Categories: Beatdom ContentEssays

Fifty Years Ago, Hunter S. Thompson Took On Police Brutality

Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his bizarre Gonzo writing, which fused fiction and journalism in a darkly comedic style that often featured drug abuse, shocking behaviour, and hallucinatory episodes. His most famous work was the 1972 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was written, he claimed, as almost an enjoyable side project during and after the composition of a very different piece of writing – one that was published in Rolling Stone fifty years ago today.

Rolling Stone #81, April 29th, 1971

“Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” was a decidedly non-Gonzo story and one of his last attempts at a somewhat conventional style of writing before becoming entirely wrapped up in the one-man literary genre that he had established at the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Although he would ultimately become trapped within the confines of Gonzo and the persona he had created for himself – Raoul Duke – he was capable of wonderful, complex pieces of writing in a variety of styles.

In 1970, Thompson was aggressively experimenting with his literary-journalistic approach and looking to cut his teeth on the important stories of the day. One of those was the murder of Ruben Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist gunned down by the Los Angeles Police Department during a Chicano Rights protest. Salazar’s death was brought to his attention by Oscar Zeta Acosta, a close friend and activist, who pushed Thompson to give the case the sort of attention that other white journalists would not.

Thompson and Acosta.

Thompson and Acosta headed to Los Angeles in the days after the August 29 murder. Together, they quickly researched and wrote an article about Salazar’s death. However, Thompson was at this point working for a short-lived publication called Scanlan’s Monthly, which went bankrupt before publishing the story. In February 1971, with Thompson now at Rolling Stone, he convinced publisher Jann Wenner to pay for him to go back and rewrite the whole article. Wenner, who already viewed Thompson as his star writer, agreed.  

The result, of course, was “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” a nearly twenty-thousand-word essay that was Rolling Stone’s longest story to date. Far more coherent than most of his writing, it lacked the Gonzo hijinks that made his more famous work either hilarious or frustrating, and instead approached a difficult subject in an intelligent way.

As a younger writer, Thompson’s approach to journalism had entailed what he called “the Fuse” – a process wherein he would engage his reader through tantalising, exciting statements, luring them into excessively long stories that contained a great deal of his philosophising with the key details buried in the middle or at the end. Eventually, the reader “may or may not realize that he’s been forced, or duped, into reading an essay,” he explained. “Strange Rumblings” was perhaps his finest effort in this mode.

It begins in the Hotel Ashmun, a run-down establishment filled with angry Chicano men. Thompson, who plays the role of observer rather than participant throughout most of the narrative, is hiding behind his door, hoping that none of these men will kick it in. He is eager to present a situation ripe for racial violence. In the very first paragraph, the Chicanos scream at the hotel manager, “You gabacho pig! You call the fuckin sheriff and I’ll cut your fuckin throat!” and soon after the desk clerk trembles in fear at the sight of three large Chicano men. One of them, Acosta, explains that the white community is in terror and has been “ever since Salazar.”  

Thompson is teasing his reader here, unwinding an irresistible story of – to borrow his favoured phrase – fear and loathing. It reads more like a short story than a piece of journalism. The scene and the action inform the reader without explicit exposition, with secondary characters explaining the pertinent details where necessary. Even the music seems to subtly tell the story Thompson wants to unfold. He plays a cassette tape of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, a dark album speaking volumes about a violent time and foreshadowing the violence to come: “Rape and murder… it’s just a shot away…”

At this point, however, Thompson makes a sharp turn, addressing the reader with his own pontifications. He speaks authoritatively, channelling his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. “What better music,” he asks, is there for a time and place like this – the barrio of Los Angeles, a run-down distract filled with the disenfranchised, angry men and women desperate for change and sick to death of injustice.

Slowly unwinding his tale, Thompson tells us that his hotel is close to the Silver Dollar Café, where there is now a plaque that reads: “In memory of August 29, 1970.” Here, he finally tells us the basics of the story: Ruben Salazar was a popular journalist sitting innocently in a café when an LAPD officer opened the door and fired a tear gas canister right into the side of his head, killing him instantly. This ignited the barrio, turning even the quietest Chicano grandmothers into militants determined to overthrow the system.

Throughout his later career, Thompson struggled with producing coherent pieces of writing and by the late eighties he was incapable of stringing together more than five hundred words that were loosely connected. “Strange Rumblings,” however, was an entirely different beast. Like his first book, Hell’s Angels, it slowly and methodically unwinds the story of Salazar’s murder as though part of an odd novel. He introduces the characters – violent drunks and acid-eaters like Acosta – giving their backgrounds stories and letting them tell parts of the narrative. The purpose is not to bombard the reader with facts and figures, but instead to give them a feel for the story, to sense the paranoia and understand the anger of the people depicted.

This is to be a key theme. Thompson’s investigation of Salazar’s death was unable to yield conclusive proof that the LAPD had orchestrated an assassination, but this by no means meant that he had not been murdered. From the beginning, Thompson wanted the reader to feel the story; to look beyond the headlines, press releases, and verdicts. There would be no smoking gun, no secret recordings. The only way to convey to the reader the fact that this was a murder was to look at the case thoroughly and honestly to highlight the fact that the official version of events made no sense whatsoever.

