September 6, 2002

First Person

Remembering August 29, 1970

By Rodolfo F. Acuna

Without a doubt, the August 29th demonstration has taken on historic proportions, formed largely by the collective memory of the participants. At the time of the march, I was a professor at San Fernando Valley State College, and the Chicano Studies Department there had just completed the first year. The department had been established in the spring of 1969 as the result of student activism and I had the great fortune of being its first chair. As part of an agreement between the administration and the students, 350 Chicano students were recruited for fall 1969, more than tripling the number of Mexican American students at SFVSC. The first year was difficult because of the militancy both outside and inside the campus.

Ruben Salazar. Historical photo courtesy of

SFVSC was at the time one of the most militant campuses in the region. Apart from a very active Black Student Union led by African American activist such as Archie Chapman and Jerome Walker, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had various factions with leaders such as Mike Klonsky, Marc Cooper, Mike Lee and others. In fall 1969, because the district attorney had indicted many black student leaders for the Nov. 4, 1968 takeover of the administration building, there was a void in the student leadership. The sudden presence of a critical mass of Chicano students filled the vacuum. The incoming Chicano students were a mixture of young high school graduates, lumpen elements, and a core of students from Los Angeles City College. The latter group was very important because the mix socialized younger students. For example, the LACC contingent had published El Machete and they along with Frank Del Olmo founded El Popo.

Oscar Zata Acosta. Historical photo courtesy of

Like on most campuses, the war in Vietnam occupied much of the discourse on campus. Professors discussed the war in classes throughout the college and professors such as Warren Furumoto, a biologist and faculty adviser to UMAS (United Mexican American Students), ran study groups. We also had community people who would bring peace literature to the campus such as Pierre Mandel and Lester Baylock. Jimmy Gonzales had been active in the Valley Peace Center since at least 1968 and also brought in informational material. I had participated in antiwar demonstrations since about 1965 through MAPA and was influenced by faculty at Valley City College where people like Art Avila, Pat Allen and Farrell Brailowsky were very visible. The students also brought in their own networks. For us, it was significant that the start of the program coincided with Rosalio Munoz refusing induction on Sept. 16, 1969 because it gave the struggle a Chicano face and thus a link to the greater struggle. By spring 1970 students had taken part in the various antiwar demonstrations on campus as well as those led by Rosalio and the berets. After this point it seemed as if Bobby Elias was living on our campus. Representatives from the committee were present at many MECHA meetings, and it appeared as if they were effectively using the colleges, universities and sometimes the high school networks to get out the word. Chicano student newspapers also advertised the mobilizations that were taking place at the time. MECHA leaders such as Jose Galvan and Maria Teran became important conduits. Also, former students such as Evie Alarcon frequently visited the campus. On campus, Irene Tovar was the most visible, and pushed the mobilization at her SFVSC community center. Irene had a core group of students working for her. Moreover, we cannot overestimate her personal network and organic links to the community. Irene brought in much of the more established community leaders. Carlos Reyes also played a key role both on campus and in setting up the security for the moratorium. It was through Carlos that I became a monitor.

The single event that politicized most of the Chicano students was the burning of the Chicano House on May 5, 1970. Spring 1970 had been especially eventful and the killing of four students at Ohio’s Kent State University on May 4, 1970 polarized students nationally. The shootings occurred on the fourth day of protests by Kent State students following Nixon’s announcement that he was sending U.S. troops into Cambodia. National Guard troops tear-gassed hundreds of students on the campus. (May 14, 1970 marked the tragic climax and shooting of black students at Jackson State). Kent State brought an immediate reaction and unleashed a demonstration at SFVSC, with police brought in when MECHA students pulled down the American flag and burned it. That night, on el Cinco de Mayo, unknown persons burned down the Chicano House. The next day most of the Chicano students met in front of the department and marched silently through the campus. Chicano students succeeded in closing down the campus, and the administration suspended most classes for the semester. This single event prepared students for the moratorium by personalizing the issue.

