Ferguson Brings Back Memories Of Samoan Police Shootings

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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For me, the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson brings back memories of a tragic police shooting that occurred over 20 years ago near Los Angeles. I was then, and am now, a conservative who is greatly supportive of the police. But in that case, I helped organize protests against the police.

Compton — as in Straight Outta Compton, the notorious N.W.A. album that enshrined that city’s mean streets in the popular folklore — is, like Ferguson, technically a suburb. But like Ferguson, Compton bears little resemblance to anyone’s idyllic concept of “suburbia.”

On February 12, 1991, less than three weeks before the Rodney King beating would roil Los Angeles, police officer Alfred Skiles shot two brothers to death in the driveway of their Compton home. The brothers were 34-year-old Pouvi “Afa” Tualaulelei and 22-year-old Italia Tualaulelei, and they were Samoan. They were also related to me. I didn’t really know Afa, although I knew (and was separately related to) his wife’s family. I knew Italia, a community college football player who used to stay with my first cousins.

Skiles was responding to a domestic violence call from Afa’s wife, Julie. There was conflicting testimony about what happened after Skiles arrived at the Tualaulelei house, but the horrific outcome was beyond dispute: Afa succumbed to 11 gunshot wounds; eight in the back and three on the side, and Italia perished after being shot five times in the back and three times in the side. After shooting the brothers a total of 10 times, Skiles reloaded his semi-automatic pistol and shot them nine more times.

Like Michael Brown, both brothers were unarmed. Like Darren Wilson, Skiles testified that the brothers attacked him and tried to get his gun. And the Tualaulelei case had its own version of the “hands up, don’t shoot” claim: a third brother, who witnessed the incident from inside the house, insisted that the men were shot after complying with the officer’s order to kneel on the ground. Unlike Wilson, Skiles was not white. He was Filipino.

Like the Ferguson case, the Tualaulelei shooting exacerbated existing community suspicions about the police. Two years before the Compton shooting, a large team of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in full riot gear stormed a Samoan bridal shower in nearby Cerritos. Allegedly responding to neighbors’ complaints about loud music, the officers beat almost 40 guests, including women (one of them pregnant) and elderly men, with clubs. Many were beaten after they were made to lie face down, and some suffered severe injuries. The deputies later claimed that they were defending themselves against attacks from the guests. A video secretly recorded by a neighbor showed no such attacks against the deputies, and merely showed helpless party guests being clubbed repeatedly by the police. Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner justified the level of force used by the officers, asserting that the Samoan bridal shower guests were “very large people.”

The incident sparked outrage in the Samoan community. Community leaders organized a large protest march against police brutality. (One notable sign: “Riot Gear is Not Appropriate Attire for a Samoan Bridal Shower.”) The family eventually won a record $23 million judgment against the Sheriff’s Department.

The “very large people” stereotype resurfaced in the Tualaulelei case. Skiles’ attorney pointedly characterized the brothers as “two beefy Samoans” — as if their Samoan-ness was as relevant to their alleged menace as was their size.

Like the Michael Brown shooting, the killing of the Tualaulelei brothers triggered angry demonstrations. I played a part in organizing those demonstrations. We formed the Committee for Justice for the Tualaulelei Brothers, a forerunner of sorts of the Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown. We marched and chanted “Prosecute Skiles!” A few overzealous marchers improvised that to “Barbecue Skiles!” But our violence never escalated beyond the rhetorical stage. Community leaders — nonprofit organizations, clergy, traditional chiefs — did an excellent job of keeping the peace.

We got our wish, at least at the outset. Officer Skiles was charged with voluntary manslaughter. At trial, Skiles’ attorney again played up negative stereotypes of Samoans. He told the jury: “You would be scared to have these two big Samoans coming at you.” It’s one thing to assert that the men were “big.” But by separately stressing that they were “Samoans,” the lawyer was clearly suggesting that their heritage somehow made them even more of a threat. Imagine the outrage if Darren Wilson’s attorney had said: “You would be scared to have a big black guy coming at you.”

The Tualaulelei proceedings played out against the backdrop of another major police controversy in Los Angeles County: the Rodney King case. The incidents themselves had occurred 19 days apart. While the Compton shootings did not get nearly coverage that the Rodney King beating did, they did get some national attention: Rev. Jesse Jackson, with Congresswoman Maxine Waters in tow, came to Compton to visit the Tualaulelei family. The Skiles trial was underway when the Rodney King verdicts came down — and when the Los Angeles riots erupted. The riots cast a shadow on the remainder of the Skiles case. Law enforcement officials worried that a second riot might break out if Skiles was not convicted.

Skiles was not convicted. A mistrial was declared after the jury deadlocked, with nine voting to acquit and three to convict. The jury happened to consist of nine Anglos, two Latinos and one African American, but it is unknown how the vote broke down by racial and ethnic lines. The judge refused to allow the District Attorney’s office to retry the case.

The judge’s decision sparked a great deal of anger in the community. But that anger never turned to violence.

I shared the community’s anger. At the time, I could conceive of no circumstances that would justify shooting two unarmed men a total of 13 times in the back and six times in the side. I could conceive of no justification for reloading and shooting the brothers nine times after they had already been shot 10 times.

As I noted at the outset, I’m a conservative who almost always supports the police. I appreciate the tremendously difficult job they do, and how they risk their lives to protect people of color in dangerous communities. I resent divisive opportunists who profit by pandering to racial resentment. I strongly disagree with those who blame racism for every challenge and misfortune faced by people of color. I deplore those who believe that their perceived grievances entitle them to commit violence, destroy property, block traffic, and ignore the rights of their neighbors.

Notwithstanding my involvement in the Tualaulelei protests, I agree with the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I have no idea what really happened, but do not believe that the evidence presented against Officer Wilson is strong enough to warrant a prosecution. I understand that the “probable cause” required to indict Wilson is a lower standard than the level of proof that would be required to convict him. But I also understand a concept recently made famous by President Obama: “prosecutorial discretion.”

Prosecutors typically and properly decline to pursue cases that promise little chance of conviction, even when they might conceivably be able to convince a grand jury, through the highly selective presentation of evidence, to find probable cause. The “hands up, don’t shoot” story seems not to be supported by credible evidence. I believe it would have been wrong to pursue a costly and futile prosecution simply to appease the protestors — and merely postpone their rage until the inevitable acquittal.

Would I feel differently if I had a personal tie to Brown, as I did to the Tualauleleis? I admit that I probably would. We all feel differently when a tragedy like this hits close to home. We all feel differently when we feel that our community is being unfairly victimized — whether or not that feeling is actually justified. I understand how powerful that feeling can be.

We can blame instigators who purposely perpetuate false narratives (“hands up, don’t shoot”), even though they know better. We can blame those who focus only on the obligation of the police to do a better job, but not on the obligations that residents owe their own community. But pointing fingers will not change the reality: If a large number of people in our most dangerous communities do not trust the police, it endangers those communities and it endangers the police. One way or the other, we have to address that.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.