The East L.A. Chicanx Riots and the Endless Loop of Police Brutality against Black and Brown Bodies

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Movie still from Myrdalh’s “Chicano Moratorium” documentary.

Headless mannequins lay face down on the ground in the city streets of Los Angeles. They resemble the motionless victims of a hit and run or an extrajudicial murder. Police officers collect them and briskly toss them aside. It is the symbolic aftermath of the East L.A. riots of August 29, 1970, known as the Chicano Moratorium, an anti-Vietnam War protest that brought together a broad coalition of Mexican Americans. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators marched down Whittier Boulevard chanting their slogan: “Our struggle is not in Vietnam but in the movement for social justice at home.” Even though Chicanxs only amounted for 5% of the general population, they accounted for 72% of all casualties overseas. The barrios back home, however, offered little solace, as Chicanxs were routinely brutalized by the police, and devalued and rejected by the mainstream U.S. culture. White people reduced them to the stereotypes of ‘Bandidos’ and ‘narcos.’ When policemen cracked down on protestors with their clubs, they would often taunt their targets with hateful ‘dirty spics’ and ‘dirty Mexicans.’ In the documentary Chicano Moratorium directed by Thomas Myrdahl, a voiceover expresses this hostility: “Chicanos are trying to escape from their environment (…) they can’t dig it, they can’t live in this environment, we cannot live in this environment.” The male voice goes on to say that Chicano’s only way out was either jail or death. He emphasizes that they “were willing to die just to get out of it.”

Two years prior, in March 1968, the Chicanx high school students of East L.A were well aware of the fact that protesting for better education could cost them their lives. Their leader, Sal Castro, a teacher at Lincoln High School, refers to them retrospectively as “niños héroes” in the 2006 short film produced for the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Impact Awards Gala that celebrated his service to the Latinx community.

The Student Walkouts of 1968 ignited after demands presented to the School Board were repeatedly dismissed, and nothing changed, as Mexican American students of East L.A. fell behind, experiencing the highest dropout rates in the nation. A staggering 57% at Garfield, 45% at Roosevelt, 39% at Lincoln (Cfr. Los Angeles Times.) Mexican American students were regarded as the lowest achievers of all ethnic groups, and the school system perpetuated cycles of inequality and discrimination, as teachers expected them to exclusively work “with their hands” instead of “with their minds.” Boys were encouraged to pursue labor-heavy training and girls were funneled into secretarial courses. Attending universities was never offered as an option in the over-crowded classrooms. Many of the faculty viewed their Mexican American pupils through the lenses of indifference, if not flat-out racism. Speaking Spanish resulted in corporal punishment and school curricula were stripped of Mexican American history courses. In the aforementioned documentary, Sal Castro recalls his colleagues referring to the “charming passivity” of their Mexican American students as something that should not be changed, and American society’s view of the barrios as nothing more than “rollicking cantinas,” and low-riders cruising amidst “the smell of cheap wine and greasy tacos.” To make matters worse, many community leaders and even parents had interiorized such stereotypes and held limited expectations for their Mexican American youth.

The protester’s demands for the School Board included reforms such as the right to speak Spanish, smaller classes, better quality instructors, the implementation of a bicultural form of education, and the addition of Mexican American history to textbooks, as well as more Mexican American teachers, counselors and administrators. The Walkouts lasted five days, and protestors were brutally assaulted by law enforcement officers. Both the underage demonstrators and their allies (among them, the Brown Berets) were treated as criminals. Perhaps the most abhorrent act of repression occurred when dissident students from Belmont and Roosevelt High were captured by their teachers and held behind locked doors, where they were unable to escape the billy-club blows of policemen.

