Richard Molina is in several Houston bands. He’s a member of the veteran Latino ska punk act Fuska. He’s got a solo project dubbed Future Ghost. Perhaps most notably, he’s keyboardist for the legendary Los Skarnales.
“It’s like therapy, being able to play music and being able to perform live,” said Molina. “It’s very therapeutic at this point.”
Molina can appreciate the restorative powers of music better than many and he relies on music — his own projects and favorite artists like Fever 333 and Enter Shikari — to fuel his true life’s work. Molina is an activist, brought up in a family dedicated to social change, particularly when it comes to police reform. Molina’s uncle was Joe Campos Torres, a Mexican-American war veteran who was brutally murdered by police officers and thrown into Buffalo Bayou in 1977. It’s a case that has lived in infamy in Houston and the annals of police brutality and remains close to the heart of Molina and his family members.
This Saturday, the tragic moment takes center stage when the city formally dedicates the Joe Campos Torres Plaza and the adjoining Joe Campos Torres Trail at 1301 Commerce. The official naming event begins at 1 p.m. and will feature a live performance by Tejano icons Little Joe Y La Familia. According to the city’s description of the dedication, it’s a moment to recognize injustice, acknowledge wrongs and will serve as a demonstration of “how a city heals and moves forward to become a better place for everyone.”
For Molina and his family, it’s a long time coming.
“This specific location downtown is on Commerce Street in between San Jacinto and Austin. It’s right off Buffalo Bayou, right in the center of the Criminal Justice District by the courthouses, the jails and all that stuff,” Molina said. “This specific area is the actual location where my uncle was thrown into the bayou. This is the place that was referred to by the police in the ‘60s and ‘70s as ‘The Hole,’ where the police would take individuals to personally interrogate and intimidate and terrorize prisoners there under the shadows of the Buffalo Bayou.”
The dedication, Molina noted, was spurred by his family and gained critical support from the city’s parks board and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership recently. His mother Janie Torres started the Joe Campos Torres Solidarity Walk six years ago. The area was on the walk course and the family always envisioned a historical marker to note its somber history. That notion first formed when Annise Parker was mayor but stalled, Molina said, because “Houston was really trying to push for this diversified, touristy city and that wasn’t something they really wanted to shine light on at the time.”
Last year, Janie Torres noticed the area being prepared for construction. The city’s original plan was to create a plaza and dedicate it to a park’s director, “So, we started getting a hold of everyone we could — city officials, commissioners, council people, members of LULAC,” Molina said.
“When we started working with them, they were all on board with the idea that we needed to do something to commemorate that piece of land. And not only for my uncle’s memory but for the idea of police reform and the change that it started to bring about in the ‘70s that we, as a family and police brutality activists, tried to change to this day.”
The area will include a mural on the theme of police reform on a four-story building, Molina said, visible from the courthouses surrounding the area.
“We realized the opportunity that we had to make that kind of statement there at that specific location, being that on a daily basis a number of cops, sheriffs, lawyers, judges, jailers, citizens that are going to court – they’ll pass by this location and see this on a daily basis and it’ll hopefully serve as a kind of reminder of this idea and story.”
That might be where the story ended for many, but Molina is taking it as a personal start to something more. He sees the tragedy as a teachable moment and is taking the message directly to those who need to hear it most. Last year Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Chief of Police Troy Finner formally apologized to the family. Molina said Finner “kind of came in with a different perspective and this story was one of the stories that he remembered as a child, one of the stories that stuck with him joining law enforcement. He really felt as the chief that he wanted to do something to kind of connect with the family and he did.”
That led to a dialogue which led Molina to the Houston Police Department’s Training Academy. He’s met with several of the department’s classes of cadets over the last year to tell his uncle’s story and others like his.
“The work that I’m doing with the police academy, going over there to speak about the history of police brutality, it’s some of the work that I want to carry over to this location, being that it’s in the middle of this criminal justice district,” he said. “These are kinds of the visions we have for this all moving forward.”
Molina saw an opportunity when police brutality became a focal point in America’s news feeds with the murder of George Floyd.
“We’ve been doing the work so many plus years before George Floyd. When George Floyd happened, we were down there, downtown during the protests, and my mom got arrested during those protests. We saw the flashpoint, we saw the societal perspective kind of shift on these ideas. Before, when you bring up police brutality and activism towards that, you’re automatically looked at as a troublemaker. Since cases like George Floyd, it’s been not so taboo to talk about it. It’s actually become a necessary conversation.
“That’s the work I’m trying to do, is to take that idea of this conversation not being so taboo, with people being more willing to understand, okay, we’ve got to do some more educating around that.”
Molina was introduced to officer Rafael Pantoja, the department’s liaison for the Hispanic Community, and he’s been integral to Molina’s meetings with cadets, Molina said.
