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A Year Later, Manos Unidas Is Reaching for New Goals

Times Staff Writer

It started in the aftermath of the police shooting of an 18-year-old Chicano during his mother’s birthday party in Westminster.

The dead man’s name was Frank Anthony Martinez. The group that vowed “never to forget Frankie’s death” was Manos Unidas.

More than a year has passed since the July 15, 1988, incident that rocked the predominantly Latino neighborhood around Sigler Park.

Exactly what led up to the shooting is a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees that three Westminster police officers chased Martinez into his back yard, where a birthday party for his mother was going on. A scuffle ensued, and Martinez was shot once in the chest.

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Immediately afterward, the Martinez family claimed that he had died at the hands of poorly trained, overzealous police officers who hated “beaners,” the derogatory word they said the officers used during the incident.

There was an internal police investigation, another by the district attorney’s office, and a third by the Orange County Grand Jury, but no charges were ever filed against the officers involved.

Some time afterward, a U.S. Justice Department mediator was called into the community to help ease racial tensions.

Things have changed.

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The homemade signs calling police “Trigger-Happy Liars” have been taken down.

“I personally don’t think there is as much tension and hatred toward the Police Department as there was a few months back,” said Vera Palomino, neighborhood president of Manos Unidas, which means United Hands in Spanish.

Manos Unidas today is a more calculated and, some would aruge, more positive organization. It no longer shoots from the hip. Gone are the civilian police monitors, the boisterous demonstrations and the pickets at City Hall.

And instead of potluck dinners, the 50-member group has fund-raising banquets to support scholarships. Manos Unidas leaders now enjoy an open-door policy with Police Chief James I. Cook.

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It has not only become a breeding ground for community leaders such as Rodney Burge, 30, who helped establish it, but also has stirred a renewed sense of neighborhood pride.

“We helped get Sigler Park open Tuesday and Thursday nights for some of the older kids, “and I think that has helped lessen the amount of graffiti,” Palomino said of one of the group’s accomplishments.

Manos Unidas coordinated a recent cleanup drive at the park, inviting the public to participate and providing free refreshments.

“What’s been interesting for us is that helping clean up Sigler Park has also helped us help others into taking an interest in city government,” Palomino said.

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During the elections last November, Manos Unidas members walked precincts and helped people register to vote. Palomino and other members are now circulating petitions to have City Council members elected by ward rather than at large.

Burge, 30, was the group’s first spokesman, the one who organized numerous rallies and candlelight vigils on Martinez’s behalf. Those and his other efforts for the organization brought him a humanitarian award in March from the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

One of the biggest changes has been the relationship between the police and Manos Unidas.

“In the beginning,” Cook said, “we in the Police Department didn’t know what the group was about. But now that we do, we’ve been very impressed with some of its leaders.”

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Said Palomino: “I think they’ve finally realized that Manos Unidas is real.”

Palomino and other Manos Unidas members say Cook is responsible for helping improve relations between his department and the community.

After the shooting, residents were claiming that police were harassing them--shining spotlights through homes’ windows at night and stopping teen-agers on the street without reason.

“Now I think that we can call Chief Cook and make an appointment to see him,” Palomino said. “His doors are open. Before, everybody took the police for granted; nobody wanted to use them. But it’s different now.”

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The group’s leaders also made a few recommendations to Cook and his top-ranking officers, and they were acted upon.

“We told them about our concerns, that we had a few things we felt they needed to improve on,” Palomino said. “We talked about their hiring more Hispanics and increasing sensitivity among their officers when it came to understanding minorities.”

Palomino vowed that the group will not stop with those achievements.

“One of our goals is education. Our main objective is to help students who have a C average, because most of those have trouble getting financial help. They’re the ones who try hard and work and study. We’re trying to raise money to support them.”

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