Ironically the Brown Berets, the radical Chicano community organization, began in the office of the mayor of Los Angeles. The Mayor's Advisory Youth Council had just selected 16-year-old David John Sanchez as its chairman for 1966. Los Angeles' Mayor Sam Yorty welcomed and congratulated the young man personally and gave him a gavel. One of his projects was "The Young Citizens for Community Action."
Acting as advisors on behalf of the Mexican American community was David Sanchez, Carlos Montes, and Ralph Ramirez. The group originally hoped to ease the strained relationships existing between the community and the police department. The group began reading about community issues and began setting up community projects, including going to Delano and raising food for the farm workers. They opened up a coffeehouse. The intention of the coffeehouse was to attract teenagers and give them something to do instead of hanging out on the streets. The coffeehouse was called "La Piranha," which also served as an office and meeting hall.
The Sheriff's Department decided that the coffeehouse was a bad place because the kids drew a picket line in front of the Sheriff' station protesting a case of police brutality. David Sanchez said, "I was jumped by the fuzz. They had me at the jail for some minor kid thing and I didn't want to sign. One cop got me in a judo hold and another came up behind me from the back and knocked me flat.
When I woke up they were booking me. I began to change my mind about things and began to see that something was wrong with America. Things were no longer Stars and Stripes." Experiences like these incited the group and they become openly militant. In the fall of 1967, they officially changed the name of their group to the Brown Berets.
The goal of the Brown Berets in the beginning, according to Sanchez was, "To unite our people under the flag of independence. By independence we mean the right to self-determination, self-government, and freedom - our land was stolen from our forefathers." The Beret program included demands for the return of all the stolen land and called for an end to the police occupation of Raza communities, an end to the robbery of Chicano communities by businessmen, and an end to the drafting of Chicanos. Then the demand went out for Chicano control of Chicano education, and for housing fit for human beings. They also said, "The border lands should be open to La Raza whether they were born north or south of the fence."
The Brown Berets included both men and women who set up centers where citizens could bring their complaints of police brutality. They published a newspaper called "La Causa" and the newspaper carried reports of police brutality. The Berets often provided a sense of security to individuals and families and were often called on to provide security at public demonstrations by Latino groups they labeled as "La Raza."
The Berets started people's clinics, youth centers, anti-drug programs, and many other projects. Beret chapters spread throughout the Southwest and Midwest. In Los Angeles, sheriff's deputies harassed the Brown Berets and infiltrated the organization, causing disorganization and forcing them to shut down their coffee shop in the beginning of March 1968.
Late in May, 1969 the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Operations Conspiracy Squad raided the main headquarters of the Brown Berets in Los Angeles. Police claimed that the raid was made because the PD had cause to arrest two people on a charge of conspiracy to commit burglary. David Sanchez, on the other hand, felt the raid occurred because, "The police were irritated by recent intelligence activities by the Berets. Brown Berets members have reportedly uncovered two undercover agents from the police de?¡partment in their membership." Two Beret members were arrested and incarcerated.
Undaunted, Brown Berets continued to operate their East Los Angeles Free Clinic. With financial help from the Ford Foundation and the volunteer help of professionals, the clinic offered free medical, social, and psychological services to Mexican Americans.
Through the clinic, similar services were also provided by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, also financed by the Ford Foundation. But such efforts were to be overshadowed by the arrests and convictions of those Brown Berets who allegedly created fires and disturbances in the Biltmore Hotel on April 24, 1969.
Soon, the medical and legal services of the East Los Angeles Free Clinic would cease. But the violence in the streets in the form of demonstrations and social protests would continue and a contingent of the Brown Berets would continue to participate in a show of "Brown Power" and militancy.
The organization's inability to clearly define their role in society resulted in their failure to develop specific plans to achieve their demands. Their tendency to react to crises rather than to remain in control of a situation caused the group to become disorganized. Despite these weaknesses the Brown Berets have become a symbol of the Hispanic resistance to tyranny and their fight for liberation.
David Sanchez was the Brown Berets founding leader and Prime Minister.
www.LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, a former Brown Beret himself while in college, had an opportunity to talk to the enigmatic Dr. David Sanchez about the Brown Beret experience:
AC: Society viewed the Brown Berets as a militant organization on the same level as the Black Panther Party. What was your original vision for the Brown Berets?
DS: The Brown Berets was a psychological ploy to bring attention to the Mexican American and Chicano community. Our vision was often misinterpreted by scholars and writers. What we did was non-violent community activism drawing attention to our struggle for the survival for our cultural communities and for future generations. We wanted to give La Raza a chance to attain a higher education. Of course, we are always up against reactionaries who called us militants and barrio mentality which was conservative, and quite provincial at the time.
AC: So your intention was social change without violence, using implied power?
