Formation: The Little Known History Of The Brown Berets
On June 16, 2015, GOP front-runner Donald Trump delivered a pompous presidential campaign announcement during which he made some dangerous and equally heinous claims about Mexican immigrants. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” His hate speech would herald one of the most scandalous primary elections of our time, stoking the anger of Latinos around the country.
The largest Latino civil rights organization in the United States, the National Council of La Raza, passed Trump off as a “silly man” and one with a “pathological need for attention.” What’s more important, however, is for us to recognize that Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric is not without historical context and perhaps denotes a darker chapter in the story that is America.
In the 1920s, the Los Angeles Police Department created the Red Squad Unit to help Capitalists suppress labor union organizations and ensure the Mexican people did not gain any economic mobility or equality. This marked a tension between the Mexican community and the city’s police, who were a part of a political machine and engaged in corruption, extortion and brutality.
As the influx of Mexicans expanded in Los Angeles, their Anglo counterparts became visibly threatened. A wave of fear took over the city, causing police officials to increasingly engage in brutal and harassing acts against Mexican immigrants, all the while exploiting their cheap labor, despite consequences.
Enter Trump’s predecessors and the Mexican racial theory of crime that would become a part of the American mentality. According to University of Wisconsin Sociology Professor Jennifer G. Correa and her graduate dissertation centered on Chicano nationalism and The Brown Berets, “Starting in the 1930’s, criminology was emerging as a discipline and various scholars in the area were interested in linking race and criminality. Criminologists were not sure if Mexican criminality was biological or social, but the overly-sensationalized concerns developed the notion within the Anglo community and the LAPD that Mexicans were criminally inclined.”
In the mid-1960s, a group of Mexican youth leaders dedicated to education reform and community service, called the Young Citizens for Community Action, emerged. Over time, the group would inevitably broaden their focus and probe issues of police brutality/harassment within their communities. Soon, they’d adopt the term “Chicano” in place of “citizens” as a form of identity and solidarity among Mexican-Americans.
In a symbolic rebellion against the Anglo community and mainstream America, YCCA original member David Sanchez took a page from the Black Panther Party and began to change their appearance by donning brown berets and military style pants and jackets. Sound familiar?
As police brutality continued to plague black and brown communities, YCCA became more and more politicized, joining protests surrounding anti-Mexican acts. The organization eventually became known as The Brown Berets to the LAPD, a gesture that prompted the YCCA collective to assume the name and make it their own.
The organization fought against inequality in schools and mainstream white society. They joined school walkouts, often staged by high school students in response to inadequate teaching facilities. They also created a newspaper called La Causa (The Cause) to help spread awareness of the Chicano plight and keep the Chicano nation informed on the latest news surrounding politics, activism, racism and police brutality.
Circa 1972, The Brown Berets occupied Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles to protest the United States illegally seizing and occupying Mexican/Indigenous land. Today, the Brown Berets continue to arm themselves with the power of knowledge and community in the fight against white supremacy and oppression. And, in a time riddled with anti-blackness and anti-immigrant rhetoric, campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter only further inform modern movements of Chicano radicalization.
“We are fully supportive of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It is extremely important that the world understand that we are in a fight for human dignity and basic human rights,” said Chimalli Cuetlachtli, current National Commander of the National Brown Berets. “When Black people say ‘Stop killing us’ and the only response that White America has is ‘BUT…’ there is a huge problem. This country is [still] steeped in racism, oppression, and colonialism and movements and organizations that are fighting for the rights of people of color are necessary.”
Cuetlachtli, who isn’t afraid of reminding us that America “is a country built on the mass genocide of tens of millions of my ancestors, slavery, and the theft of an entire hemisphere,” declares the mission of the Brown Berets as critical and relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
“We serve our communities and organizations as an auxiliary organization providing them with resources and assistance in their events, protests, and activities,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a very practical role, with us helping with basic human needs like food drives, clothing drives, volunteering in community clean up and beautification projects, youth outreach, etc. Our soldiers are members of various organizations and hold various jobs so their commitment as Brown Berets allow them to use whatever opportunities they can to fulfill their duties to serve.”
While organizations like Black Lives Matter continue to go against the abuses of police brutality, systemic injustice, racial inequality, and agencies like DREAMers take on the inequities and obstacles faced by immigrants and undocumented youth, The Brown Berets continue in the act of raising awareness via protests, social events, community workshops and conferences.
When asked how he saw white supremacy being dismantled for good, Cuetlachtli suggested a global undertaking. “We need a worldwide revolution,” he said, before stating that people of color will experience true emancipation only when they “are empowered and liberated in all countries throughout the world.”