Tag Archives: racism

My 1965 Watts Riot, by Cuauhtémoc Marín (nom de plume)

30 May

Cuauhtémoc Marín majored in British and American Literature, receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Northridge, and was accepted into the Northridge English Master’s Program, where he continued his literary studies with an emphasis in linguistics, creative writing, and poetry. Marín continues to write and publish and has lived in North Los Angeles continually since his move from South Central L.A.

On August 11, 1965, I drove my regular route home, coming from my garment district, sweatshop job at 11th and San Pedro on the edge of downtown L.A.

As I steered my way south down San Pedro Street toward 54th, I could see bus after bus of LAPD officers when I looked west at the end of each block. Our routes were paralleling each other, but I could only see their southward-moving vehicles at the end of each block. It was an ominous peek-a-boo vision of the disaster to come. The LAPD were coming from police headquarters at Parker Center and traveling down Los Angeles Street. I got to the next corner and the dark blue buses had changed to black and whites. Car after black and white police car all caravaned from north to south like me. At the next corner, I looked west again and a parade of LAPD motorcycle officers was also streaming south. My car radio was broken so I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was something big and ugly.

103rd Street. 1965. Watts Riot.

I got to 54th street, hung a right and headed west for home. The stream of various police vehicles continued in a north to south direction, and sometimes I had to stop and wait for them to pass. When I got to 54th and Hoover, I hit a red light. I was in what we called the Ghetto, a large area of Los Angeles that filled out the L.A. Basin and was populated by mostly working-class Blacks, poor Blacks, and a small population of middle-class Blacks with a spattering of various other ethnic groups. I lived there with my wife and three-month-old baby.

I noticed a white driver alone in the car ahead of me. Whites working in downtown L.A. couldn’t get home without traveling through a minority neighborhood. If they traveled west it was a Black neighborhood–east, Mexican.

The white driver couldn’t go anywhere because he was pinned between the car in front of him and my car in the rear. We were waiting for the red light to turn green at a location that was 99% black. I knew the area quite well, had friends in that area, and as far as I knew, no whites lived there.

Suddenly a group of young black men came running from out of nowhere like a pack on a hunt. They ran straight for the white guy’s car and pulled him out, dragging him to the ground, kicking and beating him. I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought whatever it was, it was big and violent and it was spreading. I swung my car out and crossed into oncoming traffic, hit the gas as I passed the young men beating this poor guy, then swerved back to my side of the street as I pushed the door-lock button.

I continued up 54th till I got to Crenshaw Boulevard, made a left, then headed south again until I got to my apartment near 11th Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Once inside, I turned on the TV and there was no need searching for the news; every channel was covering the riots in Watts about five miles southeast of me.

The riots seemed a safe distance away; police were headed there en masse. I didn’t feel threatened; it was too far away to worry. The police would snuff this out—-so many were arriving at the small, declared riot zone of Watts. You could see it on TV, see the cops arriving, swarms of people in the streets, buildings burning.

My wife and I decided to hang out with some friends that evening, and we got in our car with our three-month-old daughter and headed over to Venice Boulevard near Western. That put us about eight to ten miles away from Watts. We felt safer there.

We met up with our friends in an apartment above a storefront on Venice Boulevard. There were five couples. We all had babies less than six months old. I was 19, my wife 17. No one was older than that. Everyone was Black except two of us. We were all children of the Ghetto. That was our commonality, our bond, that and being poor with low paying shit-jobs and being teen parents. We had all spent our lives in the ghetto, held in by an invisible wall of racism that kept us in our place. The Ghetto enculturated us, and although one of the young men that night was Japanese and I Mexican, we were all black culturally, forged by the Ghetto that bound us and united by that unbreakable chain of childhood friendship that exists beyond color and language.

The Ghetto was not a quaint concept or expression. Minorities could only live in certain parts of the L.A. Basin. My wife and I tried to rent outside of the Ghetto many times and were always told, “We don’t rent to colored people,” or sometimes they might say Negro. Sometimes they said worse. I had discovered the curious white phenomenon: that I was Mexican when alone and Black when I was with my wife.

