Interview with a Veteran Comrade...
The Chicano Moratorium 30 Years Ago...
And the Struggle Today
Revolutionary Worker #1069, September 3, 2000
On August 29, 1970 over 25,000 Chicanos from across the country marched down Whittier Boulevard in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles to demand an end to the Vietnam war and an end to national oppression. The march was organized under the slogan, 'Raza sí, guerra no'. The demonstration was viciously attacked by the LAPD, and three people gave their lives in the struggle that day as people heroically defended themselves against the police attack. On the 30th anniversary of the Moratorium, a group of revolutionary youth interviewed a veteran comrade who was in the middle of the Chicano Moratorium 30 years ago. This is the second part of that interview.
Q: One thing some people say to us is that if people get too radical-the people, the community is not going to support them. And also, there's the whole question of the involvement of the youth, right -"Well we don't want them to get arrested, we don't want them to get hurt, we don't...- all these things. I'm thinking about this in light of what happened at the Moratorium, a situation where you know there is mixture of people there. There is the masses that are out there, like proletarians are out there, students are out there. And when the police came down-when they got really heavy, people supported the youth. We read this story about this man who let all these young people into his backyard, and a sheriff comes in and he wants to like do whatever. And this old man puts his chest in front of the sheriff's shotgun and says, "You're not coming in." And he was ready to defend all these strangers with his life. What else happened? What was the mood of the people, people who didn't even know each other? Like defending each other, willing to like lay down their lives for, not just the cause, but for other people as well.
A: Yes, well you hit a couple of things. One of them is that people have to realize, these people who run things are willing to send people to die to further their domination of the world. They don't really have the people's interest at heart. That's not a very good expression of being concerned about your welfare, sending people to die in a genocidal war. That has to be answered. There is a point that people have to support what you are doing. And part of what happened at the Moratorium was the police attack was so unjust and so completely unjustified that people who ordinarily, maybe wouldn't have gotten involved, did get involved and there is that example that you are talking about.
There were other examples. There is a question of defending. But I also think there is a lot of anger. This is an important point. I'll give you one example. There was a cop defending, I think it was a fire station, I don't remember. Some goddamn building-he looked up and realized, "I'm defending this building, but there is nobody defending me." And by then he was surrounded and the crowd came toward him. So he gets in the cop car and he rolls up the window. That didn't do him any good. People turned the car upside down, kicked the windows out, dragged him out and really let him have it.
I'll never forget this young Chicana who pushed her way through the crowd and she walked up to him and she said 'motherfucker, this is for what you have done to me and my people for all my fucking life..." And she let him have it again. Some of the men were arguing to let him alone.
The point I want to make is this - when the people have a justifiable hatred and an anger of being treated like this, that's gonna find expression. Sooner or later that's going to find expression. And people that are willing to take more advanced actions should be supported. If people don't want to do that, then fine, then they shouldn't do it. You can't sit on people's anger and hatred for the way that they have to live and tell them that only this is acceptable. Because then what you are saying is that it's all right for the imperialists to plunder you, to do all this to you, but you have no right to try to do anything about it.
Nobody told that woman to go off on the cop. She felt that she had to do that. And I never got to talk to her about what in particular she was talking about. But she had what you call a righteous anger. A righteous anger is a wonderful thing, it can help change the world.
There were a lot of examples like that. This older man came up-soda was in bottles in those days-and he brought us empty coke bottles by the case and he said when you guys get done with those, there's more in the back. He was a small merchant, he wasn't a flaming radical, he wasn't like working for the overthrow of the government. He was just a small merchant who had a little shop right there on the same street where much of the fighting went down. So he saw what happened on Whittier Blvd. every day. He could look through his windows and see life as it passed in front of his store. The first chance he got of allying himself with people who were trying to do something about all that, that's what he did. Now I don't think he was an initiator of the Moratorium, he wasn't out there really doing some of the stuff that some of the younger people were, but he supported them because he knew it was justified- and all the stuff that he gave people was put to good use.
And we have to uphold that. And that's the other part that I think is important. We have to support people when they fight back against how they have to live. We can't tell them no, you can't do that. And they wouldn't have listened to us anyway. When they first attacked the march, we didn't know what was going on. We tried to figure out what's going on. At first we told people to cool it. We went up to the cops and said, "Look you don't need to be here. We don't want you here, you should get the hell out of here. We'll handle it." The way they responded was to form a line and advance on people, beating them.
