The Formation of the Third World Left in Los Angeles

FOUR Serving the People
and Vanguard Politics
The Formation of the Third World
Left in Los Angeles
8 9
The previous chapter demonstrated how both the historical moment and the
larger political culture contributed to the development of individual political consciousness. While politically conscious individuals are essential to
social movements and political struggle, they are not enough. Without the
presence of political organizations, counterhegemonic activity would be limited to rebellion and random acts of protest. Organizations and groups are
the essential building blocks of movements, as they provide the space where
like-minded individuals coalesce and can accomplish a great deal more collectively than alone.
This chapter examines the creation of the Third World Left in Los
Angeles, particularly the Southern California chapters of the Black Panther
Party (BPP), CASA, and East Wind. I first discuss Black Power, which is key
to understanding the development of the New Left, nationalist struggles,
and the Third World Left. Then I present overviews of the BPP, East Wind,
and CASA, as well as the nationalist movements that gave rise to them.
The Black civil rights movement is central to the development of the Third
World Left, as it destabilized the social formation, enabling activists to envision a new reality. Although the civil rights struggles of both Mexican and
Japanese Americans were significant in their own right, they were largely
eclipsed by the Black/white conflict that engulfed the nation in the early
1960s.1 As a result of its greater visibility, the Black civil rights movement
had a profound impact on society and became a source of inspiration to
other people of color. As William Wei has noted, “Not until the civil rights
movement of the 1960s exposed the pervasive problem of racism in US
society and raised questions about exactly how democratic the nation’s
political system in fact was did members of the various Asian ethnic groups
begin to think of themselves, and to act politically together, as Asian
Americans. Thus was the Asian American movement born.”2
The nonviolent civil rights movement lasted from approximately 1955 to
1966, but the energy it unleashed fueled a host of oppositional movements
that were not extinguished until the late 1970s. Why the civil rights movement transitioned into more radical politics has been analyzed by many
scholars, but one key was the state’s hesitancy to respond to activists’ concerns. In many cases, activists were only asking that federal laws be
enforced, given that the police, courts, and vigilantes worked in concert to
punish and exile “outside agitators” and “upstart Negroes” alike. Despite
repeated pleas for protection, the federal government, particularly the
Kennedy administration, turned a deaf ear toward activists, preferring
instead to protect the interests of Dixiecrats.3 As the death toll mounted, a
growing number of activists became disillusioned with nonviolence as a
strategy and ideology. Why subject oneself to repeated beatings when little
was changing?
As in all political struggles, there were conflicting ideologies within the
civil rights movement itself. On the one hand, there was a fairly radical tradition, as manifested in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that was
rooted in extensive community networks and a long history of resistance.4
Upon its defeat by the Mississippi Democratic Party in 1964, however, many
began questioning the efficacy of the civil rights strategy, and the process of
radicalization accelerated. Blacks not only voiced more militant demands but
became critical of Black subjectivity implicit in civil rights ideology. Black
leaders, inspired by revolutionary movements in the Third World, grew
cognizant of how they had been colonized in the United States and the need
to develop an independent and liberated Black consciousness. This new reality could be attained only if Blacks assumed leadership in their struggle and
redefined the terms of the debate. This new ideology was powerfully
expressed by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in their book Black
Black Power was fundamentally different from but related to the civil
rights movement. It was a direct extension of a politics that Black militants
saw as inadequate and thus refashioned into a more far-reaching critique.
The political transition from civil rights to Black Power was accompanied by
a shift in the center of action from the rural South to urban centers. Elaine
Brown described the moment in 1968 when she realized that the Black
Power movement had replaced the civil rights paradigm in Los Angeles.
Seated in a row on the huge stage . . . was the entire leadership of the
new black militant movement, a national movement neither supported
by, endorsed by, nor involving white people. They were a new generation of black men, divorced completely now from the . . . civil-rights
movement of the NAACP and the Urban League and . . . Southern
Christian Leadership Conference. They were young black men no
longer concerned with the business of segregation and integration.
They were young black men who were calling for an end, not only
to discrimination[,] . . . to the denial of civil rights, but to all forms
of oppression of blacks—social, political and economic—on all fronts.
This new leadership was not begging the question but making a demand, a demand it declared it was backing up with armed force, as
symbolized in the hero of that new movement: Huey P. Newton.6
Black Power itself was not a single ideology or political strategy; rather, the
term included an array of ideologies, organizations, and personalities.