Our ghetto was surrounded by white sundowner cities, Inglewood, Glendale, Burbank, Huntington Park and all the others. We understood what sundowner city meant: make sure your black ass is not in our city after nightfall. That included my ass, too. The ghetto itself was like a huge police state where white police harassed us at will, beat us, kicked down our doors. Fuck warrants, although they used them when they had them-—the police in the Ghetto acted pretty much above the law. As a young man, I was stopped and searched about three times a week for driving while not white. The Ghetto was a police state, brutal, but it was all we knew and somehow we had learned to navigate that jungle as best we could and also love it for its richness of community, family, and friendships.

That night the sun had gone down, and we sat around the apartment on the floor, the young women holding their babies, some breastfeeding, some bottle-feeding. My wife was holding our daughter. We were watching the riots live on TV. Normally at this hour we would watch the Vietnam War. The networks televised it live nightly. It was the first live-televised U.S. war. We watched U.S. soldiers shoot and be shot on TV every night—live. We’d watch the dead and wounded being carried away. What we saw and what the government told us were in conflict. We saw the truth of this war through television, and that prompted the great anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. The television didn’t lie; the government, it was clear, did.

Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the street fires of the Watts riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tonight, however, the riots were being broadcast live, not the Vietnam War. We were all glued to the TV. It was hard to believe the riots had spread so far and so fast. It was no longer just in Watts; the whole L.A. Basin was in riot. People were burning buildings. Police were shooting bullets and tear gas at the crowds. In some places, as the TV news cameras captured the riot from above by helicopter, we had aerial views of police and rioters in hand-to-hand combat. By now it wasn’t just LAPD; the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the surrounding incorporated cities had all sent their police battalions to join the LAPD in fighting the rioters. It was complete chaos. Rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails; some carried rifles and handguns. Entire streets were burning.

Then it started. The looting. The helicopter cameras showed people breaking store windows, carrying furniture and TV sets down the street, as rioters fought police on adjacent streets. We could see this as the helicopters panned from above and smoke plumed over the city. We watched as the helicopter cameras caught two men carrying a new couch out of a furniture store around the corner and into what must have been their house, then run around the corner back to the store for more. They were looting stores we all knew, but the largest store that went down to looters and arsonists was ironically named White Front. It may be hard to imagine this today, but whites owned almost all of the major businesses in the Ghetto, and White Front was no exception. For the Ghetto, it was the Home Depot of its time and everyone—-everyone in the ghetto shopped there at some time in their lives. I had and so had everyone in that apartment on Venice Boulevard that night.

We were watching the looters go through the windows of White Front and come out with guns, tools, clothes; then the fire started and White Front was burning.

Eddie, the Japanese boy sitting next to me, said, “Man, I gotta get me some of that shit.”

Despite all of us being American citizens, in those days, minorities were not referred to as Americans, and we understood the purpose of that exclusion. So this young American was considered Japanese and I Mexican, and the others colored, Negro, or black—never American. It didn’t matter how many centuries we had been in this nation.

One of the other young men hollered at Eddie. Man, they shoot people. It’s dangerous. What are you thinking, my brother?”

The riot had spread so fast. By now we were getting TV feed of the street below the apartment we were in. We were watching the people on the sidewalk in front of the apartment on TV. They broke the storefront glass. Looking out the window from our elevated second-floor apartment, we could see people running across the sidewalks and streets, and we could see the orange glow of fires burning against the night sky in every direction.

The young Japanese father, Eddie, stood up and said, “I’m gonna get me some of this free stuff before it’s too late, man.”

His wife—-all of us—-we said don’t go, but he was up on his feet, headed toward the door despite his wife, holding their baby girl, pleading for him to stay. The door closed behind him and then he was gone.

The rest of us stayed and watched the riots, waiting for them to stop, but they never did. About 4:00 a.m. the riots seemed to take a lull, and my wife and I went to our car and drove cautiously home through the mostly deserted smoke-scented streets. Eddie hadn’t returned yet, but the police were making massive arrests of just about everyone on the streets, so we knew he must have gotten arrested.

The next morning my wife got the call. Eddie never came home. They found his body not too far from his apartment. A security officer shot him dead as he tried to loot a local store. They shoot looters—-and sometimes they kill them.

The riot had continued nonstop for three days when the National Guard arrived on a late Friday evening. The National Guard had responded by order of the governor and martial law was declared. They set up checkpoints and barricades and kept anyone from leaving the Ghetto for the next ten days or so. No one could be on the streets before 5:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m. or they would be arrested or shot. However, even during those allotted hours, you had to have a reason to be out.