You had all these people, they didn't know this town. I used to hang around some of the places where this was going on, so I knew the area. But there were all these people who came here who had never been here before. One of the reasons you know there was a lot of unity was the way people reacted to the attack. People who didn't know each other functioned like military units. I remember once we realized that the police wanted to kill people-that they came after us, and it was not a mistake, somebody had screwed up or something like that.
The police were functioning like "robo cops." They were very deliberate. And we had to defend ourselves. All these people that didn't know each other, that had never worked together or anything like that. All of sudden none of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was fighting back. And then you saw people forming up in squads. People like getting together on a corner, like 10 people and saying okay, why don't you guys go here and do that. And we are going to go over here and do this. We'll meet here in half an hour. You know, things like that. There were many, many examples like that.
And the police got very demoralized. They didn't expect what they got. Part of it is that they had a arrogant attitude toward the Chicano people. They had an attitude that they weren't capable of thinking, of responding. They thought that once they attacked that, that was going to be the end of it. Everybody would just get scared and run away.
As it began to get dark, people began to drift away, because they started doing mass arrests and then they sealed off the area. And then like I said, there were a lot of people who just weren't familiar with the area. They didn't know whether to go down that street or this street. They didn't know where in the hell they were going. But it went on about seven or eight hours. Most of the intense fighting occurred in a three to four hour period. We actually ran them off. The police had to re-group and say what do we do now. The plans they had didn't work. They lost control-right around the park, they lost control of that whole section of the city. And then there were things that happened in other parts of the city, which I'm not that familiar with.
Q: What were the cops so scared of about the march, why did they want to disperse it?
A: You mean why did they attack it? It's important to go back to a couple things. One was what happened at Kent State and Jackson State. The United States all around the world was under attack. They had the war in Vietnam, they had all the rebellions in the cities. Watts had already gone up. Black people had come to within eight blocks of the White House, they were going to burn the fucking thing down. They were under siege. They could not allow an aroused Chicano people to take matters into their own hands. And that was the reason for the attack. There should be no misunderstanding about that.
L.A. had this frontier thing. They did not allow demonstrations. They didn't tolerate demonstrations. They didn't want the city to get like other places. They had a very volatile situation and they were trying to control it. That's why they attacked. This-the orders for this did not originate in L.A. The orders for this shit came from the highest levels of the government.
The other thing they did, was they used the Moratorium as a pretext-they killed three people. Two of them were masses, and the third one they killed was Ruben Salazar, the only one anyone ever talked about. He was writing a book on police brutality. The year of the Moratorium 11 people had died in police custody in the Sheriff's Department substation-including one guy who supposedly died from a fall down the stairs-and a lot of other really stinky shit. And they used this as a way to go after him.
About a week before the Moratorium, I went to L.A. to see some friends of mine. What happened is two Mexicanos from San Leandro had come to L.A. and had been killed by the LAPD. Two immigrants had been shot and killed. There was a committee formed, and we asked if they had any film footage. Not of the shooting, because nobody had film footage of that, but of the events afterwards. We wanted it for the committee.
We met Ruben Salazar, and he told us that the guy that covered the story is taping and will be by in a couple of hours. He said, you're students, you're probably hungry, I'll buy you guys lunch. So Ruben Salazar bought us lunch, and he told us that he had been threatened by the Sheriff's Department, that he was writing a book on police brutality and when they found out he'd been doing interviews, they told him, you better knock that shit off.
Ruben Salazar came to L.A. to cover what was called the "Chicano Beat" for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he had been the Times chief of the Latin American bureau. When he first began to cover the "Chicano Beat" he knew very little about the conditions Chicanos faced. He came from a family that was well off.
We would talk about what the cops used to do and he would look like he could hardly believe what we were saying. He began to change as he saw the way the cops acted. After a while he began to see for himself and his reporting changed and so did his attitude. At the time he was killed he was sitting down drinking a beer. People have photos of the sheriff that killed him firing the killing shot. Nothing was done to the cop. It was either one of the greatest coincidences in history or they had planned it before the Moratorium.