Inspired by Malcolm X, Black Power symbolized a deep radicalization of
African Americans’ (and others’) struggle for equality with a focus on selfdetermination and self-defense. Black Power included cultural nationalist
organizations, such as US; more territorially oriented groups, such as the
Republic of New Africa; Marxist organizations, such as the League of
Revolutionary Black Workers; and the revolutionary nationalist BPP.7
The implications of Black Power were significant for all those involved in
social protest. One of the more dramatic consequences was that whites could
no longer assume leadership roles in the struggle for racial equality. As Tom
Hayden described the situation, “Whites… suddenly lost their legitimacy
and their roots in SNCC [the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee]. Ideologically, they could not disagree with the demand for black
control, but the personal consequences were shattering. . . . In time, [whites]
began to see new identities for themselves, in the fledgling consciousness of
women’s rights or the antiwar movement, where new barricades of oppression needed breaking.”8 Of course, whites did not stop working with Blacks,
but the rules of the game had been fundamentally altered.
A second consequence of Black Power was the extent to which it inspired
other people of color to mobilize. In Los Angeles this included, in addition
to Chicanas/os and Japanese Americans, smaller groups like Arab Americans, Vietnamese, and Filipinas/os.9 While the civil rights movement raised
the consciousness of potential activists, Black Power pushed them into
action, eventually resulting in the Red, Yellow, and Brown Power movements. These movements, which I collectively refer to as the “Power movements,” ultimately gave rise to the Third World Left. In some cases, Black
Power directly inspired activism, as in the Yellow Power movement,
whereas in others it contributed to a deeper radicalization, as was the case
with Brown Power. From the Power movements came such organizations as
the BPP, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Brown
Berets, and the Red Guard. A Chicano activist describes below his political
trajectory from engaging in fairly conventional student politics to becoming
the Brown Berets’ Minister of Defense.
I was at ELAC [East Los Angeles College] and ran for student government. At that time ELAC was mostly white, maybe one-third Chicano.
The older GIs started a group called MASA [Mexican American Student
Association]. I went to a meeting to find out what it was all about—
they were into tutoring, scholarships, mentoring. Up until this time I
had bought into the American way of life, the Bill of Rights, and all this
But at the same time as MASA was going on there was also the Teen
Post in Lincoln Heights, the newspaper, La Piranya Coffeehouse, and
UMAS [United Mexican American Students]. I started going to UMAS
meetings and identifying with the Black student movement, what
was happening in the South, SNCC, the Black Panther Party, Stokely
Carmichael, H. Rap Brown. So I started talking to these older Chicano
guys [in MASA] about Stokely and H. Rap Brown, but they weren’t
into it. I saw the difference between them and the Young Citizens for
Chicano Action [the predecessor of the Brown Berets], and I started
hanging out with them. That’s when I split from more traditional
student politics and into more community activism.10
This comment illustrates several themes. For one, it suggests the breadth
and diversity of activism. Young people mobilized around numerous issues
and developed a range of ideologies. In addition, it hints at the rapidity with
which things happened. In a fairly short time, this activist went from being
a stalwart citizen to becoming a leader in one of the most militant Chicana/o
groups in the country. Finally, he openly acknowledges the influence of the
Black Power movement, as in his references to Carmichael and Brown.
One of the things that made Black Power so compelling to other people
of color was its multidimensionality. Unlike the civil rights movement,
which focused on gaining access to the white world, Black Power addressed
the multiple sources of domination that affected oppressed and colonized
people. Black Power was simultaneously about racial pride, self-respect, selfdetermination, and, in some cases, self-defense and economic well-being. It
was through the Power movements that most of the membership of the
Third World Left initially became politically active within their respective
A final outcome of Black Power was that it set the stage for the development of a Third World and international consciousness among U.S. activists.
As Blacks and others began grasping the nature of imperialism, people of
color in the United States began identifying with and acting in solidarity
with Third World people across the globe. It took Black Power to make this
connection because it emphasized the pervasiveness and power of white
supremacy. The movement was no longer just southern Blacks struggling
against a racist order; it was the dispossessed of the world rising up against
their oppressors. This shift in consciousness was evident when James
Forman declared 1967 as “the year of internationalization” and when SNCC
began identifying as a human rights organization rather than a civil rights
group.11 In addition, the development of an international consciousness
paved the way for a greater exposure to various forms of Marxism, as they
were the basis for many Third World revolutions.
