Civil rights groups to honor slain Vietnam vet


Thirty-five years ago, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran named José Campos Torres was arrested for public intoxication. Instead of being taken to jail or the hospital, he ended up dead -- beaten and then drowned by Houston police, who never paid for the crime. What followed was a riot that was a wakeup call that the city of Houston was in desperate need of change.

May 5, 1978 -- a Cinco de Mayo party at Moody Park erupts into a riot after police arrest a drunk reveler. The crowd begins throwing rocks, even shooting at Houston police.

Former HPD Officer Tommy Britt said, "The air was full of rocks. They were picking up anything they could throw at us."

They start looting and setting stores on fire. The violence grew out of control and the police were out-numbered. As he tried to control the chaos, a car plowed straight into Britt.

"He swerved just enough and caught my left leg on the bumper of his car, rolled me over the top of it and I hit the ground," Britt recalled. "It pulled a bone chip away from the ligament attached to the bone."

"I have never felt pain like that in my life. It was very painful," Britt continued. "The scariest part was after I got hit. You could hear rocks hitting the ambulance as we were driving through the crowd."

News reporters were also attacked, including reporter Phil Archer, who was surrounded and stabbed while capturing the rioters on film. He lost a huge amount of blood. Even the crew sent to take his place was attacked.

"Someone on the other side of the car fire bombed the car, and I'll always think that fire bomb could have gone in the car," recalled Houston city council member and former KPRC news photographer Mike Sullivan. "There was fire on the car, in the car."

The reason for the riot was that exactly one year earlier on May 5, 1977, Jose Campos Torres, a Vietnam veteran was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. The officers who arrested Torres at a bar fought with him.

By the time they took him to jail he was so badly beaten, the jailer refused to book him, telling the officers to take him to Ben Taub Hospital. Instead, they beat him again, and threw him in the bayou, where he drowned. Torres was just 23.

Most accounts say that Torres was handcuffed when he was thrown in -- something officers disputed. At trial they received only probation and a $1 fine.

"It was like sort of like somebody had kicked you in the stomach," said civil rights activist Johnny Mata. "Here is a soldier that goes and fights for his country and goes home and dies at the hands of those who pledged to protect and serve."

Mata, with the GI Forum, says Houston's darkest hour became a catalyst for change, inspiring countless activists like him to fight for a better relationship between police and minorities. Their goal was to make sure José Campos Torres did not die in vain. Thirty-five years later, there is evidence of their success.

"Because of José Campos Torres there have been efforts to improve the criminal justice system," Mata said. "Better policing, better police officers... If somebody crosses that line, they will be prosecuted."

A group of Spanish speaking officers was formed at HPD, and after years of "looking the other way," a disgraced department started holding rogue officers accountable, to prevent tragedies like the Campos Torres murder from ever happening again.

"It caused the Houston Police Department to look at itself which it had not done, ever," Britt said.

At the time of Campos Torres' arrest, HPD had a clinic that the top brass refused to staff. Had that clinic been in operation, officers say José Campos Torres would not have died that day. That clinic now exists.

To honor the anniversary, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice is holding a screening of the movie "The Case of Joe Campos Torres" tonight at the Plaza de las Americas. It starts at 7pm.

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