DS: The locos (crazy street guys) in the barrio thought that we should use violence. Still, we taught that learning to use non-violence would keep us safe from spending all of our time going to court and jail. We had to deal with extremists from the right and left; polarization was always a concern.
At first, many of us went to jail for walkouts, demonstrations, and fighting with the police. Personally,
I went to jail twelve times on false charges. Despite that, we learned that non-violence would help us to last. Eventually we learned that going on the road organizing in various communities helped us to avoid police traps.
AC: Extremists? Weren't you considered an extremist yourself during that time?
DS: There were people affiliated with the organization that would ask us to use violence. Then we questioned why they wanted to embark on extreme measures. We eventually learned that some extremist were actually police informants.
AC: When in life did social activism become something you became passionate about?
DS: When I was in the fifth grade at 79th Street School in South Central L.A., my teacher who was an African American, Mr. Roger Moore, taught me that this land once belonged to Mexico.
At 12 years old, I was drafted into a gang in which I ended up making peace with surrounding gangs. Then, an Episcopal priest hired me at 16 years old to be a summer youth counselor. The priest was Father John B. Luce. He gave me books to read. From there, I was able to hook up with other youth organization. I then became the first president for Mayor Sam Yortie's Youth Advisory Council.
Then, whites from the Young Republicans came to demonstrate and to throw me out of L.A. City Hall. They could not. During this time, I was a regular rebel in high school with a "B"average and organized a campus protest against the police explorers.
The only Anglos that we saw were the white LAPD police who constantly pulled over any Chicano on any street. My parents also explained to me that Anglos were very unfair to our people.
Our family business was constantly harassed by the LAPD. I moved to change our group's name from Young Citizens for Community Action to Young Chicanos for Community Action. And then to the Brown Berets.
I knew that there would be a long struggle and was willing to drop everything just to get the movement on the correct path. The Brown Berets were not out to shoot police. Rather, our tactic was to create mass events.
AC: Some people think that the Brown Berets were a prelude to some of the gangs in the community today. Do you believe that's true?
DS: The Berets were not a gang, Gangs and north/south conflicts came out of the prisons with barrio gang mentality to put gas on the fire. The migrants at this time are better organized and get most of the attention. Yet, if La Raza gets it together for a progress movement, we will have a new civil rights movement and not the Blacks.
AC: Why, then, are the immigrant struggles getting more traction while Chicano causes lay on the back burner?
DS: Barrio mentality and lack of respect for each other is holding us back.
AC:What about the groups who are now calling themselves Brown Berets, they even have websites?
DS: There will always be Brown Berets popping up because people want change. However, some of these groups have developed bad attitudes and have not done their homework on the past, Nor do not they respect past leaders. Nonetheless, I have respect for a few new Brown Berets in Los
Angeles who know how to tackle issues. Just wearing a Brown Beret does not make them a respectful Brown Beret. The original Brown Beret Manual says, "Have respect for everyone". Many of the new Brown Berets want to be independent. In the old days, Brown Berets were under one command which was coming from my office as Prime Minister.
AC: What about your personal life? Have you always been arcane and enigmatic?
DS: I play guitar and write. I really could not afford a family with teaching just part time at colleges since 1978. I wrote a book on the "Brown Beret Movement" as part of my dissertation and did much work in Human Communication. In 1978, I received a Ph.D. from The Union Institute and University. I love teaching.
Mostly I taught Chicano Studies for 11 years and taught Speech 101. I wrote "Expedition through Aztlan."
As a Brown Beret, I traveled in a real expedition to eighty barrios throughout the U.S. I knew that the area had to be mapped out culturally, politically, and socially. It was probably the only book that was written during the Chicano Movement from an inside perspective. I also knew that it was important to document the movement and history before all may get wiped out. I learned about expeditions while attending Cal State Los Angeles in the late sixties.
The other book I wrote was "Social Communication for Everyone". In this book I felt that our
People needed to improve their communication skills. The book covers areas from social to advanced human communication.
AC: Tell us about your recent run at local politics?
DS: Recently, I ran for Congress. It's a way to get out the issues. Last June, I ran against Congresswoman Lucille Roybal Allard and was opposed to her strong support of the war. I received 5,500 votes. She got 12,000 votes with 18 years in office. This after getting the job passed on to her from her father, Congressman Ed Roybal.
It was hard to run with no money. Yes, I want to run again. Actually, I should have been a congressman but gave most of my years to community issues.
AC: What are some of the projects you are working on now?
Presently, I am trying to find grant funds for the Mexican American University. I put together a board and corporation to develop The Mexican American University. It's a lot of work.
AC: How would you like American history to remember you?
DS: I think I will be remembered as the leader during the Chicano Rebellion in East Los Angeles. And founder of the Brown Berets, and founder of the Chicano Moratorium Committee.
And last, founder of the Mexican American University.
Last said: to care about our people...it's in my blood.