Apology would be a start to Rolando Sanchez's healing

October 06, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NOW ROLANDO Sanchez is supposed to go away.

He has had his 15 minutes of attention. He got beat up by Baltimore sheriff's deputies for the crime of looking like their image of a bad guy. He was then embraced by Baltimore City Council members, who know a blunder when they see one. And now he is supposed to disappear.

But this happens only at the peril of a community's conscience, which vanishes when we have no memory. Sanchez is anybody who ever got knocked down for speaking an unknown language, or having the wrong background, or falling into somebody's stereotype. He is anybody pushed around by authority figures who then put up a wall instead of issuing a simple apology.

The sheriff's office should know this, and so, too, should a metropolitan community with a growing number of Hispanic residents: Sanchez does not intend to go away. He wants to be seen in his full humanity.

"He got beaten up," says his attorney, J. Stephen Simms, "because he's a relatively small brown man who doesn't speak English. That's it. This is a young man who's never been in trouble in his life. He comes here from El Salvador, where death squads roamed the country and killed randomly. You take a person who's gone through that, and subject him to this, to beat him up and traumatize him, and it makes it worse. We need a healing process. And the way to start that is an apology."

It is now nearly three weeks since five deputy sheriffs grabbed Sanchez at the Lexington Market. In a complaint filed with the Sheriff's Department, Sanchez says he was taking a lunch break from construction work there when deputies - who were chasing a bank robber - mistakenly attacked him, used stun guns on him and then left him lying on the ground when they realized they had the wrong man.

Though the five deputies have been suspended without pay from their regular duties while an internal sheriff's investigation is conducted, no one from the department has issued a word of apology. And the Sheriff's Department says it will have no comment until the investigation is complete.

"This speaks to a mentality on the part of some law enforcement officers," says Luis Berundo, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It's not a reflection of all officers. But we've certainly seen cases of abuse of our community. It's because we're seen as a population that doesn't have recourse, that's limited by language and perhaps by fear to communicate to authorities when things like this happen. But we're not afraid. And we're not going to let this get swept away."

They shouldn't. Many still have memories of the Felix Guevara case from several years ago. Guevara, also of El Salvador, was one of three Hispanic men - none of whom spoke English - who accused a uniformed Baltimore policeman of taking their money. The case seemed to be going nowhere in the state's attorney's office until demonstrations outside the downtown courthouses pressured an investigation.

The officer was later sentenced to six months in jail by a judge who called his act "a putrid stain on the shield of the Baltimore police."

Last week, members of the Hispanic community went back to demonstrations outside the courthouse. They demanded an apology from the Sheriff's Department, criminal charges against the deputies, medical reparations for Sanchez and the hiring of more Hispanic deputies.

"I met with Sanchez and his lawyer a few days after it happened," says Hispanic activist Angelo Solera. "He said they shot him five times with a stun gun. You can see the burn marks on his head. When they realized he was the wrong guy, everybody disappears.

"It was in the middle of the market. Everybody saw what happened. Sanchez crawled to a wall until he could figure out what happened. This is a good guy. He's here legally. He works hard, he goes to church, he never gets into trouble. This makes him a good person to live in America, right?"

When City Council President Sheila Dixon heard about the incident, she discovered council members who were upset.

"I've asked the Sheriff's Department about an apology," she said last week. "They say they're still trying to pull information together. What struck me, though, was this man working a construction job when he's attacked. You see that all over the area, Hispanics who are working these construction jobs, building this city.

"They're a major part of Baltimore. They have a major contribution they're making."

That doesn't make them special - but it makes them welcome.

And whenever there's an incident like the attack on Sanchez, it sends an unhealthy message. It says we stereotype. It says we mark certain people as The Other. And, when members of the Sheriff's Department fail to issue a simple apology, it says they haven't learned a simple lesson: Rolando Sanchez is not going away.

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