The National Guard came in tanks, armored vehicles, military trucks carrying combat troops, and jeeps with machine guns. They set up armed barricades in the streets at the Ghetto boundaries. Young National Guardsmen with automatic weapons patrolled the Ghetto in military vehicles. Machine guns on tripods ornamented the checkpoints at the established boundaries to keep us in what the media and police referred to as the “riot zone.” The whole Ghetto came to a standstill; the whole Ghetto was the riot zone. The National Guard eventually had 22,000 ground troops in and around the 50-square-mile Ghetto. With the addition of the various police departments, the total of troops amounted to about 30,000. People said soldiers standing ten feet apart surrounded the Ghetto along the perimeter.

I had passed through a National Guard checkpoint after they arrived and knew that a post had been set up near the Thrifty’s Store on Crenshaw and 54th Street, not too far away from my apartment. Because of that post, Thrifty’s was now open for business. The food supply at my house had dwindled to almost nothing. Grocery stores had been some of the first stores to be looted, and Thrifty’s was my only chance to get my infant daughter her prescribed Mull Soy baby formula. I decided I would try to drive there. I walked outside to my car, trying to ignore or pretend not to notice the few Black residents walking around with guns in their hands. Once in my car, I drove through the mostly deserted neighborhood and parked across the street from Thrifty’s. As I got to the corner, I stood and stared across that very wide street called 54th. Directly in front of the store, I saw a blond, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked boy sitting on his butt in a green National Guard uniform behind a machine gun mounted on a tripod. From across that great divide of space, I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. His finger was on the trigger. Time stopped for a moment while I made my mental calculations. Although different circumstances governed my reason for being outside during the riot, I remembered Eddie, who only four days ago had been alive. With thoughts of Eddie in my head and my opened hands at my side, I turned calmly and deliberately till my back faced this young National Guardsman, then slowly walked away praying silently to myself.

When the Watts Riots were over, Eddie and 33 other people were dead, and one baby girl, half-Japanese and half-black, didn’t have a father.

          Cuauhtémoc Marín continued to live in the Ghetto for seven more years after the riot. The rise of Black gangs in the early 1970s and the increasing violence and crime forced Marín and his wife out of the ghetto after their lives were threatened.They moved to East Hollywood. Marín came to view education as a way of improving his life and subsequently enrolled in college. During his college years, he continued to work full time to support his family.
          The major literary influences of his writing have been William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut,Jack Kerouac, Patricia Highsmith, Walker Percy, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Thomas Pynchon.
Marín remains indebted to his poetry professor Dr. Benjamin Saltman for his three years of patience and guidance in teaching Marín the craft of poetry while in graduate school.
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Organizing, by Patty Margaret

22 Feb

Patty is a retired nurse and mother of three grown children and three grandchildren. She grew up in San Diego, and lives in Pasadena. She likes to hike, bird-watch, travel and read. She is presently completing a healthy house project on her home to eliminate toxic chemicals and mold.

 

What particularly started my opposition to the status quo was my reaction to my father, who was a ferocious racist from Texas and had been in the navy all his life. When I was growing up, he abused my mom, my brother and me. I empathized with the victims of my dad’s wrath. I remember my dad going “Huh!” with disdain in his voice whenever a person of color was mentioned. My grandmother did the same thing. Phrases like “Those damn wetbacks!” were common around our house.

When I was in third grade, we sailed to Hawaii on my dad’s navy cargo ship. It took seven days to get there and seven to return. We stayed in Hawaii three months and went to school there. This was in the late ‘50s. It gave me the experience of being around Asians.

In junior high school my good friend had straight black hair and brown skin. When I brought her home one day, my dad asked, “Who’s that girl?” She was standing right there listening to this. “You can’t bring her into this house ever again,” he said. “She can stay now but that’s it.” Dumbfounded, I asked my mom why he didn’t like her. “Because she’s Mexican,” my mom explained. Eventually the girl moved away but years later while watching the San Francisco Mime Troup in Los Angeles, I met her again. She was working with the Troup and remembered me.

My high school was newly built to ensure that white kids didn’t have to go to a black school. One black kid lived on the “wrong” side of the line and ended up at my school but was told she would have to leave. We students gave her a lot of support, even electing her as student body president. As a result she didn’t get thrown out after all.

