BRAWLEY, Calif. — The sheet hanging outside David Angulo's ramshackle house in this farming and cattle town carries a simple spray-painted message: "In Memory Of Roman Ortiz. We Want Justice."
Angulo, 20, a part-time janitor, thinks a terrible wrong was committed when his friend, Arturo Roman Ortiz, an unemployed laborer and ex-convict, was shot to death last October by a young police officer while resisting arrest.
"He may have used drugs," Angulo said, "but he didn't deserve to die like that."
The death of Ortiz has unleashed an unprecedented burst of public anger and activism on the part of Brawley's Latino underclass. After Ortiz's funeral, youthful demonstrators staged three days of placard-waving protests down Main Street and were met by police in riot gear.
Months later, teen-agers continue to wear "We Want Justice" T-shirts in defiance of the police. There are "We Want Justice" bumper stickers and "We Want Justice" banners.
Some in Brawley say the relationship between the city, which is 75% Latino, and its police force, which is 80% Anglo, will never be the same.
"Something has finally happened in Brawley because of this," said Bobby Gallegos, 53, who runs a small grocery market on the east side. "The days of \o7 'si senor'\f7 are gone forever."
Handbills blasting the police were distributed in November at the Brawley Cattle Call, the annual rodeo that is the city's pride and joy. Later, two lawsuits were filed by Ortiz's family, alleging police brutality and demanding monetary damages.
Phil Schuman, a Chicago police officer turned San Diego lawyer who filed one of the lawsuits, says the shooting has spurred those on Brawley's lowest economic rung "for the first time in 30 years to voice their discontent with the system as it is."
There has been a pro-police backlash in this Imperial Valley town known for its summer heat (115 degrees is not uncommon) and the odd distinction of being the most populous city (20,089 residents) below sea level (113 feet) in the United States.
When the "We Want Justice" bumper stickers appeared, so did stickers saying "We Support Our Brawley Police," a show of support organized by a former mayor.
The Chamber of Commerce laid in a fresh supply of "I Brawley" buttons. The City Council, consisting of two Latinos and three Anglos, unanimously turned down the family's request for damages, including funeral expenses.
Sentiment of the "he-had-it-coming" variety abounds, from both Anglos and Latinos. "He wouldn't have been killed if he hadn't . . . tried to run," said store clerk Rose Silva.
Ortiz, 21, who spent 11 months in prison for heroin possession and burglary, died of a gunshot wound to the chest fired at point-blank range shortly before midnight Oct. 15.
The public housing project where Ortiz died is east of the railroad tracks that divide Brawley socially and economically. East of the tracks are half a dozen public housing projects and run-down neighborhoods badly scarred by Mexican heroin and locally brewed methamphetamine.
"Police officers are not well received in that area," said John McCormick, the San Diego attorney defending Brawley in the lawsuits.
A Brawley police officer had stopped Ortiz, who was unarmed, for having a burned-out light over his car's license plate. A computer check showed that the 5-foot-5, 147-pound Ortiz was an ex-convict wanted on felony burglary warrants.
Ortiz ran and Officer James Belcher, a 6-footer in his mid-20s, gave chase. Ortiz darted into the back bedroom of an apartment occupied by his friends, the Castro family.
Belcher tried to use his hand-held radio to call for a police backup but did not know the street address. He could get only one handcuff on the struggling Ortiz.
One of the Castro children remembers Ortiz screaming: "Momma help me, momma help me, he's going to shoot me. He's going to kill me."
As they tussled on the bedroom floor, Belcher fired a single shot that punctured Ortiz's right lung, severed the major vein to his heart and lodged in his spinal cord.
Belcher told his superiors that he fired his gun in self-defense because Ortiz had taken away his flashlight and was beating him on the head. The Imperial County Sheriff's Department, which investigated, accepted Belcher's version of events.
Patty Ortiz, 30, Ortiz's sister-in-law, did not. She said she organized the first demonstration as a way to assuage her grief and was surprised when more than 100 young people joined in.
Still, Police Chief David Holt rates his department's relationship with the community as excellent. "Some people have latched on to this shooting and tried to take advantage of it," he said.
Belcher had worked briefly for the Orange County Sheriff's Department and left for reasons the department will not disclose. He tried unsuccessfully to get a job with the Imperial County Sheriff's Department before being hired in Brawley about six months before the shooting.