Black Power had a deep effect on the white New Left. Because it arose in the
context of the civil rights movement, race, and more specifically a commitment to antiracist politics, had been a defining element of the New Left. In
fact, this commitment was one of the things that set the New Left apart
from the Old Left and forced the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) to struggle for relevance. But just because Black Power forced many white activists
to find new organizational homes did not mean that they abandoned their
antiracist politics. Rather, it led to a new configuration of movement politics.
As one member of the New Left explained, “It’s not like we didn’t talk to
each other. We were closer than in a coalition with the Panthers, but not in
the same organization.”12
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was one of the most influential
New Left organizations. As the civil rights movement was eclipsed by Black
Power, SDS became increasingly radicalized, until, for a variety of reasons,
it splintered into a number of groups. This evolution, however, was anything but straightforward and was due in no small measure to the differing
racial politics of SDS and the Progressive Labor Party (PL). PL was a Maoist
organization that infiltrated SDS in the hopes of further politicizing its
membership along its ideological lines. Originally, PL was characterized by
strong antiracist politics, but this changed as the organization became
increasingly impatient with Black nationalism, arguing that it did little to
help the working class. Eventually, PL opposed Black studies, affirmative
action, and other aspects of Black liberation—goals that SDS held dear.
Nonetheless, a significant element of the SDS membership was attracted to
the PL because of its emphasis on the working class and its discipline, which
contrasted with SDS’s more informal culture.13 The PL eventually took over
SDS, and those who didn’t support it created other organizations, including
the Revolutionary Youth Movement and Weatherman. In contrast to the
PL, Weatherman maintained race at the center of its analysis, as it believed
that the struggles against imperialism and racism were the pillars of the revolution. In recognition of their white privilege, the Weatherman Underground sought to open up a second front in the struggle against white
supremacy and imperialism. Acknowledging the threat that the police posed
to the continuation of the Black struggle, white (and a few Asian) youth
sought to divert some of the mounting pressure on Black revolutionaries by
engaging in highly disruptive, sometimes violent actions.14
Questions of race, and more specifically how much emphasis to give it
and how best to change a racist society, were addressed in very different
ways among the white left. While some organizations, such as PL, came to
repudiate most nationalist and antiracist struggles, others, such as the
Revolutionary Union and the Peace and Freedom Party, saw their primary
mission as promoting an antiracist politics among whites. Because of the
separatist impulses embedded within Black Power, as well as the challenges
associated with building multiracial organizations, people of color, in addition to forming their own groups, sought to create their own spaces within
larger political formations. For example, at the founding convention of the
Peace and Freedom Party a Black and Chicano Caucus “voted to establish
itself as a permanent ongoing body.” Eventually the party ratified the California Coalition Treaty, which emphasized the right to self-determination.15
Although such negotiations were highly contested, the fact that they
occurred suggests how seriously the New Left, or at least parts of it, took the
question of racial inequality.
Other segments of the left, including the CPUSA and the Socialist
Workers Party, presented a somewhat different picture. Like other organizations, they underwent dramatic growth and change during this period as
they sought to emphasize race more. As a result, most left organizations at
least produced a document stating their position on the struggle for racial
equality.16 Nonetheless, some, including the CPUSA, were hesitant to
embrace Black Power and more generally the antiracist struggle because
they saw them as potentially divisive. According to the CPUSA leader
Dorothy Ray Healey, “The Party’s hostile attitude toward the New Left was
probably the greatest political liability we had to contend with in the
1960s.”17 Needless to say, such a position did not help in the recruitment of
people of color. One way the CPUSA tried to compensate was by organizing
Che-Lumumba clubs in Southern California. The cell, or club, was the basic
organizational unit of the party and was typically organized along either
neighborhood or work lines. The Che-Lumumba clubs, named after Che
Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, were basically clubs for African Americans.
