Voices of old rebel organizers mingled with a significant number of new ones in 2015 as anti-war activists across generations jammed into the main hall of New York Street Presbyterian Church, Washington D.C.—they were there to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the first national protest against the Vietnam War, organized in D.C. back then by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Event organizers invited me to speak about the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. My friend, the late Tom Hayden, made this possible because he felt anti-Vietnam War commemorations were largely devoid of the vital role Black and Brown people played in ending that war.
The peace movements among Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans is often missing in historical accounts of a war that involved the United States for eight years, claimed 58,220 lives—and another 1,353,000 Vietnamese lives—at a cost to taxpayers, in current dollars, of close to $1 trillion. Black and Brown military personnel were disproportionately killed or wounded—at the time, activists claimed 22 percent of the war’s casualties were of Mexican descent, although Mexicans in the US made up around 6 percent of the population.
During my speech, I pointed out that if it wasn’t for the Chicano Moratorium, the first major antiwar protest in a working-class community of color, the war may have taken longer to end. I also recounted my own ordeal during the riots that ensued after law enforcement attacked a largely law-abiding crowd at Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park) in East Los Angeles.
On August 29, 1970, I came by bus to East L.A.’s Belvedere Park, where the march began, as a 16-year-old gang member and drug addict. I joined the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people for one thing—to party. What moved me, however, was something I had not witnessed before: the peaceful, unified crowd; the chants, the Brown Berets marching in cadence; the signs that exclaimed “Raza Si, Guerra No” (The People Yes, War No) and “Chicano Power.”
The catalyst for sheriff’s deputies, LAPD, and other officers to use teargas and batons, some armed with shotguns, was the burglary of cases of beer from a liquor store on the corner of Alma Avenue and Indiana Street. I know because my homies, among other “cholo” gang youth, ripped off the store. I decided to get more beer, but by then the store had closed. The vast majority of the protestors, consisting of workers, students, musicians, artists, and their families, had nothing to do with this.
The row of riot-ready officers—who I believe were waiting for any excuse to attack—moved quickly against the small number of people banging on the liquor store’s windows to open up. Law enforcement later claimed the “robbers” had run into the crowd, forcing them to close everything down. This wasn’t true. A deputy put a shotgun to my head, knowing I was a perpetrator, and told me to move or he’d “blow my brains out” (cuss words excluded). Most of the vatos did take off. I left, but then, enraged, decided to turn back and confront the police. It was a matter of “tired of being tired.”
Moratorium organizers locked arm-and-arm told people to not fight back and return to their homes. “Tomorrow is another day,” one said. I told him, “there were no more mañanas for me.”
I didn’t last long. A deputy bashed my head with a baton, knocking me to the ground. Officers held me down as they handcuffed me. Blood ran down my face. They threw me into the back seat of a deputy’s squad car. From there I could see deputies and police officers hitting people on their heads and bodies, many trying to get up from blankets on the grass, often with children. I saw officers pull people off their porches or from inside their homes along the residential area across from the park.
Teargas smoke, yelling and screams, everywhere.
Around 200 people were arrested that day. Most were released within hours. However, several of us cholos were held at the East Los Angeles substation away from the rest. The youngsters among us were placed on a bus to juvenile hall, but when we got there, I understood it was too crowded. We ended up on another bus to the L.A. County Jail. As we sat with chains on our ankles and arms, deputies sprayed us with Mace, while laughing, as our eyes and lungs burned.
From the County Jail, about five of the youth—ages 13 to 16—were taken to the Hall of Justice Jail downtown; we were placed into its infamous “Murderer’s Row.” Deputies claimed we’d be charged with murder since we “started” the riots that by then had engulfed major sections of Whittier Boulevard and other parts of East Los Angeles, killing a few people.
I was in a cell next to Charles Manson, who was going to trial at the time. The “row” had other murder suspects, all Black and Brown except for Manson. I decided to protect the 13-year-old; two bigger guys in the cell with us put a razor blade to my neck to get to this kid. But I had already been in the streets, homeless, and in various jails and juvenile hall. I stood up to them, showing no fear, which is what they were trying to elicit. They liked my gumption, the only thing that could possibly save you in these situations. They smiled, took the razor blade away, and then we played cards.
Yet, I wasn’t interested in cards. With borrowed paper and pencil, I began to write my first “poems.”
We stayed on the “row” for several days and nights. On a radio, I heard about the murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, who was on Whittier Boulevard to cover the riots; a sheriff’s deputy fired a teargas canister into a populated bar where Salazar was allegedly having a beer—an improper use of equipment meant for outdoor public gatherings. Upon hearing this, a small disturbance ensued on the tier; someone burned a mattress and others rattled steel bars. Deputies sealed us in, forcing us to put wet cloth on our faces so we wouldn’t collapse from the smoke.
My parents during that time tried to find me, but I was “lost” in the system. For one thing, the facility was meant for people 18 years and older. And we were being held without charges beyond the 72 hours when one is supposed to be released in such cases. But laws be damned—this was “riot” time and we were gangsters. Also, deputies protected Manson—he was kept in a special padded cell when the rest of us were outside our cells on the tier. He’d be let out, spitting out racial epithets, when we were back in our cells, unable to reach him.
I realized that Manson’s life was worth more than mine; deputies made sure he was safe but if someone had cut my throat, who’d care?
Finally, in the middle of the night, deputies woke me up and removed me from the cell, onto a long corridor, and into a room where my parents were waiting, exhausted. No charges were filed. In talking with Rosalio Muñoz, the chairperson of the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in 1970, who also attended the D.C. anti-Vietnam War anniversary event, we surmised what helped me was that Chicano activists filmed everything, showing only law enforcement officers beat and kill people, including Ruben Salazar. Essentially, they had nothing on me.
But the “damage” had been done. A seed of revolution had been planted. I was called to another destiny—to use my innate passions and gifts, mostly involving words and ideas, to become an indispensable link in the indispensable chain for truly liberating and rooted social justice. I still had one foot in gang life, but another one now in social struggle. I emerged eventually wiser and hungrier, enough to get me out of heroin, crime, and jails four years later. I also joined with a growing number of strategic-thinking and visionary Americans against war, against poverty, against environmental destruction, and against racial injustice—the foundation of a decent and inclusive society.
This is a trajectory I’ve been on ever since, although now tied to the national and global protests after the murder of George Floyd to end systemic racism and class subjugation. What a powerful time to remember and commemorate the first Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War fifty years ago!
Here’s an excerpt from a poem I gleaned from my scribbling in the Hall of Justice:
The calling came to me while I languished / in my room, while I whittled away my youth / in jail cells and damp barrio fields. // It brought me to life, out of captivity, / in a street-scarred and tattooed place / I called body.