I went to a few meetings during the summer of 1970; however, most of the time was spent on campus. Some administrators had taken a tough line and wanted to penalize the program and myself for shutting down classes. For months we straddle that line that separates the road from the canyon. Most of the people in my circle were nervous because relations with police had been worsened as a result of several killings in the county jail and shootings in the community. The war was inseparable from these and other issues.

When I arrived at the demonstration, I remember that it was hot. I saw Carlos Reyes who stuck out, or should I say towered over everyone. Carlos guided me to where the sizeable San Fernando Valley contingent had gathered and put a monitor armband on me. I surmised that he was placing us among people we knew and in that way insure that there were no problems. The march as usual was a bit late in getting started. Its size surprised many of us and we were even more surprised when we reached Laguna Park (now Salazar Park). Throughout the march the participants were orderly yet very spirited. The youth of the participants struck me whom I assumed a majority to be between 16 and 20. They also seemed to come from throughout the Southwest and even the Midwest. During the march, I often fell behind because of my bad knee, and several students would fall back with me, leading me to question who was or were the monitors.

Once at the park everyone settled into a picnic atmosphere. The Trio Aztlan from SFVSC played, and the presence of the college was heavy (as they used to say). Rosalio was on stage; however, his elves seemed to be everywhere. Bobby Elias and Gil Cano floating in and out. After an hour or so, I settled in and then prepared to leave. Mickey and Silvia de la Pena, one a former student of mine at USC and the other at Cal State Dominguez Hills, had gotten married and I wanted to go to the reception and relax. When I finally made my move to leave, I saw some youth running toward the northwest section of the park. The festivities and speakers continued. I walked back into the park and rushed toward where the youth were running. At this point, I saw sheriff deputies and police in black (presumably LAPD) forming a line ready to enter the park. I identified myself as a college professor and an official monitor and told them that there was no need for them to be there. Students later falsely accused me of pulling out my Ph.D. diploma and showing it to the officers. Evidently my credentials did not impress the police and they closed ranks and began to come onto the park with their batons drawn. The monitors and some of the spectators also closed ranks and we locked arms hoping to slow the deputies down. At that point, the monitors had everything under control and except for a few individuals everything was peaceful. Many of us kept telling the police that there were small children in the gathering. However, they did not listen and suddenly rushed the monitors, knocking us to the ground. Although I later discovered bruises on my body, I frankly do not remember getting hit—I was in shock. I saw mothers and fathers looking for their infant children and at one point saw Ruben Salazar who was in the midst of the storm. I remarked that this was terrible, the children were getting gassed. Salazar replied that they could not blame us this time—the attack was unprovoked.

Aftermath of the police attack at Laguna Park. Historical photo courtesy of

I wandered around, washed my eyes with open water hoses running on the lawns of homes on the Eastside perimeter of the park. I briefly hooked up with Oscar Castillo whom I asked to take a picture of a deputy who had threatened others and me. By this time, George and Eddie Nunez had joined me; they were students of mine from the Fresno area. We were attempting to help some of the injured people and help others find their children. I remember seeing Bert Corona and talking to him briefly. Suddenly, George hollered that police were arresting him. I was at the time talking to Father Henry Casso, and I naively identified myself to the deputies and told them who I was and that Father Casso could vouch for me. The deputy shouted for me to shut up or he would arrest me for inciting a riot. I attempted to re-engage him and he threw me on the hood of the squad car and he and three other deputies put plastic cuffs on me. This encounter left my left shoulder weak for years (I was recently operated for a torn tendon that over the years separated from the rotor cup). As I already explained, I had and have a bad right knee of which I informed the deputies. However, they threw us to the ground, and then piled eight of us into a squad car and drove us to the Belvedere Substation where they hand cuffed us and put us in buses.

