Analysis Politics

The Golden Gate has Iron Bars: Challenging California’s Progressive Reputation Part I

10.20.2020 by leftoutmag

By Broderick Dunlap

Though widely regarded as one of the more progressive states in the country, California actually has a long history that says otherwise. From the days of labor leader Denis Kearny’s severe anti-Chinese sentiment and the popular slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” to the Mexican Repatriation movement of the early 20th century. California has a long history of racism and violence towards people of color and immigrants. These racists sentiments led to the passage of laws that specifically targeted communities of color like the Foreign Miners Tax, laws that forbade non-whites from testifying against whites in court, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the California Alien Land Law of 1913, among others. Whenever a large influx of people of color migrate to California, historically, they have been, and continue to be, met with pushback from their white counterparts: leading  to racial violence, the passing of discriminatory laws and over-policing of communities of color.

 These conditions for people of color have led to the formation of some of the most politically radical organizations in our nation’s history.  The rise of so many social justice organizations in California forces us to reexamine our assumptions of the state’s progressive reputation. These organizations would not have emerged if the people’s material conditions did not call for them. Although there have been reforms and laws designed to create a more equal society, the conditions of Black and Latino communities in California have worsened as a result of the state and federal government’s targeted response against these radical organizations. 

In this article I will examine the socio-economic and political landscape of California from the 1940s through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During this period, demographic changes and a recognition of democracy’s shortcomings set the stage for this cataclysmic movement. Specifically I will examine how and why two particular organizations, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) and the Brown Berets were formed as a result of the material conditions in  California. The fact that these two organizations formed on opposite ends of the state proves that the problems I will discuss are not just anecdotal or regional but a systemic issue that specifically targets working class people of color.

The Black Panther Party and their Reasons for Struggle

The BPP was a Black nationalist socialist organization founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in response to the racist police violence that had gone unchecked in Oakland, California. Newton and Seale rejected Dr. Martin Luther King’s doctrine of nonviolence in exchange for a platform based on armed self-defense. The BPP had a ten-point program that addressed the needs of working-class Black people in Oakland. Some of the BPP community programs—dubbed “survival programs”—were based on  the demands in the party’s 10-point program.

Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program, Zinn Education Project: Teaching People’s History, available at

After the onset of World War II, Black people increasingly moved to urban centers in the north, midwest, and west coast for better job opportunities and to escape the racist violence that was so prevalent in the south where most had lived prior. This period is often referred to as the Great Migration. From 1920 to 1930 the Black population doubled in Los Angeles from 15,579 to 38,894. This may not seem like a large population, but at the time that was the largest concentration of Black people in the American west.

Most working-class whites saw this as a “Black Invasion” and responded with restrictive housing covenants. Housing covenants were restrictions written into property titles that were agreements between homeowner and buyer that for a specific number of years the property could not be sold or leased to a person of color. “Racial restrictive covenants, which appeared in the late nineteenth century and spread rapidly in the early twentieth century, were agreements between buyers and sellers of property, which took the form of an appendix or article in the deed not to sell, rent, or lease property to minority groups, usually Blacks, but also, depending on the part of the country, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, or any non-Caucasians.” These covenants were made in white communities that bordered Black neighborhoods in order to keep the Black population confined to specific areas of town.

 Although the conditions in California were relatively better than they were in the south, Black people could not completely escape the racism that compelled them to migrate in the first place. After the war ended and the troops came home, Black employees were the first to be laid off to give returning veterans jobs. Restrictive covenants prevented Black people from owning homes, and although the public-school system had been integrated at the time of the founding of the BPP, redlining and residential segregation meant that the quality of education in working-class neighborhoods was vastly inferior than predominantly white schools.

One of the BPP’s demands was decent housing. Huey Newton described the housing situation in East Oakland and West Oakland as “rundown, crowded and dilapidated.” These areas in Oakland had a Black population of about 200,000—nearly half of the town’s population at the time. Concentrated in the city center, Oakland’s Black population did not benefit from the widespread economic prosperity and homeownership that came to characterize the period after WWII. In fact, by some estimates, less than 100 of the 350,000 new homes constructed with FHA support in northern California from 1946 through 1960 went to Black homebuyers.  

