MPD scandal, its impact on the ongoing municipal election between an Anglo incumbent and a Mexican American challenger, and its role in unifying Mexican Americans in South Texas during a period in which they were beginning to seize the reigns of local and regional power. Historians such as David Montejano, Marc Simon Rodriguez, and Brian Behnken have incorporated the issue of police brutality into their scholarship on the Mexican American civil rights movement during the post World War II period. In his discussion of Colorado, for example, Rodriguez found that between "1962 and 1964, police brutality became a significant issue for Mexican Americans in Denver and was the spark that ignited community activism. Several young men had had interactions with the police, and what should have been no more than minor skirmishes led to the young men's deaths."5 Nevertheless, historians have focused on particularly egregious incidents in places like East Los Angeles and Dallas rather than on the issue of police violence more broadly. This study places police violence at the center of the story and addresses its significance in enforcing repression, promoting resistance, and transforming local and regional power relations.6
The study proceeds in five sections. In the first it details the history of police violence against Mexican Americans in Texas and in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (hereafter, the Valley) in the 1970s. In the second section it examines the role in these events of Othal Brand, the so-called Onion King, who owned one of the most powerful agribusiness interests in Texas and served as the mayor of McAllen. In the third it analyzes the MPD scandal, the roots of which dated back to the early 1970s. In the fourth it explores the mayoral campaign, election, and election runoff, all of which not only highlighted the police scandal but underlined racial and class divisions in this South Texas city. In the final section it considers the historiographical implications of its findings.