The sheriffs kept us on the buses for several hours. At one point I saw Frank Del Olmo who was doing an internship with the Los Angeles Times and had him call my son. Many of those arrested were as young as 14 and 15. Sammy Garcia of Oxnard was about that age, and he was bleeding from a head would. Gil Chavez, not much older, later with the band Califas was also there. They kept us in the bus for what seemed several hours. The heat was well over 100 degrees in the buses. Yet when the students started complaining and they yelled at the deputies, they shot mace into the buses on three separate occasions, forcing us to close the windows to stop the gasses from entering, which made things worse because of the heat. Several of us older detainees (we were in our 30s) complained to the deputies that there were minors on the bus and that they needed medical attention, the deputies denied these requests for medical attention.

The deputies then took us to the Central jail. There they made us wait in a large room. They instructed us to strip completely, and made us shake every piece of clothing by the numbers. At one point, I shook my left sock instead of my right sock and they berated for my stupidity. After what seemed to be over an hour in the nude, they took us to the showers where they showered us, deloused us, and gave us a rectal examination for drugs. They then fingerprinted us, gave us two baloney sandwiches and a cup of coffee after which they coerced us into taking blood tests in what I considered an unsanitary environment. They then assigned us cells. I was separated from the group. When I saw the officer assigned to my block of cells, he asked me if I hadn’t been on ABC the week before on a program I appeared with Bert Corona and Vicky Carr in which many of us criticized the police. I shrugged my shoulders and was assigned to what I assume to be the only cell without Chicanos in the entire Central Jail.

I do not know whether at this point or sometime before the jailers had pulled me out to see an attorney; however, from what I remember Irene Tovar’s legal team quickly brought the attorneys into the process. I was one of the first to be interviewed. She was a young black lady, small in stature. I felt very good seeing her, and during the interview she asked me where I worked. When I told her, she responded that she was going to get me out as soon as possible because the press would have a field day. She was also concerned that this would affect my job status. The attorney assured me that the youth had been separated from the arrested adults. I remember returning to the cell and one of the black inmates asked me for what I was in jail. I responded for demonstrating, and he said he had heard about what had happened at Laguna Park, and told me that they had killed a Chicano reporter. Ruben Salazar did not come to mind at the time but Frank Del Olmo did and I fretted about this possibility.

Somehow I was lost for two hours, and my name came blaring out over the loudspeaker. They could not find me. The black inmate told me to keep my hands away from the bars because they liked opening the doors suddenly to break the anxious inmate’s hands. Like Columbus, they discovered me, and they released me about 6:00 a.m. My sister and son picked me up. The experience politicized me. I was from a Catholic High School and although streetwise, still believed that there was a justice system. I believe that the Moratorium experience contributed greatly to the tone of the first edition of Occupied America. Stanley Mosk’s brother took my case, however, they dropped charges. I immediately returned to SFVSC and prepared for the entering semester. The experience convinced me that we were under siege, which at times was the case. For example, the campus police along with the LAPD were found wire tapping a statewide MECHA conference in the SFVSC cafeteria. During CAPA vs. PDID we learned during discovery that at least two officers, Joe Ramirez and Augie Moreno spied on MECHA and took Chicano Studies classes on which they reported. The discovery phase also revealed that there were probably more officers and informants involved. Officer Sumaya had attempted to infiltrate UMAS.

In retrospect, Rosalio and the dozen or so people around him, along with the berets, accomplished the impossible. Aug. 29, 1970 probably would not have been possible in 1969. The colleges and youth themselves were politicized by the times and ready by the summer of 1970. In retrospect, some scholars have criticized the movement of the times for being overly nationalistic. This, however, is presentism and ignores the dialectics of the times when identity played a great part in all groups, i.e., black power, feminism, etc. The Moratorium was a coming of age for many of us. The only thing that was missing was the end game, and we cannot blame the establishment for everything that went wrong. It had a lot of help from the true believers who did not fall behind the leadership of Rosalio and others. We cannot dismiss the egos.

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