These trends had powerful implications that extended beyond homes and neighborhoods, though. Following a series of cases desegregating schools—Mendez v. Westminster (1947), which desegregated California schools, and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which found segregation unconstitutional—California’s schools were officially integrated, at least on paper. However, due to residential zoning  most school districts across the state remained segregated. Newton was a product of this unequal education system and discussed the poor quality of education he and his peers received. He described himself as a “functional illiterate” who didn’t learn to read until his last year of high school. He even had to teach himself.    

At their core, the BPP demanded basic necessities and human rights: housing, jobs, and safety from the racial violence that often went unchecked in Oakland and throughout the state. Police brutality in communities of color was prevalent, and the death of Denzil Dowell at the hands of the police was an incident that inspired the BPP to adopt a doctrine of self-defense. Newton believed that non-violent protests fell short, and the only way to prevent police violence was through armed self-defense. Newton and Seale began to organize armed “cop watches” where party members would patrol their neighborhoods. Whenever a member of the community had an interaction with law enforcement, they would observe the interaction from a safe distance with their guns visible and stay until the officer left. Although cop watches and community self-defense were essential to their success, most of the BPP’s work was centered around community service.

Elaine Brown, the only woman ever to chair the BPP, discussed these programs in depth. According to Brown, the BPP was responsible for the current research into sickle-cell anemia. Sickle-cell anemia is “an incurable and ultimately fatal genetic disease that causes typically round red blood cells to take a sickle shape, depleting their ability to circulate oxygen through the body.” The BPP was able to bring this disease to national attention during the Black Community Survival Conference that took place from March 29th to March 31, 1972. The three day conference had approximately sixteen thousand attendees and close to eleven thousand were screened for sickle-cell anemia. Sickle-cell anemia was not a top priority as far as researching for a cure but, In the following year, federal and state public health agencies began to acknowledge the genetic disease after years of indifference.

It was actually the community survival programs that gave the BPP legitimacy and acceptance in neighborhoods across the country. The community programs also forged vital links and garnered financial support from the Black middle-class and white liberals. This financial backing made it possible to pay for the legal representation of prominent leaders that had been targeted by the United States criminal justice system like Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Assata Shakur. Although the organization was Newton and Seale’s vision, it was actually Elaine Brown’s leadership that solidified the BPP as a credible political organization that ran political candidates and established community centers. Women played an essential role in the day-to-day operations of the BPP as well and held leadership positions in branches all over the country. 

According to The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished, women helped shape the Panthers’ agenda, played an important role in drafting the party’s program, and “worked to create a climate of gender equality worthy of a truly revolutionary political organization.” The division of labor among men and women was equitable and defied conventional gender roles, with men sometimes serving the children in their breakfast program and with women toting rifles during cop watch patrols. Ericka Huggins was the director of Oakland’s Community School; this school was unlike most because it was student-centered and community based. The community school was the last of the survival programs standing after the BPP suffered an onslaught of attacks from federal law enforcement agencies. The school was completely run and funded by the BPP and was separate from the local Oakland school district. Another important program that contributed to the BPP’s success was their free clinics, which were also directed by Norma (Armour) Mtume. Mtume led the Panther medical clinics in Los Angeles and Berkeley and was also the party’s Minister of Finance. There are existing critiques that men in the BPP did carry sexist and misogynistic attitudes and at the same time, the idea that the BPP was a hyper-masculine, male dominated group can be debunked. Two of the most integral programs—that remained significant  long after the BPP was dismantled—were led by women. 

