HOUSTON—A colorful sculpture of a vaquero waving a pistol and riding a bucking blue horse is the only nod to history in Moody Park.
Nothing around the playground equipment, the gazebo or the community center hints at the most dramatic night in its history, the evening when growing tensions between Houston’s police and Hispanic community exploded into two nights of violence that became infamous as the Moody Park riots.
Now some activists hope to establish a historical marker in the park commemorating not the violence, but the man whose death a year earlier played a role in sparking it: Joe Campos Torres.
“Our children, our kids, a lot of us don’t remember the saga, the story, the lesson and the history of Joe Campos Torres,” said Carlos Calbillo, the activist and local history buff. “And we want to keep that alive.”
Torres, a 23-year-old veteran arrested during a disturbance in an East End bar, drowned in Buffalo Bayou after he was beaten by rogue police officers in the most notorious police brutality case in Houston history. His death happened during an era when the Houston Police Department was rocked by a series of high-profile brutality cases, when it suffered a poor relationship with the community it was sworn to protect. African-Americans and Hispanics were especially distrustful of the city’s police force.
One year after Torres’ body was discovered in the bayou, a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Moody Park erupted in violence. Stores were looted, cars were overturned and set afire. An officer responding to the violence was run down and injured by a speeding car. Two television journalists covering the riot were stabbed.
The death of Torres helped trigger an era of reform at the Houston Police Department, leading to the creation of an internal affairs division to investigate complaints against officers. The city’s political leadership demanded changes to a culture that essentially ignored or covered up complaints of police brutality.
“I can understand why not too many of the younger people here in Houston know about it,” said Richard Molina, one of Torres’ nephews. “But hopefully, we can do something to change that.”
Cabrillo, who produced a documentary about Torres’ death and what he calls the “Moody Park insurrection,” is one of the people spearheading the drive for a historical marker. He personally would like to see markers not only in the park, but also alongside the stretch of the bayou where Torres drowned.
“We’re going to put up historical markers, not only at Moody Park, but also at ‘the hole’ where he was murdered, to commemorate this dark episode in the history of Houston,” Cabrillo said.
A Texas historical marker seems a long way in the future – the state requires that 50 years pass before such a designation is granted – but supporters are now preparing an application for a county historical marker. They’re also talking about lobbying for a mural honoring Torres at the Moody Park community center, or even naming the nearest Metro rail stop after him.
“Throughout the years when my uncle’s case was brought up, it would get brought up when something negative happened in the city dealing with police misconduct,” Molina said. “I’ve always felt that shed a negative light on the situation. I just feel like it’s time to do something on a positive note.”