While they were technically counter to official CPUSA policy, Healey noted
that if not for the clubs there would have been few Blacks in the party.18
Because of the left’s uneven track record on racial politics, activists of color
who desired a more materialist politics than that offered by the nationalist
movements created a “thirdspace”19 where they could pursue their political
commitments unencumbered by white leftists. This was the space of the
Third World Left. Ideologically, the variant of Marxist theory most compelling to leftists of color was Maoism. Maoism, discussed in chapter 5, was
a relatively recent offshoot of communist theory developed by Mao Tse-tung
in the 1950s. What resonated with activists was Mao’s concept of the “Three
Worlds.” Building on Lenin’s insights concerning uneven development, Mao
conceptualized inequality in terms of the nation (rather than race), emphasizing both the role of U.S. imperialism and the centrality of national liberation—a view that many groups understood as applicable to their struggle.
This position allowed revolutionary nationalism to be seen as a legitimate
struggle, rather than as secondary to class. Maoism was also important insofar as it facilitated an international consciousness among U.S. activists,
thereby promoting solidarity with Third World peoples. Some Maoist organizations were the Black Workers Congress, the Communist League, the
Congress of Afrikan People, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist),20 the October League, the Revolutionary
Workers League, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers’ Organization,
the August Twenty-ninth Movement, Wei Min She, Workers’ Viewpoint
Organization, and I Wor Kuen.21 Many of these organizations were composed of a single nationality, but some, including the August Twenty-ninth
Movement, the October League, and the Communist League, were multinational. The splintering along national lines was a stumbling block for the
CPUSA and like-minded organizations, which believed fervently in integration and saw nation-specific organizations as divisive.The popularity of these
organizations, however, suggests that people of color had a genuine need to
create their own spaces outside the purview of whites. Such organizations,
nonetheless, continued to engage with multinational and noncommunist
groups associated with the various Power movements. Together, nation-specific and multinational organizations should be seen as the two threads that
made up the richly textured fabric of the Third World Left.
The Black Panther Party
The BPP was a leading organization in the Black Power movement. Its slogan “All Power to the People!” and the imagery of Blacks carrying guns
were symbolic of a new political moment. Although the BPP began in
Oakland, California, in 1966 under the leadership of Bobby Seale and Huey
Newton, its roots can be traced to various traditions of Black self-defense,
including the Defenders, the Deacons, and the Black Panthers of Lowndes
County, Alabama.22 Even in Los Angeles self-defense cadres had begun
patrolling the community before the establishment of the BPP, suggesting
the centrality of these issues to African Americans. What made the BPP different, however, was that in addition to self-defense it developed an impressive social and political program to both serve and politicize urban Blacks.
After the Watts uprising, Newton and Seale saw the need for an alternative political formation. In particular, the two were deeply concerned with
police abuse, poverty, and the need for self-determination. Thus it was no
coincidence that one of their first public acts was to stand about armed (as
was then legal in California) and defiantly observe police conducting an
arrest. The momentous nature of this event cannot be overestimated. It galvanized thousands as it directly challenged state power. According to one
interviewee, “When Newton stood up and made the police back down, it just
caught on like wildfire.” Soon afterwards, Huey and his comrades instated
themselves as officers and developed a Ten-Point Platform listing their
demands. Although the platform evolved over time, the initial document
suggests what the early BPP was about (see table 8).[InsertTabl8outher]
Several themes emerge from a careful reading of the platform. First,
there is a clear emphasis on social reproduction issues: that is, what people
need to reproduce themselves, including housing, food, education, and
employment. Such concerns would ultimately be expressed through an
array of survival programs. Survival programs, including the widely publicized Free Breakfast Program, sought not only to meet people’s basic needs
but also to politicize them. Services varied by location, so that, for instance,
the Los Angeles BPP provided transportation to take people to visit their
incarcerated friends and family, whereas other cities offered medical and
dry-cleaning services. Figure 4 shows an advertisement for some of Los
Angeles’s survival programs.23[InsertFigu4abother]
The second major theme of the platform is the issue of state control and
terror. Urban Blacks were heavily controlled by the state, as seen in their
relationship to the police, courts, and systems of incarceration. One former
Panther explained the deeply historical roots of police repression.
The only ones who really get to kick you in the ass are those who are
under the color of authority. The courts, the judges, and the police are
able to do it and get away with it. The police have a system behind them
that was very similar to how the settlers would call on the army to attack the Native Americans. Because they had the military behind them,
they were able to successfully wipe out whole areas of Native Americans, who were simply saying, “This is our land, and we have a right
to defend ourselves.” The Black Panther Party is simply an extension
of that kind of conflict in a racist society.