The Brown Berets and the Chicano Struggle

Similarly to Black people, Mexican-Americans became disillusioned with American democracy and the American dream after troops returned from World War II. Approximately 400,000 Mexicans served in the war and seventeen received the Medal of Honor, but they also died at a disproportionately high rate. Mexican-Americans had hoped that their patriotic service would relieve the racial violence and discrimination inflicted on their communities for so long. However, the war only aggravated hostility towards Mexican people and they were depicted as susceptible to violent crime by major media outlets and consequently violently attacked by their white counterparts. For example, in the infamous Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, white mobs of sailors and soldiers violently attacked Mexicans based on their style of dress. Government officials supported the riots calling Mexican youth “zoot-suit hoodlums.” The racism endured by Mexican-Americans following World War II birthed a generation that would question the status quo and they began to imagine a world where assimilation into white America was impossible.

A few months before the BPP was founded, a group of young Mexican-American high school students founded the Young Citizens for Community Action (YCCA); this group would later become the Brown Berets. When the YCCA was founded, the group’s initial intention was to provide community services and participate in local elections. An original member described the group as “a very civic-minded little group of do-gooders.” The group’s founders met at a three-day conference sponsored by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. As community youth leaders,  they were there to discuss the pressing issues among the Mexican-American community of East Los Angeles police brutality, fair housing and education. Even after the conference ended, several of the attendees, including Vickie Castro, Rachel Ochoa, Moctezuma Esparza, and David Sanchez, “continued these discussions on their own.”

 After older activists in the community introduced the group leaders to Cesar Chavez, they were inspired to change the “citizen” in their name to “Chicanos.” While they remained the YCCA at this time, they began to emphasize their Chicano identity after meeting with Chavez. However, like the BPP, police brutality radicalized the YCCA from a “civic-minded” group to the Brown Berets. On November 24, 1967, witnesses said they saw sheriff’s deputies beat a man unconscious while assaulting his wife and daughter and calling them “Mexican animals.” The victims of the attack were charged with assaulting peace officers.

The incident sparked outrage in the community and prompted the YCCA to organize a protest at the police station.  The local Spanish-language newspaper, La Raza, reported “the picketing itself, was beautiful but more important as one looked on the faces of these young Chicanos, one could see anger… because of the countless others in the past which have caused the Chicanos so much grief and injustice.” The LAPD responded swiftly and harshly, systematically targeting suspected leaders and members of the YCCA through intimidation. However, instead of discouraging members’ involvement with the group, it only radicalized them more, and some members began wearing military attire as a sign of solidarity with other groups like the BPP and Young Lords. On January 15, 1968 when La Raza was documenting another altercation between the police and the YCCA, the newspaper nicknamed the group the “Brown Berets” and the name stuck.

The Brown Berets’ early political ideology was unclear but began to take shape in early 1968. When Brown Beret leader David Sanchez was arrested after a protest, he wrote a three-page manifesto,“The Birth of a New Symbol,” while incarcerated at the Wayside Maximum Security Prison. Sanchez encouraged the group to be “efficient, disciplined and organized,” and to put less emphasis on ideology and theory because they should focus on defending their neighborhoods. Sanchez felt that spending too much time studying political theory wasn’t necessary because “Intellectuals aren’t able to communicate with the dude on the street” and that would alienate them from their community.

Women’s roles in the Brown Berets were also different compared to women’s roles in the BPP. While women were involved in the founding of the YCCA, women were not actively involved in the Brown Berets until David Sanchez’s sister, Arlene, and her friends, Grace and Hilda Reyes and Gloria Arellanes, joined the organization. Gloria Arellanes would soon become the Minister of Finance and Communication and was the only woman to hold  a leadership position within the Brown Berets. However, that does not mean women did not play an integral role in the organization. The institutional and administrative work necessary for any organization to thrive was often the responsibility of the female membership. 

As previously stated, police burtality and racist violence radicalized the Brown Berets; however as the group learned through trial and error, they developed a clear program and a 10-point program like the BPP:

1. Unity of all of our people, regardless of age, income, or political philosophy.

2. The right to bilingual education as guaranteed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

3. We demand a Civilian Police Review Board, made up of people who live in our community, to screen all police officers, before they are assigned to our communities.

