by Jennifer Kelly
Nearly 50 years after the first Chicano Moratorium March in Houston, Brown Berets from across the country gathered again to celebrate the history of the Chicano movement this past Saturday.
Chapters from San Marcos, Austin, Dallas, Houston, California, Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois gathered together with indigenous activists, members of The People’s Party II (a Houston-based organization formed in solidarity with the Black Panther Party), and local activists and family still campaigning for justice for Joe Campos Torres, a Chicano veteran of the US Imperialist War on Vietnam who Houston police beat and drowned in 1977.
The original march in Houston in September 1970, which saw over a thousand people take the streets, was against the Vietnam War and the national oppression that Chicanos faced both abroad and at home. It was inspired by the 1970 march in Los Angeles which had happened weeks earlier and saw tens of thousands in the streets. That march led to violent confrontations with police who arrested 150 and killed four, including progressive journalist Rubén Salazar.
Organizers in Houston this weekend seemed reluctant to evoke the memory of the Los Angeles march, despite its greater size and political significance.
“[At the original Chicano Moratorium March in LA] people were fighting the cops, fighting the pigs,” one Brown Beret from San Marcos said. “So when I’m seeing this presence [of police] here, I’m like they don’t belong here, because they’re what caused this in the first place.”
Beginning at 11 am with an indigenous dance performance and ceremony, the march went through one of the oldest barrios in Houston, Magnolia Park, led by the group of indigenous dancers, with the Brown Berets forming the first block of marchers and the various groups in support forming the second.
Many onlookers were curious about the march, but the march generally lacked a mass character, consisting almost exclusively of activists. The energy among the marchers was high, and they led many chants as they marched through the neighborhood, such as “Chicano Power!” “Who are we? / Brown Berets! / Brown Berets / All the way!”
A masked contingent of Brown Berets, who identified themselves as the San Marcos Chapter of the Brown Berets, gained control of a megaphone and began leading chants such as “El Barrio no se vende / Se arma se defiende! (In English – the neighborhood is not for sale! It mobilizes to defend itself!”) and “From Palestine to Mexico / These border walls have got to go!”
Some of these masked Brown Berets even came carrying red flags in defiance of local Houston ordinances banning the use of thicker flag poles at marches.
The march was marred by cooperation with Houston Police Department, the same HPD who murdered Joe Campos Torres in 1977 while sneering “Let’s see if this wetback can swim.” The cooperation between HPD and the Chicano Moratorium March was engineered by the Houston chapter of the Brown Berets in cooperation with the revisionist Houston Socialist Movement.
As marchers gathered, members of the Brown Berets and the Houston Socialist Movement laughed and shook hands with the police, and proudly told the marchers that the police were being “very nice” and “allowing us to have the street”. Ironically, these same people could be heard later chanting “Whose streets? / Our streets!” This hypocrisy is the norm for activism in Houston, and when questioned on this, members and leaders of the Houston chapter defended their decision.
“We’ve got nothing to hide,” one Brown Beret from Houston told Incendiary. “With a big march like this we have to involve the police.” He continued to add that this was normal for them, and that they would rather cooperate than have conflict with them.
The San Marcos chapter, on the other hand, took a hard stance against the police. “The Brown Berets used to kick police out of neighborhoods. They used to march armed and tell the police they weren’t welcome in our barrios. It was one of the founding points of unity. Couple of decades ago, this wouldn’t have gone down,” a Brown Beret from the chapter said.
After the march, the Brown Berets gathered in Hidalgo Park to eat food, read poetry, give speeches, and destroy a Donald Trump piñata. Speeches included a wide range of political views, with some calling for a return to armed demonstrations and armed self defense units, and defending immigrants by “any means necessary,” and other times (sometimes by the same speaker) calling for voting and the ballot box as the primary form of struggle.
Despite their political differences, all chapters felt the same way about one thing: the increasing unity of the Brown Berets was a good thing, which pointed to a resurgence of the Chicano movement and the potential for struggling towards national liberation.
The question remains as to whether the Brown Berets can struggle towards real political unity and not unity based simply on a shared uniform and identity. So long as their unity remains shallow and so long as the struggle remains tied to the police and to the ballot box, the Chicano nation will never truly be able to take on its number one enemy, US Imperialism.