As a result of this structural oppression, the Panthers demanded such things
as the release from prison of all Blacks, an end to police violence, and a call
Table 8 Black Panther platform and program, October 1966
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the CAPITALIST man of our Black
4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this
decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true
history and our role in the present-day society.
6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city
prisons and jails.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury
of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the
Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as
our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be
held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be
allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people
as to their national destiny.
Source: Black Panther, August 9, 1969, 26.
for fair trials. The drawing shown in figure 5 illustrates the degree to which
the BPP believed that all Blacks, including men, women, and children,
needed to defend themselves against the police. Because of its rhetoric and
graphics, the visibility of guns, and the reality of police raids and shoot-outs,
this element of the BPP is perhaps most widely recognized, although it is
only one of several themes.[Insertfigu5abother]
A third political focus is the call for self-determination, evident in the
demand for freedom and, specifically, a plebiscite. Although never achieved,
this loomed as one of the larger and more abstract goals guiding the BPP. The
fourth and final theme of the party centers on economic justice. Besides
demanding that the material needs of African Americans be met, the Platform
recognized capitalism as an economic system detrimental to the Black community. While this may seem vague, it is critical because recognizing the
power of capitalism enabled the BPP, unlike other Black Power groups, to
work with non-Blacks. In addition to working with whites, the BPP engaged
Figure 4. Survival
programs of the
Southern California
chapter of the Black
Panther Party.
Source: People’s
News Service, no. 29,
1970. Box 38, collection 50, Department
of Special Collections, UCLA Library.
in coalition and solidarity work with other oppressed people across the United
States and around the world, including Palestinians, the Vietnamese, Puerto
Ricans, Africans, and people from Northern Ireland. Indeed, the BPP was
treated as a foreign dignitary in some Third World countries.24
The rhetoric, goals, practices, and style of the BPP spread rapidly, and
chapters were established in major cities, including New York, Philadelphia,
Baltimore, Newark, Chicago, New Haven, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles,
and some minor ones as well. Although the BPP lasted well into the seventies, its apogee was relatively brief. Shortly after Newton and Seale established the party, Newton was charged and imprisoned for shooting a police
officer. While he was in prison, the BPP underwent phenomenal growth,
part of which was due to the “Free Huey” campaign. Upon Newton’s release
and return to leadership, however, the party shifted, placing greater emphasis on political work than on self-defense and, as one interviewee explained,
causing a major rift.
Actually, when Huey got out of jail, I believe that was in ’70 or ’71, a lot
of changes started happening like putting down the gun, like no longer
defending yourself. When he went to [jail] it was a few hundred people,
Figure 5. The
importance of selfdefense to the Black
Panther Party. Source:
Drawing by Emory
Douglas. Black Panther
Party Community News
Service, no. 29, 1970, p. 6.
Box 38, collection 50,
Department of Special
Collections, UCLA
Library. Courtesy of
Emory Douglas.
when he got out there were thousands. There were chapters nationwide,
we even had a couple of international chapters. I don’t know if it overwhelmed Huey or what, but there were a lot of differences. He was in
the penthouse, with tailor-made suits, Jane Fonda was there, and most
of us were kicked out of our homes, living fifteen to a house, sleeping
in parks, sleeping in our cars.
As the quote implies, the BPP was seriously hampered by internal factors,
particularly tensions stemming from trying to balance self-defense and
political organizing. At one point, for example, Elaine Brown ran for city
office in Oakland, while in other cities the focus was still on self-defense.
