|Emmanuel Sotelo (courtesy of the Lopez family)|
When I heard the gun shots, I thought, It is finally happening.
I always had the lingering thought living in the same house with three gang members was eventually going to get our house shot up by a rival gang.
Our little shack had become the neighborhood hangout. It wasn’t unusual for me to come home from school and have to make my way through a horde of cholos sitting on our front porch, drinking 40 ounce Cobras, and smoking. Some days, I would even have to fight for the TV or the phone because the “homies were kicking it” in our tiny living room.
My family of 6 lived in a one bedroom duplex, at the time.
They were cool kids. I got along with all of my brothers’ friends. They loved coming around our house because my mom and dad were so welcoming. While other parents saw them as delinquents, always up to no good, my parents embraced them, offering food or drinks whenever they came looking for my brothers. My mom treated them the way she wanted her sons to be treated by their friends’ mothers.
I knew all the Old Town, National City (OTNC) gang members by their first names. I would never call them by their monikers, because they sounded ridiculous and I FELT ridiculous saying them. I always laughed when my dad would call them by their little AKAs because he had a thick paisa accent and he did it just to humor them. I remember one of my brothers’ friends telling me I looked just like one of my brothers, who they referred to as Toker, and he was going to call me, Lil’ Tokes. I thought, Call me that, and you’re dead!
It must have been a weekend because my brother and his friends were on our porch again, making calls and planning to meet up to go to a party or “kick back” somewhere in the city.
I was on the couch watching TV and I could hear them outside talking and laughing. I could spot a cholo from miles away. I grew up around them, listened to their conversations, watched them interact with one another. To me, they were never menacing or scary or threatening. Even the vato with the biggest muscles, goatee, covered from head to toe in prison tattoos, wearing his wife beater and baggy pants, … even that guy was super sweet and very polite.
That night the NCPD showed up at our house like they had many other times before.
Two of my brothers were on probation and were documented OTNC gang members, so their probation officers were raiding our house at least once or twice a month.
This time officers said a neighbor called in a complaint about the noise coming from our place. There were a total of about 5 dudes on our porch, including their long time buddy, Emmanuel Sotelo. Emmanuel was a quiet 19 year old kid attending Southwestern College with hopes of becoming an accountant.
When the cops showed up, Emmanuel flinched; he panicked, knowing he was going to be in deep shit when the cops did their illegal search, as they always did.
He was carrying an unloaded gun tucked in his pants. Emmanuel made a run for it, throwing the gun in one of the bushes in our front yard. He ran into our backyard, passing the guest house, and attempted to jump the tall wooden fence to make his way to the alley.
Emmanuel made the mistake of pulling up his pants before jumping the fence. A National City Police Department (NCPD) officer saw that as a threat to his life. He fired his gun straight at Emmanuel’s back.
The bullet went through one of Emmanuel’s lungs and made the kid collapse in the alley behind our house. NCPD proceeded to handcuff Emmanuel while he lay on the floor, unconscious.
I remember sitting on the couch watching TV when I heard yelling. I couldn’t quite make out what the voices were yelling, so I muted the TV, and then I heard the gun shot. I ran to the room and threw myself on the floor thinking over and over, My brother is going to get shot! It’s a drive-by!
GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! DON’T MOVE! came shouts from about 4-5 police officers.
A few minutes later, they told us to come out of the house and made us sit on the porch steps.
The cry my mother let out, at seeing my brother laying on the floor with a gun pointed straight at his head, is one that I will never forget. She was bawling but no tears seemed to be flowing, I think, because of the shock.
NCPD was prepared to release their K-9 into our backyard, thinking there may have been another suspect. When my mother tried to warn them there was a family living in the guest house they yelled at her to shut up.
I don’t know how long they had us, our landlord and his family, and the guest house family sitting on the porch. It must have been a few hours because the police had to question each person.
When it was my turn to tell the police what I witnessed, I was really confused. I didn’t know anyone had been shot yet, and I couldn’t stop looking at the cop questioning me. He was average height and build, white dude, maybe in his 30s. The name on his badge read Steveson. He was sweating as if he had just run a marathon. He could hardly focus on his questions because the sweat was getting into his eyes and all over his notepad.
UHH, WHAT, UH, WHAT IS YOUR NAME? he asked me as he wiped sweat from his forehead.
AND, UH, YOU LIVE HERE? UM, HOW OLD ARE YOU?
I thought for sure this guy was a rookie. His questions barely made sense and he was super nervous. I was answering as clear and calmly as I could. I kept thinking how ridiculous it was that I, a 14 year old girl, could be cooler than this big, tough cop.