Thompson weaves various threads of the story masterfully, tying Salazar into a history that goes back to the Mexican-American War and the loss of Aztlan – the name for the lands ceded to the United States following Mexico’s defeat. Thompson guides us through the various subcultures of the Chicano community in order to explain the situation to his mostly white readership. He then takes us through the peaceful protests that morphed into violent revolts to better understand the hours leading up to Salazar’s death. He also digs into Salazar’s background, which had seen him warned repeatedly by police to stop reporting on the suspicious death of a Chicano man in police custody.

About halfway through the essay, Thompson switches into a mode he had used in Hell’s Angels, which is to look at contentious issues through an examination of the given facts and an explanation of why they are incorrect or unlikely.  Now that the readers are aware of the background and beginning to see Salazar as a rebel and martyr, he scrutinises the police version of events, comparing statements given in different news outlets on different days, and questioning why police reports differed so greatly from eyewitness accounts. Without saying so directly, he is calling them liars.

Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels.

He continues to carefully unfold his story based upon his research into the available evidence. His style of narrative shows the outright dishonesty of the sheriff’s department as they change their story again and again in response to newly uncovered facts. Darkly satiric, it becomes almost a farce as he spotlights their falsehoods and changes in testimony – an embarrassingly predictable process of covering up and hiding some unknown truth. Rather than simply stating the facts, he has produced an altogether more convincing account, not simply lobbing an accusation but proving a frightening contempt for the truth within the police.  

Thompson’s writings often used a form of very dark comedy to approach serious issues and here it is at its darkest and most intelligent. He cannot conclusively prove that the evidence supporting police claims is false, but he can explain it in such a way that any sane person could see that they are lying. Again, this harkens back to the idea of wanting the reader to feel the story. When a star witness mysteriously emerges and corroborates the police account of events (which had changed numerous times), Thompson carefully observes that this story too makes little sense. Rather than call it bullshit, he remarks that it is strange how the witness had avoided being seen, interviewed, or even mentioned by anyone until appearing at the coroner’s inquest.

After describing a litany of inconsistencies that effectively proved the police were guilty of a cover up, Thompson explains that the District Attorney had stated that “no criminal charge is necessary.” No one was surprised. In 1971 as in 2021, it was shockingly difficult to hold police accountable for the deaths of civilians, especially when these were people of colour.

Thompson’s conclusion is as nuanced as the rest of the essay:

There was one crucial question, however, that the inquest settled beyond any reasonable doubt. Ruben Salazar couldn’t possibly have been the victim of a conscious, high-level cop conspiracy to get rid of him by staging an “accidental death.” The incredible tale of half-mad stupidity and dangerous incompetence on every level of the law enforcement establishment was perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of the inquest. Nobody who heard that testimony could believe that the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is capable of pulling off a delicate job like killing a newsman on purpose. Their handling of the Salazar case—from the day of his death all the way to the end of the inquest—raised serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing cops to walk around loose on the street.

He goes on to explain that the police may not have been capable of premeditated murder but that they were nonetheless guilty of second-degree murder. He writes:

The malignant reality of Ruben Salazar’s death is that he was murdered by angry cops for no reason at all—and that the L.A. sheriff’s department was and still is prepared to defend that murder on grounds that it was entirely justified.

According to the police, Salazar had caused his own death simply by sitting down and being hit in the head by a projectile fired by a police officer. He was more responsible for what happened than the man who shot the tear-gas canister or the department that allowed its officer to fire that weapon into a building, knowing fine well there were people inside.

After this, Thompson lets the story wind itself to a natural conclusion as he continues speaking with Acosta and others in the community. He recounts them talking about young men clearly murdered by the police whilst in custody and about media complicity in the silencing of Hispanic voices. It is a depressing tale that ends with Thompson calling up the sheriff’s office to talk about a bomb that went off near the District Attorney’s office. The sheriff believes it was the Chicano activists that planted it. The message is clear: For the police, it is enough to have a gut feeling about something with no evidence to back it up, but for regular citizens – and particularly people of colour – it does not matter how much you can prove. The system is rigged.

“Strange Rumblings” is a masterpiece of reporting. Closer to New Journalism than Thompson’s own brand, Gonzo, it is a stunning read that brings home the tragedy of police violence. Acosta had asked Thompson for his help in shining a spotlight on the case and Thompson came through, delivering this damning indictment. His genius was in carefully trotting out and mocking the official story. In lieu of hard evidence one way or another, he was at least able to show how the police version of events was indisputably wrong. Yet reading this story fifty years later, it is hard not to reflect upon the obvious: Even with incontrovertible evidence of police wrongdoing, justice is still agonisingly rare. Officers across the United States are able to murder with impunity and even videos and eyewitness testimony do not result in their being held to account.

The fiftieth anniversary of this story’s publication is a time to reflect on the brilliance of an innovative, daring writer, but more importantly to ask why so little progress has been made. If a fearless journalist’s intelligent exposé could have no impact on police violence then, and video evidence of police officers committing murder in public seldom yields accountability now, then what hope is there? Despite his own love affair with firearms, Thompson firmly believed that police officers across the United States should be disarmed and trained as peaceful mediators who work with communities instead of terrorising them. It might seem like a pipedream, but people are tired of living in fear and it is time for real change.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller.

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