They used the Moratorium as an excuse to kill him. This whole thing was premeditated and preplanned. He's dead because they don't want to have an aroused population. In other words, the imperialists can't let people get out of bounds. They maintain their control over people in a variety of ways. One of them is to give the illusion that they have certain democratic rights. Because otherwise their dictatorship is open and naked and nobody is going to accept it. On the other hand, they can't let it get beyond a certain point. At this time, they were like totally freaked out and that's why they attacked the march. And from their perspective, it made sense because they didn't want things to get any further.
It was like what happened in Mexico City in 1968 when they killed all those students. Those students, they weren't trying to overthrow the government or anything like that. But the United States wanted to have a nice peaceful Olympic Games, and they rained repression on people way beyond the level-given the demands. That's what I think happened at the Chicano Moratorium, they didn't want it to get out of hand. Plus, I think they thought maybe they could make some gains by attacking it.
Q: There were different Chicano organizations there. Were there any arguments between organizations about the march?
A: I think it's not correct to zero in on that. Because whatever the organizers did or didn't do, I think the Chicano Moratorium mainly was a product of the suffering and the determination of the Chicano people to end it-that's what happened.
I think everybody got surprised at the turnout. I think nobody, nobody anticipated it was going to turn out like this. There were people that would have been happy if a couple thousand would have shown up. It went beyond anybody's expectations for a couple reasons. One, you know, we had never done anything like this, we didn't know how it was going to turn out. I always myself think it was an underestimation by many of the organizers. I think that that was one of the hallmarks of the movement. Always underestimating what the Chicano people were capable of doing.
The important thing is what the Chicano people did that day. They came out and they did it. This was known in the whole world. This was an important event. The Vietnamese people certainly welcomed it. And later on when the United States had to sign the peace treaty, this is one of the reasons why they had to. They were facing revolution at home. They had over 100 cities burned down, and in Vietnam, they had fragging. Which I don't know if you guys know what that is. Fragging is when, you know the GI's just wanted to go home. They want to get home. They don't want any war shit. So sometimes the officers would say, well, we have to go out on patrol, and so tomorrow morning, we are going to go out, and the guys would try to talk them out of it. And if the guy insisted, the guys-some time during that night, a hand grenade would go off where he was at, and he wouldn't be there in the morning. So they didn't have to go out on patrol. That's called fragging, where the GI's kill their own officers. And it got so bad that they began to realize that they did not have a reliable army in Vietnam. Because look, when you give people guns, which you have to do so they can shoot the other side, they have those guns. And if you think you are going to die, and you've got a gun, and this guy comes along and says you have to do something that you think may mean you ain't going to come back, why the fuck should you do what he tells you. You don't have to. And they began to have an unreliable army there.
And then you had stuff like the Chicano Moratorium. Up to this point, Chicanos by and large served in the military, proud warriors. And to have this happen was one of the reasons why they began realizing we cannot win this war, we better sign the peace treaty.
And that lets you put in perspective a couple of things. One, why you have to actually link the struggle to what's going on. You can't pretend like there's not a connection between the struggle of the Chicano people and the struggle of the Vietnamese people. The United States didn't lose sight of that, they got it. They thought, "Jesus Christ, those people over in Vietnam are spreading all this shit over here. We can't get these people to go in our military like we used to, they are saying they don't want to serve." Manuel Gómez wrote a poem saying he would not serve in the military. That was heavy shit. That was all part of the Chicano Moratorium, it was important.
Q: What do you think about this generation today who have been on the front lines fighting against all these attacks that are coming down-what do you think are some of the lessons that this generation needs to grab onto from the Chicano Moratorium?
A: I think the main thing about the Chicano Moratorium is we uphold it. We uphold it because once it was attacked, people fought back. I don't think the summations that were put out by most people were very dialectical. People tended to only look at the fact that it got attacked. But to me, it contained some important lessons, that it's right to rebel. You have right on your side and you act, you have allies.
I once read an interview with Mao Tsetung where he said the main lesson is you can never give up, never. You don't know when you start where it is going to end up. But you do know they are not going to stop treating us the way they do. We are in a position to do something about it, right here in the belly of the beast.
At that point, we had things that we don't have now. We had a socialist state, we had Mao, we had the Cultural Revolution. We had the Vietnamese people. We don't have that today, but we have a lot of other things. The rebellion in Los Angeles, the uprising in Chiapas. We have Seattle. And your presence here is an important part of what we have going for us too.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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