4. We demand that the true history of the Mexican American be taught in all schools in the five Southwestern States.

5. We demand that all officers in Mexican-American communities must live in the community and speak Spanish.

6. We want an end to “Urban Renewal Programs” that replace our barrios with high rent homes for middle-class people.

7. We demand a guaranteed annual income of $8,000 for all Mexican-American families.

8. We demand that the right to vote be extended to all of our people regardless of the ability to speak the English language.

9. We demand that all Mexican Americans be tried by juries consisting of only Mexican Americans.

10. We demand the right to keep and bear arms to defend our communities against racist police, as guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The Brown Berets adopted a new mission, as well: to serve, to observe, to protect. A play on the LAPD’s motto “to protect and to serve,” the Berets’ message to the community was a promise to hold the police accountable. The Brown Berets became well known as a result of their involvement in the East Los Angeles high school walkouts of 1968, the protests that followed the arrest, and secret indictment of the thirteen activists and organizers responsible for the walk-outs. The walkouts were organized by the Brown Berets and other Chicano groups and were focused on the substandard conditions of underfunded East Los Angeles schools. Lower graduation and literacy rates, along with the lack of Mexican-American history in the curriculum also caused  dissatisfaction among parents and students.

Although the Berets modeled themselves after the BPP and borrowed much of their ideology from the Black Power movement, the differences between the two parties were clear. The Brown Berets were “younger, less organized, relatively unsophisticated ideologically, poorly funded, and without strong ties to the middle class or to white liberals.” However this did not hurt the group’s popularity or growth, at their peak in April 1971 the Brown Berets had over sixty branches extending into the Midwest.

 Despite these groups’ differences they both had the same goal of improving the social and material conditions of their communities. Black Panther member Assata Shakur recalled the time she met a Brown Beret. When he spoke about the issues facing Latino neighborhoods, she explained: “I was not aware that Chicanos in the city were fighting against unemployment, police brutality, and inferior schools just like Black people.” Although race played a large role in the oppression of Black and Chicano communities, the similarities in their struggles show that the issues they faced had more to do with class than race. The Brown Berets and BPP primary objectives were to meet the needs of their respective communities. These organizations would not have been so widely accepted if they were not meeting those needs successfully. These groups were demanding respect and basic human rights while providing services to communities that had been neglected by the government.

Despite being respected and seen as role models in Black and Chicano neighborhoods throughout the country, their outspokenness against the government made these groups become primary targets of local and federal law enforcement agencies. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest internal security threat of the country” and the Berets faced targeted police harassment and suppression almost immediately from the very first YCCA protest.

When J. Edgar Hoover marked the BPP as a national security threat; he also pointed out that they were “schooled in the Marxist-Leninist ideology and teachings of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Sung”. Law enforcement agencies agreed with Hoover and proposed legislation that targeted these organizations. It was one of the original members who said that it was “the police who organized us.” The Brown Berets fearlessly stood up against the police state and grew in number despite numerous attempts of intimidation. The Berets’ membership grew exponentially after the East Los Angeles Student Walkouts of 1968. Though the walkouts were a polarizing moment that earned them the admiration of Chicano youth nationwide, they also put a target on their backs.

After the walkouts, group leaders were harassed and attacked by local law enforcement. In September 1969, Los Angeles police assaulted Lorraine Escalante and Carlos Montes in a courthouse and the aftermath was one of the largest and violent riots in East Los Angeles history. The riots resulted in the deaths of three people, one was Ruben Salazar, a writer for the Los Angeles Times and a prominent member of the Mexican-American community. However, the death of fifteen year-old Lynn Ward shook the Berets to their core. Ward bled to death after being thrown through a plate glass window after a can of tear gas exploded.  His picture was printed on the front page of their newspaper La Causa. Ward’s death shook the Berets to the core and radicalized the Berets into a more militant organization.

Read Part 2 and Part 3

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