“There’s an understanding of what I have to say between us. He knows where I’m going with these conversations. I kind of just give the background, the history of the story. I always like to start the class off by asking how many of the cadets are local to Houston because then that gives me an idea of the native Houstonians that are more likely to have heard the story and then I ask them how many have ever heard of the Joe Campos Torres story. It’s been like one, two people out of the last two classes.
“When you get into a situation like that, where you’re trying to convey a message to a group of people, it’s really helpful to establish that human connection from the beginning, you know? I’m a human, y’all are human, we’re going to have a human conversation that might be a little intense at times,” he said.
“Their workplace is highly stressful, for a different number of reasons, and a lot of people just go with that feeling and act out and make mistakes,” Molina continued. “We have those conversations and I like to leave them with questions about them questioning themselves. And they seem really receptive about it. I haven’t had any issues or anything like that. They are police cadets, they’re real strict with the way they present themselves, they have discipline, they try to carry that over. It’s been pretty good thus far.”
It’s not lost on Molina that stepping into the proximity of the police crosses some lines for activists and ACAB-spouting punk rockers.
“You know, growing up in the activist community, since I was a kid basically, you learn that sense real quick, that we don’t talk to the police,” Molina said. “I understand that sentiment. But we are at a point where we’ve been doing the same thing over and over for years, for decades and decades, doing the same thing. I personally have been thinking over the last few years, what can we do different, what more can we do, and that’s where this is all coming into play.
“I’ve had people that have declined to come speak at the academy or take part in events that the police are going to be a part of, which I totally get and I totally respect and understand. But, as far as any kind of criticism towards the work I’m doing, I haven’t really encountered that.”
He said part of his mission is pushing keyboard warriors into pro-active advocates for real change. He uses social media to invite potential allies to hit the streets and anywhere else positive change could occur.
“To me, that’s part of the problem as well, part of the non-solutions is kind of giving lip service to this idea of fighting against the system and all these vague ideas. Those vague ideas are legitimate points that need to get broken down and not only broken down but real action has to be taken towards those things,” he said. “Fighting against the system and all that kind of stuff is real tied into punk rock music and the punk rock scene, which is the scene that I grew up in.
“I feel like people that know me, I’ve extended it out there multiple times, we can do this, feel free to join us at this protest, feel free to join us at this march and I’ve had over the years people show up and people get involved. I wish it’d be some more but at the end of the day I do try to understand that this work, it’s heavy work. It’s naturally confrontational. I’m constantly being put in compromising positions, constantly being put in uncomfortable situations that I have to kind of navigate. You’ve got to navigate the situation to get the work done that you’re trying to get done.”
Might that work have a political nature to it someday? Molina has rubbed shoulders with some of Houston’s prominent civic leaders now and they recognize new blood is needed.
“And I definitely have been looking at all these options. I want to move forward with what’s best suited for me in all this, which I feel is going to include all of that in one way or another. I liken it to grassroots activism work. One of the fortunate positions my family’s been able to have is that when we do this work, we work with all kinds of different groups and organizations that might not necessarily work between themselves but when we’re involved everybody kind of comes together and works for this one common goal, whatever we’re doing. I feel like whatever I’m going to do moving forward involving city officials, organizations and stuff like that will be kind of the same general idea.
“I just want to get into something or head down some sort of road that’s going to facilitate that,” he added. “There’s been talk and opportunities to jump into other, more official positions.”
Molina said music may not coincide with any political career he might aspire to, but its lessons are already deeply ingrained and useful.
“It’s almost like they go hand in hand for a number of different reasons. Being an activist can sometimes be loud and aggressive and a lot of shouting. Being an activist involves a lot of high energy sometimes and I feel like when I perform and when I get to play live it’s kind of the same situation to where the music I play is loud, aggressive and a lot of shouting and high energy.
“With music and performing, one of your jobs is to communicate with the crowd and get the crowd to feel what you’re feeling, to get the crowd to move. So, when you’re up there playing, jamming out and the crowd’s going nuts and there’s circle pits and people are having a great time, it’s kind of the same thing when you’re involved in an action or a demonstration, a protest, it’s kind of a similar thing. You’re trying to convey this energy to a group of people, the people you’re trying to affect with this message.”
If there’s a message he can impart as a longtime activist and someone whose family has been directly impacted by the scourge of police brutality, it’s education.
“I do think the least that people can do, the very least that people can do, is stay educated. Make it a personal point to educate yourself on all these stories, on all these things happening as opposed to just giving lip service to one way or the other,” he said. “And, you have to really do the research with an open mind because every case is different, every case of police brutality is different. But at the end of the day, police brutality is something that shouldn’t happen regardless of the situation or the suspect.
“One of the things that I tell the cadets is police brutality will always start and end with the officer. It’s never going to start and end with anybody else or anything else. You are the one who is responsible for keeping police brutality from happening,” he noted. “I think people need to understand there’s a real power in knowledge, there’s a real power in understanding how things work and how the system was designed and set up and what we need to do to fix that.”