Doesn’t he deal with these situations every day?
By this time, my brother and his friends were handcuffed and sat in the police cars surrounding our street.
G avenue had been closed off with police tape. At that moment, my other brother decided to come home drunk. Police officers told him he could not pass, but he didn’t listen. He was arrested and put into a cop car.
We found out later officer Aaron Steveson, the cop that interviewed me, was the cop that shot Emmanuel in the back. Emmanuel died 2 days later.
Emmanuel wasn’t the first friend my brothers lost to some kind of gang related bullshit, but he was the first killed by NCPD.
A few weeks later, I came home from school to see a crowd of people gathered on Highland near the very spot Emmanuel had been shot in the back.
The people held signs of protest and handed out flyers against the NCPD. I walked over and then stood, watching the crowd. A guy with a megaphone was yelling out something about discrimination. All of a sudden I was put on the spot when a reporter asked me what I thought about the accident and how I felt about the police. I felt terrible for Emmanuel and his family and grateful my brothers were ok, but didn’t this happen all the time? Shouldn’t we be used to this by now?
It’s scary, I said. I mean how am I supposed to feel safe when the ones we are supposed to count on to protect us are the same ones killing. It’s not right.
It was a generic answer but at 14 years old, I hadn’t quite formed an opinion on much. I do remember wondering why I felt so jaded to gangs and police violence. There was nothing shocking about what surrounded me.
When I was asked about all that happened over a decade later, I answered a little differently.
I grew up around this. I grew up OTNC. I am used to this. I was right to think that my house was going to be shot up by a rival gang because that is exactly what happened. The National City Police Department and OTNC are no different. They’re just two opposing gangs. That’s just the way it is.
On Valentine's Day of 2014, Myra got this email from Emmanuel's brother. It's a gorgeous letter, and I think it helps round out who Emmanuel was as a person.
I just read the article you posted on Jan. 20. My sister sent me the link. Around this time (his birthday is on valentines day) and the first week of October is when I remember Emmanuel the most. I always start off by thinking about that night. For me, it starts with a knock at my window. My cousin Chino and my uncle came to wake me up so that I, as an immediate family member, could get some information as to where Emmanuel was taken. As I look back, I remember how we all held on tight to hope that we were gonna hang out with Maue (my childhood nickname for him) again and laugh or fight or simply just stay up late talking with him. Then I think of the good times, our fights, our victories and our differences. Many people couldn't believe that Leopard had a nerdy ass brother with glasses, an overbite and nappy ass puby hair. And then there are those that say we look so much alike. Anyways, it was nice to read your article. To have a first hand perspective of someone who was actually there while at the same time looking back and intellectualizing the entire situation 12 years later.
I'm not sure that you know we were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses and because our beliefs in the bible we don't celebrate our birthdays. Still today, Emmanuel would have turned 32 and every year I wonder what would have been. So I'm going to post this picture on Instagram, to have others remember him as I remember him. He wasn't always a cholo. He would cry a lot as a kid and he was also scared of everything lol. But he had a good heart. I didn't speak until I was 4 so he would translate everything I would say to everyone else. And when someone would give him gum or candy, he would extended his other hand and say "pa mi tamano" (...para mi hermano). He was really sweet. I miss him a lot.
Emmanuel's sister wrote us, and she also sent along her poetic video (above).
My name is Genesi, and I am Emmanuel's (Leopard) sister. First off, I want to thank you for writing this piece. It means so much to us, that people continue to remember my brother. That night, Emmanuel was doing laundry. He said he would be back to pick up his clothes and I had asked him to watch a movie with me. When he didn't come back, I figured he had gone out and went to sleep. I was 12 years old at the time and wasn't sure if I understood what was going on. All I knew, was that my life would never be the same, and that I had lost one of my best friends and my brother.
Today, he would be turning 32. Believe me when I say that, even though it has been 12 years, the pain hasn't gone away. All I have are his pictures and a few letters he sent from Juvi. I like to do spoken word. I actually wrote a poem about that night and mostly, its to reach out to Aaron Steveson. I am now old enough to understand what happened that night and I won't rest until he hears what I have to say.
Once again, Thank you so much. You don't know how much we appreciate it."
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Activist Hounded by Police
UPDATE: Emmanuel's sister sent us this very personal
video, and in it she expresses the true heart break only a
sister can feel. Note how she is NOT asking for
any kind of revenge. She instead wants him to FEEL
her pain and rage. Remember this when you see or hear about a cop
killing someone, and when police chest beat about being
heroes and protecting and serving you,
remember her face, her voice, her loss.