Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Chicano Anti-Vietnam War Protest That Time Forgot

This dramatic photo shows an LAPD officer aiming into the Silver Dollar Bar where reporter Rubén Salazar was killed.

We tend to put a pretty white on the Anti-War Movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  Whether we conjure images of student and hippy protestors, older Ban the Bomb demonstrators out for a new round of activism, the ladies of the Another Mother for Peace crowd, or the respectable middle class that began to turn out with the Moratorium, the faces we imagine are uniformly white ones.

Even the demons ratable contributions to the movement by people of color like Martin Luther King’s firmly stated opposition to the War in Vietnam tend to be obscured because we compartmentalize him with Civil Rights and non-violence.  The rising militancy of all kinds of minority and disadvantaged groups in the late ‘60’s is viewed as something apart from the anti-war movement.

But out west the Chicano Moratorium put a Brown face on war protest.  The Chicano Moratorium had its roots in East Los Angeles high schools where students organized walk out protests to the war and military recruiting on campus in 1968.  The students quickly drew the support of the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano—Mexican-American—movement modeled on the Black Panthers.  The Brown Berets were part of an early, loose coalition of such organizations that included Puerto Rican Young Lords in Chicago and New York, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and attempts to organize working class white kids by Rising Up Angry in Chicago and the White Panthers in Detroit.

By 1969 the L.A. students and the Berets had organized the National Chicano Moratorium Committee (NCMC).  Soon groups from throughout the West were joining or lending their support, including Crusade for Justice, led by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales which was headquartered in Denver and active in Chicago as well.  A national organizing conference was held in early December at the Crusade’s Denver office which issued calls for demonstrations against the war and for a national Chicano youth conference the following May.

The first demonstration under the Chicano Moratorium banner was held in East L.A. on December 20 and attracted over 1,000 marchers.  A second demonstration on February 28, 1970 drew more than three times that number despite a pouring rain storm.  A local PBS documentary about that demonstration was used to spread word about the movement and organize new affiliates.

At the May youth conference Moratorium Co-Chair Rosalio Muno presented the resolution that called for a National Chicano Moratorium March in East L.A. for August 29 with supporting demonstrations in other cities.  On that date there were more than 20 demonstrations, most with at least a thousand participants in cities including Houston, Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Oxnard, San Fernando, San Pedro and Douglas, Arizona.

Of course the largest demonstration of all was in Los Angeles where participants from as far away as New York City, Mexico, and Puerto Rico joined local activists.  An estimated 30,000 marchers set off that day on a march from Belvedere Park to Laguna Park where a stage and speakers’ platform had been erected for a rally.  

Shortly after leading elements of the march were settling down in front of the stage, Los Angeles police (LAPD), which had a history of attacks on the Chicano community, began dropping tear gas from helicopters and moving into the park with batons swinging.  They claimed that a robbery of a nearby liquor store had been committed by demonstrators.  March monitors and parade marshals resisted the move into the park but the marchers were soon forced back out onto the parade route, Whittier Boulevard and into the surrounding neighborhood.

Demonstrators began throwing tear gas grenades back at the police and some broke away overturning cars and allegedly setting fire to businesses.  Street fighting continued for more than an hour.  When it was over scores were injured, over 150 were arrested, and four were dead.  The dead were Gustav Montag, Lyn Ward, José Diaz and Rubén Salazar.

Montag, a Sephardic Jewish activist marching in support of the Chicano movement was deliberately targeted by police in an ally confrontation when officers armed with rifles opened fire on him at short range when he allegedly picked up something to throw at them. 

The death of Salazar, probably Los Angeles’ best know Mexican-American journalist drew the greatest public attention.  He was a 42 year old award winning reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and News Director at the Spanish language T.V. station KMEX who had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam.  Since returning stateside he had covered the growing Chicano movement and on rampant police brutality in Los Angeles.

As the street disturbances wound down police fired teargas canisters from their shotguns directly into the Silver Dollar Bar where Sanchez had taken refuge.  He was sitting at the bar, sipping a cold beer.  The teargas round was not the usual anti-personnel canister, but round designed to pierce walls in barricade situations.  Sanchez was hit in the head and died instantly.  Some believe he was intentionally targeted.  Others believe he was just unlucky.

As the prominent Chicana poet Alurista observed after the fact, “The police called it a people's riot; the people called it a police riot.”

A Federal Attorney brought charges against the police officer that fired the fatal round at Sanchez, but they were dropped after President Richard Nixon fired him.

Tensions in L.A.  remained high.  Over the following year there were numerous demonstrations and school walk-outs.  Arrests were common and beatings of Chicano suspects routine.  The offices of the Chicano Moratorium were marked for harassment. In November 9 activists were arrested as they left the Moratorium office.  By December it was closed.

Demonstrations continued in Los Angeles and around the West, but the Chicano Moratorium faded away over the next year or two, most of its leaders join the ranks of La Raza and other groups.

Eventually Laguna Park, site of the rally, was re-named by the city for Rubén Salazar.  The United States Postal Service even included him in a 2005 set of stamps honoring American journalists.   But outside of L.A and the Latino community, Salazar is largely forgotten and the other dead sunk in even greater anonymity.
Lest we believe that the tensions between the police and Latino residents is a thing of the distant past, the events of August 29, 1970 were echoed on May Day 2007 when a huge crowd of immigration reform marchers were attacked by the LAPD with rubber bullets, tear gas and batons.  Despite the orderly nature of the crowd, which was quite festive and included many children, police charged the rally inside McArthur Park because some on the edge had been blocking the street.  Dozens were injured. 

And police once again seemed to specifically target the press who were documenting the abuse.  Sanjukta Paul, a female National Lawyer's Guild observer, was severely beaten.  Reporters Christina Gonzalez of KTTV Fox 11 News,  Pedro Sevcec of  Telemundo’s National Evening, local CBS reporter Mark Coogan and his cameraman Carl Stein, Patricia Nazario of KPCC, KABC-TV reporter Sid Garcia, and Patti Ballaz, a camerawoman for KTTV were all injured by police.  Garcia was struck by a rubber bullet.

Despite this footage of the attack made national news.  The city launched investigations and at least one high ranking officer was relieved of command.

But it’s funny—the more things change the more they stay the same.

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