In 1965 I finished high school and started college at California Western University, a Methodist college at Point Loma near San Diego. (The college no longer exists.) The Methodist Church had a history of not allowing dancing. I joined a college church dance group. We were rebellious and wanted cultural change, in line with the rest of the movements of the ‘60s. We preformed modern interpretive dance to sacred music that included comments about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers strikes, and the inhumanity of poverty. We toured the state and surprised the Methodists because we preformed right by the altar in the church.

Another influence was my mom, who was supportive of women’s equality. She was sympathetic to feminists (which enraged my dad). My mother had been accepted as a student at Berkeley, but because of the Depression hadn’t been able to attend. She praised my great aunt, who was a math professor there—highly unusual for a woman at the time.Vietnam.Napalm.KimPhuc

At college I became particularly aware of the contradictions in our society when I found myself staying up until 4 a.m. writing and mimeographing leaflets about the Napalm being used by the US Army to burn children in Vietnam. After gazing the night before at the well-known picture of the girl running away from the napalm, I would stagger into my 7 a.m. philosophy class the next morning, where the teacher would knock on the blackboard and ask “Is this real?”

Follow the Drinking GourdWith a group of Methodist students at college I continued my activism. Then I quit school and hung out with Methodist students at San Diego State College. We began working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Having come from a working class family, I was becoming aware of the power of the workers when they united and withheld their labor. I saw the influence workers could wield on government policies on war, poverty, and racism. I loved music and sang protest songs. I remember “Follow the Drinking Gourd” about the Underground Railroad.

Some of us SDS folks formed a nationwide sub-group called Workers for a Democratic Society. There had been some animosity between activist students and workers who didn’t understand that the war was not in their interest. Our outlook broadened from organizing just students to organizing the rest of the working class as well. I got a factory job at Ratner’s in San Diego making men’s suits. Our goal was to meet workers and talk to them about their issues and about the war.

garment workersMy job at Ratner’s was to match a bag of suits and a bag of sleeves so they could be sewn together. It was piece work. Each suit got a ticket which showed how many suits you’d sewn and assembled that day. If the number wasn’t high enough, you’d be reprimanded and made to take long breaks off the clock and then work overtime when supplies came in. For 35 hours they had to pay us minimum wage. There were fibers in the air. One woman got her finger caught in a sewing machine. Once someone opened one of the sewing machines and found a thumb inside.

There were three women in my work area. One spoke only Spanish and the other mainly French. We were all the same age. The Mexican woman lived in Tijuana. I was learning some Spanish from her. We had just turned 21 so we went out to bars, shared our lives, and talked about the war.UAW

When I came to Los Angeles to get more politically involved, my first job was at Harvey Aluminum. It was a large shop, organized by the UAW. They processed aluminum heads for bombs directed for deployment by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I remember that once our multiracial group of women workers refused to process these war products. I was so impressed with them, it confirmed to me that workers felt as we did.

In 1969 I joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that had broken off from the Communist Party USA.

Progressive Labor PartyThe PLP read Chinese Communist as well as Soviet literature. It organized factory workers within SDS for Workers for a Democratic Society, and I became dedicated to that work. When I was laid off by Harvey Aluminum, I found a non-union job in electronics and learned to solder computer boards for airplane radios in South Los Angeles. I took some classes at the local high school in reading diodes, and I met a man there, whom I later married. Some of the other students moved on to a nursing attendant class, so I went too, again getting to know more working people. This is where I discovered that I loved working in the intensive care unit.

We tried to concentrate our organizing in an IBM electronics factory in El Segundo. My job was to wind and solder copper wires onto computer chips. We made friends, helped each other learn about racism, unions, and the anti-war movement. However, the rules made it difficult to do this because no talking was allowed, we worked long hours, and our breaks were strictly supervised. The three of us in the PLP weren’t careful enough and were fired before we finished our six months’ probation, at which time we would have been protected from frivolous discharges. All the charges were different: mine was for “talking too much.”

We were assigned by PLP to work in Long Beach, California. There we sold our newspaper Challenge to navy sailors.

PLP Challenge newspaper

We met and made friends with them, talking about the war, their draft experiences, racism on board the ships, and the need for a communist society. Recently I heard that our work was mentioned in a book by a sailor who wrote about his decision to become active against the war.

