By Herman Baca
Committee on Chicano Rights
Thirty-seven years ago, forty thousand Chicanos from throughout the U.S. marched in Los Angeles, California, to protest and demand an end to the war in Vietnam... a war that was destroying our youth. Three people were killed at the protest, Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar, Angel Diaz, and Lynn Ward, while hundreds more were hurt and jailed.
As I approach 65 years of age, I can still vividly remember what happened on that day:
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared Vietnam a “police action.” Numerous young white males were receiving college deferments while white controlled draft boards began to systematically recruit Chicanos in record numbers to fight the war. At the time, Chicanos comprised 6% of the nation’s population but represented 20% of the causalities.
During five years of war, many young Chicanos were returning home in body bags to grieving families. Political reality finally hit the Chicano community.
In the early organizing period of the Moratorium, a ‘generational’ divide arose within our community. Bitter discussions occurred within our own families. Strong opposition to the anti-war position came from men whom we admired… grandfathers, fathers, uncles and older brothers. The Chicano community had a long tradition of military service with distinction, being highly decorated, and having received more medals of honor than any other ethnic group.
We arrived in Los Angeles to a sweltering hot day. Seniors, women, children and men began to march behind the banners of the Virgin De Guadalupe, MAPA, Brown Berets, MEChA, Raza Unida, Crusade for Justice, UFW, etc.
Upon arrival at Laguna Park (now Salazar Park) I noticed hundreds of law enforcement officers along Whittier Blvd. Suddenly without provocation, the police rushed the peaceful crowd in the park. As they attacked, I witnessed scenes that I have never forgotten; our people (young and old) being beaten, tear-gassed, maimed, and arrested. Many of us remembered the Zoot Suit riots, and it seemed like1940 all over again!
Chicanos stood up in self-defense and fought back. At one point, the clear August sky turned black because of objects being thrown back at the police. The crowd appeared to have the upper hand, but after an hour the police regained control.
As I stood in the park amidst the litter, the police lined up in formation and suddenly tear gas canisters were exploding, forcing the crowd to retreat. We returned to the Mexican American Political Association headquarters where a press conference denouncing the police actions was held. On our way back to San Diego that even-ing, the last thing I remember seeing was East Los Angeles burning!
After the “police riot” of August 29, 1970, things were never the same for Chicano activists. Many, fearful of police violence and government surveillance, left the movement. Others buckled down (today’s Hispanic movement) to work within the system; while others continued the struggle to better their communities.
Thirty-seven years have passed, and the political question remains… has anything really changed socially, economically or politically for our people?
One thing for certain has changed, DEMOGRAPHICS. In 2007 Chicanos are no longer the forgotten, invisible, or silent minority as in the 1970’s. We are the largest ethnic group in the United States, and soon will become the majority population in the U.S. Southwest. Although we now have hundreds of politicians plus thousands of students, those changes are purely “cosmetic.”
Today, we have more of our youth in prisons than in colleges. Our young people continue to die in record numbers in Iraq. Historical problems of unaccountable politicians, police brutality, inferior education, etc., remain. The volatile immigration issue has made our people convenient scapegoats for white supremacists, right wing racist politicians, and ranting talk show jocks.
The 1970 Moratorium must never be forgotten historically. It was a defining moment for our people, leaving us a significant political lesson that issues afflicting us could be addressed thru self-determination. The struggle for equality continues and Chicanos must remind today’s generation that change can only come about if they build on history and use the same spirit, sacrifice and struggle as was demonstrated at the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.