Even though the newspaper and radio stations witnessed these events, and there was footage and as well as written accounts of the police brutality in East L.A., such incidents were hidden from the American public, and state-sanctioned violence was never denounced in print or on the air. This is partly why I decided to unearth and to write about this lesser-known episode in U.S. history. Browsing through the photographs and footage from both the Walkouts and the Chicano Moratorium, and stopping at picket signs that read “Stop Killing Us” and “Stop Murdering Our People,” I was accosted by a feeling that I believe many of us share, as the country we call home has requested the use of military police to scatter peaceful protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

On May 30, 2020, as civil outrage grew in numbers and calls for justice intensified throughout the country, a cornered President Trump took to Twitter to issue a warning. If protestors were to breach the White House Fence, he declared, they would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” His choice of words was swiftly condemned, for it “glorified violence” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D,) and as Tyler D. Parry, assistant professor of African American and African diaspora studies at the University of Las Vegas, noted: “you don’t (…) have to be an expert to know that threatening protesters with vicious dogs evokes a very uncomfortable and heinous chapter in American history” (The Washington Post.) Dogs were weaponized during the suppression of black civil rights activists in the 1960s, particularly in the South, establishing a praxis and imagery that traces back to slavery. The visual still resonates in the African American community today. In the context of the Hammer Museum’s “MADE IN L.A.” exhibit of 2018, I had the privilege to contemplate one of African American artist Diedrick Brackens’ beautiful tapestries, which thoughtfully weave the “intersections of identity and sociopolitical issues in the U.S.” (Hammer.) Against the backdrop of palm trees, a sitting black-figure meets the gaze of gnarly Dobermans in a gesture that is both defiant and graceful.

Diedrick Brackens - in the decadence of silence | woven cotton and acrylic yarn | 2018

On the issue of the reiteration of institutional violence against black bodies, the NPR podcast Code Switch (produced by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Dumby), released A Decade of Watching Black People Die on May 31, 2020. For the episode, journalist and radio host Jamil Smith was asked to revisit and to read aloud a piece he wrote on April 13, 2015, for The New Republic, titled: What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do for You? Smith argues that the overabundance of footage and images of black men being murdered at the hands of police has become so familiar it risks being regarded with indifference, safely bound in the performative use of hashtags, and overall doing nothing more than retraumatizing the black community. “We have not moved an inch,” he comments, “As I revisit this piece, a little more than five years after I wrote it, I’m astonished by how much of it I could put into a column today” The closing lines of his 2015 article still demand an appropriate answer: “when are we going to see the kind of change that this kind of shock and awe should be provoking?

While the East L.A. riots seemed destined to fail, as the School Board resisted significant changes, and Sal Castro, along with twelve other community leaders, were arrested (facing up to sixty-six years in prison,) they were not in vain. With slogans such as “Brown is Beautiful,” and “Be Brown. Be Proud,” the walkouts infused Mexican American youth with a new and emboldened identity. Sal Castro recalls that on March 5, 1968, to be Chicano was a beautiful thing. Just eighteen months after the riots, the number of Chicanx students attending UCLA grew from 40 to 1250. Ivy Leagues took notice and started recruiting Chicanx students, and the percentage of Mexican Americans opting out of school decreased significantly. Caving to the pressure of activists who staged a sit-in/sleep-in at the offices of the School Board, Sal Castro along with the rest of the “East L.A. Thirteen” were eventually exonerated, and Castro was reinstated as an educator.

As a pessimist, I am cautious in my hopes for justice as civil upheaval continues to stir the U.S. My wish is for black voices to be heard and elevated, and to see significant reforms in policies and police accountability in order to protect black bodies from physical, mental, and emotional harm. I hope that, if nothing else, our national protests create the conditions for a renewed spirit. I wish for Americans to absorb the power of unity. No amount of military police could hold back the crowds as they breached The White House fence. President Trump was forced to hide inside a bunker destined for terrorist attacks. And for a moment, the White House went pitch black.

María J. Maddox

Denver, Colorado

Additional Resources:

* Read:

“45 Years After Chicano Moratorium: What is the Future for Latinos in the US?”

* Watch:

Yo Soy Chicano: The East LA Student Walkouts of 1968

* Listen:

“Love & Walkouts” from Latino USA

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