About that time my husband and I had a baby, and when she was three weeks old and I was out of town at my brother’s wedding, he unexpectedly packed up and left. He hadn’t agreed with some of my politics so maybe he was overwhelmed by my activities. Or perhaps I was too insistent on his helping with the housework. At any rate, he disappeared completely, and to this day I’ve heard no word from him.

I collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) to support my child and me. Along with other mothers I organized sit-ins at the welfare office when recipients weren’t getting their checks on time or were denied welfare, food stamps or Medi-Cal. We were fighting for our checks and our rights as well as the needs of other welfare recipients. When one person didn’t get her check, then we’d have a sit-in at the welfare office with our babies and diapers until she got her check. We took women with us to demonstrations and meetings, we made friends, and we canvassed the poor housing complexes in order to grow the group. We discussed PLP’s place in the struggle, and communism as an answer to unemployment. We became well known, with many new faces later becoming active in welfare struggles, although they didn’t join the PLP.

A group of us fought to get admitted into the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which would pay for our education. Many of the women were on welfare. When I told them about WIN, they started to cry; they had never thought they would actually be able to go to school. During a day-long sit-in on the floor of the unemployment bureau with our babies, a man told us we had to do “whatever possible” to get enough money to support ourselves. When we asked him if he meant walking the streets, he said, Yes, if necessary. The problem was that only men were considered for education classes to support their families; women weren’t admitted. but we were a multi-racial group and succeeded through our militancy in getting into nursing school and other WIN programs.

I loved nursing and became an LVN. I remember one incident when I was assigned to the communicable disease admitting area. By 11 p.m. we usually closed up the place. A doctor from an upscale hospital was working at White Memorial Hospital to learn about communicable disease. About 3 p.m. a man in jeans and an English sports jacket came in. He’d been bitten by an animal and wanted to know if he had rabies. I was only an LVN so couldn’t give IVs. I asked him what bit him. I didn’t speak Spanish but it sounded like he said a possum. The doctor went to the library to find out if possums ate meat. She came back fuming—it wasn’t in the books. After talking to her, I found out that she was looking up “possum” instead of opossum. By now it was 6 p.m. They do eat meat but we didn’t know what had happened to the animal. The man’s brother had banged it against a tree and thrown it over a fence. His mother wouldn’t put in in the refrigerator.

possom

The doctor called the public health department. A man at a holiday dinner was beeped. He told us to call the pound. It was now 10 p.m. “Well, Ma’am, who is this?…No, our fridge is not for possums, just for cats and dogs.”

The doctor finally convinced him to take our possum. We asked if he could pick it up. NO, we needed to pick it up and bring it in. The doctor called another pound and got the same answer. By this time I was trying hard to suppress my laughter.

At L.A. County General Hospital I joined with other PLP workers. My special problem, though, was that I would try to read the PLP newspaper cover to cover and feel unable to finish articles or read other literature. I would quickly forget what I had read. It turned out that I was allergic to the chemicals in newsprint. The allergy caused a sort of amnesia in me. Because I couldn’t study a lot of the theory of the party, I couldn’t discuss deeper theoretical problems in order to develop party proposals. But I did have influence on issues like welfare, medicine’s role in a profit system, and workers’ problems. We sold the communist newspaper weekly on our outings, and I was often the top seller.

I married a leader of the group. We raised three beautiful children. I later became an RN and organized workers until retirement. I sometimes think back to a talk with my mom when I planned to distribute leaflets about voting in the African-American streets of San Diego; she was so worried. I reminded her that I would soon be 18, and that I would be doing this the rest of my life. I was right.

 

White Owl Cigars and Racial Tension: Hauler on a Tobacco Farm, by Marty Bernstein

2 Oct

Marty today
Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a coope
rative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.

In the summer of 1965 when I was fourteen and in junior high school, my family moved to Springfield, MassacWhite Owl Cigars with Owlhusetts from Long Island, New York. In the summer I got a job on a tobacco farm in the Connecticut Valley. It was called a shade tobacco industry. They made tobacco for the outside of White Owl cigars. The farm was owned by the Hathaway-Stene Tobacco Company.

Young boys and girls woulMarty Circa 1965d be hired to work there every summer. There was a hierarchy by height that determined what work one would do. Shorter boys were pickers because it was a handicap to be tall when picking. (Harder to stoop.) The foreman was my gym teacher, Mr. Gallucci, whom I liked. He would take us on a school bus out to the field.tobacco shed.little girls

I wasn’t a picker but a hauler. I would pull a metal framed canvas bin, about the size of a drawer in a chest of drawers with a loop in one end, down the rows to pick up the leaves. I would take them to a large shed, where all the girls worked “sewing” the leaves and hanging them to dry and age.

I had come from a lily-white, middle-class suburb on Long Island. When I got to the fields, there were both black and white boys, many of them working class. I had never been around black kids before. There was a lot of hostility and racism towards them. Although I never heard the white boys use the n-word, they called the black kids “Cottonbolls.” One time it came to blows between the two groups, and I assisted in stopping the fight. I hung out more frequently with the black kids than with the white ones.

White Owl Cigars ad with father reading to 2 kids                                                  White Owl Cigars ad with father and kid in car

All the kids came from Springfield. They went to fairly segregated schools but ironically they all played ball together at the ball park, where they seemed to get along fine. At that time the schools were de facto segregated but not by law. The junior high schools were neighborhood schools. When I attended junior high school there were no Jews in the area. The principal told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in the academic program, although I loved school and had always gotten good grades. My dad thought that the principal was an anti-Semite.White Owl Cigars ad with Jesse Owens

The four senior high schools were not neighborhood schools. They were arranged by type and were segregated by placing kids in the school deemed appropriate. The top school that was overwhelmingly white was called Classical High School. Its focus was the liberal arts. Timothy Leary had graduated from there.

The next one was the Technical High School. It had a mixture of white and Black and Puerto Rican. The third was Commerce High School, which was mainly black and Puerto Rican. The Trade High School was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. The next year I went into the Classical High School, where all the classes were academic anyway. In high school I attended weekly silent vigils against the war in Vietnam. I believe it was organized by a church group like the Quakers or Unitariatobacco drying in shedns. Also the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

At the tobacco field we earned $1.10 per hour, less than minimum wage. I remember I made $44 a week. There were poor sanitary conditions in the fields. Wooden barrels on little trailers would come around bringing us drinking water. (Apparently the barrels had formerly held wine. We could smell the residue.) We had to relieve ourselves in the fieldfield workers in tobacco farms. There were two groups: day and migrant. The migrant workers—Puerto Ricans—were kept separate from us.

 

I was glad to have this job. First of all, it gave me some spending money. Also, it was my first significant experience with racism. And I got the chance to understand manual labor and appreciate the manual laborers.

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

Surfer Dudes, Teeny-boppers, and TJs. By Maria

16 Aug

Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.

I recall the days in the early ‘60s when the high school in the San Gabriel Valley [near Los Angeles] where I taught was filled with young white surfer dudes—long, blond hair, sun-tanned football physiques—and  teeny-bopper girls who swarmed around them.

Then came the influx of “TJ”s (degrading slang for Mexican immigrants) with their plaid shirts, striped pants and “broken English”—or  “Spanglish,” as they called it.

The surfers would stand sullenly against the wall at the foot of the main staircase during “passing period,” watching the “TJs” pass by on their way to classes, their eyes downcast, trembling a bit as they avoided the intimidating glares of the much larger Anglos.

A few of us staff grew increasingly concerned for their safety and established a meeting place in the neighborhood which became known as “Bienvenidos Community Center.” There issues pertaining to the Spanish-speaking community were discussed and ways of integrating them into the local high school environment were launched. Among these ways was the creation of a new staff position—home/school coordinator—and a school club called TOHMAS (To Help Mexican-American Students).

Later a mural was painted on the wall of the school at the point of greatest tension, depicting the value of the Mexican culture and providing a sense of pride to these “new arrivals” who struggled so in this middle-class white school. A  school club called UMAS (United Mexican-American Students) was formed to offer a venue for students (both white and Latino) to come together to gain a better understanding of the positive attributes of each culture.Maria.UMAS

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, gangs began to appear, and tensions at school ramped up. One day a popular young Mexican-American boy was shot and killed, and the Bienvenidos Center was re-named in his memory.

Cultural conflicts also arose between white school authorities and Mexican-American students. For example, whites looked up when spoken to while Mexican-Americans looked down out of respect. Teachers took this as a sign of disrespect. Whites took pride in wearing their shirts neatly tucked in, while the style preferred by Mexican-Americans was to have their shirts highly starched and hung outside their pants. Teachers were told to enforce the dress code: “shirts tucked in.” They would send students outside the classroom to tuck in their shirts. To Mexican-American students, this was an affront to their choice of dress, and a personal embarrassment.

Moreover, Mexican-American students were counseled against enrolling in college prep classes. Boys were instructed to take shop classes; girls were encouraged to learn secretarial and homemaking skills. Later these students would attend East Los Angeles Community College rather than UCLA, largely due to their lack of the requisite preparation in higher math, science, and critical thinking.

As the school population turned increasingly Latin, a demand for the hiring of Latino staff emerged. Along with this came a more balanced and equitable attention to both cultural groups. With decreasing white enrollment and increasing Latino enrollment, the tables were turned a little. Football became less significant. Our school suddenly jumped to prominence in soccer. Stellar soccer players materialized.

Our school mascot  had always been the Aztecs. The student chosen to represent the Aztecs at the time (he actually had familial Aztec roots) was not permitted by the administration to  perform authentic dances in “full Aztec regalia.”  Apparently it projected an inappropriate image of the school.

The highlight of my tenure at this school came in the early ‘70s. At a school assembly one day, César Chavez walked out onto the stage, accompanied by leaping, screaming, and arm-flailing of the Latino students. Tears of joy ran down some of our faces–both students and staff–as we finally hailed with grateful pride  our multicultural, neighborhood school.

Cesar Chavez

Brownies and Legionnaires, by Alyson Ross

10 Aug

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When Alyson Ross was in her 20s and 30s, she wrote short stories for confession magazines and others of that ilk. For a 10,000-word story, she would receive three cents a word ($300). She jokes that as a Catholic she had to go to confession so she thought she should write confession stories. Alyson taught English and ESL for 27 years at East Los Angeles Community College. She has been retired over 20 years and is still writing, including working on a long, fictionalized family saga. She has traveled to 35 countries so far.

                       

Of the dozen or so Civil Rights marches in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles metro area] that I went on, the most memorable was the first. In the early 60s, many suburban cities had unwritten covenants preventing people of color from buying or renting a house or an apartment. We were marching to persuade people to end this practice.

A week before one of the demonstrations, the local American Legion post presented my daughter’s newly formed Brownie troop, of which I was a parent leader, with an American flag. As the legionnaire marched up the aisle, I noticed that he was so tipsy that he almost dropped the flag. After presenting the flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, he spoke a few words, some of them slightly slurred, about how proud we should be as Americans.

On the morning of the Civil Rights march, the leader told us to avoid eye contact with people who would heckle us and under no circumstances to shout anything back at them. As the march proceeded, several bystanders joined us. And as we were warned, so did the hecklers, running along beside us and repeatedly shouting things like ”Are you walking with them or sleeping with them?” After hearing this taunt dozens of times, I could no longer restrain myself. I turned to the heckler next to me and shouted “Both!” To my amazement I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the legionnaire who a week earlier had presented my daughter’s Brownie troop with the American flag.

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                                                    Alyson (right) and her writing group

When we lived in Douglas, Arizona in first grade, there were only two non-Mexican students, a girl named Donna and myself, who were white. The other school kids lived in poor houses. Since my name was French—Balliot—the teacher thought I was a minority too, so she would talk louder to me. I was able to observe the cruelty of the teachers towards the students.

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In fourth grade history class in Los Angeles we read that slaves were well-treated, spent their time singing and dancing, etc. I told the teacher that wasn’t true but she replied, “The textbook says so.”

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One afternoon our neighbor, Mrs. Jones, came crying to our house. She had seen a black woman with two daughters on the streetcar and told the woman that her girls were the cutest pickaninnies she’d ever seen.  The woman had then said “something very cruel” to Mrs. Jones, causing her tears. My mother sympathized with Mrs. Jones. They both wondered why the black woman had been offended.

Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that word was an insult.

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Alyson’s 80th birthday party                      Birthday present for Alyson

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When I taught vocabulary-building at East Los Angeles College in the ’70s, my students and I marched and rallied against the administration. We were teaching in old, decrepit World War II bungalows while the administration had suites. Every Tuesday at noon there was a vigil at the administration building protesting the war.

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My daughter, who was attending Pomona College, got sick on the day of a peace march and couldn’t participate. She gave her sandals to a friend to wear so she could say her sandals had “walked the course.”

             

How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

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The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

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I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.