Such schizophrenic behavior reflected not only a political divide but also
larger class tensions. Nonetheless, the central question was how much to
emphasize politics (electoral politics, survival programs, coalition building,
etc.) versus self-defense. Eldridge Cleaver thought Newton was going soft,
while Newton, concerned about the violence and bloodshed, wanted to lead
the party in another direction. Eventually, these differing philosophies led to
a party split.25 Complicating the situation was Newton’s extravagant spending on personal luxuries, which contradicted his expressed ideals. Some felt
that he had sold out, while others attributed the change in his leadership
style to his abuse of drugs. In any event, problematic leadership, coupled
with a whole series of internal contradictions, including sexism, violence,
substance abuse, the murder and incarceration of large numbers of its membership, and a lack of political agreement, all contributed to the party’s end.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that the BPP’s demise was due
solely to its own internal dissonance, as it was continually beset by state
repression. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, declared the BPP to be the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States. Accordingly, the FBI,
working in conjunction with local law enforcement, sought to destroy the
party. They did so by sowing discontent, planting outright lies, deploying
informants and provocateurs, and assassinating Panther leaders, such as Fred
Hampton of Chicago. As the BPP came increasingly under attack, and some
chapters, including Southern California’s, were literally destroyed by police
attacks, the leadership decided to regroup in Oakland, where, although they
focused more on political organizing, the problems continued.26
The Southern California Chapter The Southern California chapter of the
BPP was established in 1968 by Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Carter, a
leader of the Slauson gang, met Eldridge Cleaver while in Soledad prison,
and Cleaver then introduced him to the BPP. Upon his release, Carter
returned to Los Angeles and established a chapter. By the time he was
assassinated in 1969, he had managed to create one of the largest and most
distinctive chapters in the party. The Southern California chapter was
notable for its size, commitment to self-defense, intense police repression,
and leadership.
In A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown recounts how Carter introduced the
BPP to the Los Angeles Black community. At a poetry event organized in
1967 by the Black Congress, an umbrella organization for local African
American groups, Carter proclaimed,
I came here to make an announcement: We have just officially formed
the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party for SelfDefense. . . . I also came here to let you know that it is the position of
the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that we are the vanguard of
revolution in the United States…. And the vanguard party is declaring
all-out-war on the pig. We are declaring war, and we are declaring that
from this point forward, nobody will speak about Black Power or revolution unless he’s willing to follow the example of the vanguard, willing
to pick up the gun, ready to die for the people.27
Founding members of the Southern California chapter recall the beginning
as somewhat less dramatic but as demanding the same level of commitment.
A small group was invited to a meeting, and from that a dedicated nucleus
emerged. Initially, the chapter emulated the Mau Mau, a group of Kenyans
who resisted colonial power, but it was difficult to maintain such a commitment among the growing membership, as one founding member described:
“The Mau Mau took an oath that they wouldn’t give in, nor give up. So
when the party started we took a [similar] oath . . . . Then, as it expanded
and more people got involved, we had to back away from that because a lot
of people joined that weren’t that serious. But when it started, that was the
commitment. They understood what we were fighting against. We didn’t
have any illusions as far as victory, but we also knew that unless we stood
up and made a stand, the repression would just continue.”
The Southern California chapter stretched from San Diego to Bakersfield. Most states had one chapter, but because of California’s size there was
a northern and a southern one. The Los Angeles office was considered a
regional one, signaling its somewhat higher status. Aside from being second
in size only to the Northern California chapter headquartered in Oakland,
the Southern California chapter played a leading role in establishing other
chapters, such as Houston and Dallas. All chapters were under the Central
Committee in Oakland, and within each chapter was a hierarchy that
included field marshals, section leaders, subsection leaders, members, community supporters, and the underground. The party divided the city into
sections, and each section had a leader who was basically responsible for
everything that went on in his or her territory, including selling the newspaper, political education classes, defense, security, and the general wellbeing of the membership. Each section, in turn, was then divided into subsections. Each subsection was composed of small squads of two or three
people who reported directly to the subsection leader, who in turn reported
to the section leader. There were approximately ten BPP offices in the Los
Angeles area, including ones in Pasadena, in Venice, and throughout South
Los Angeles. The following quote from a former Panther outlines how a
member could move through various positions.
I started as a community supporter for about a week; then I decided I
wanted to be a Panther. I was ready to die for the people. It began with a
probation that was several weeks in length. I was given an orientation to
the party, I had to memorize the Ten-Point Program, conduct myself as
a Panther at all times, I had to understand and relate to the chain of
command and the discipline process. I underwent survival training, the
use, safety, and care of weapons, law, and emergency medical treatment.
Upon completion of my probation, I put in a lot of work at the 84th
and Broadway office. I participated in various missions and soon became
a section leader. As a section leader, not only was it my duty to be
abreast of things, I had to resolve conflicts, explain politics affecting
my area, make sure provisions were made for the needy, provide protection and awareness for community residents. It was also my responsibility to investigate shootings, murders, and the incarceration of community residents by the local police.
The chapter was noted for its emphasis on self-defense. One reason for
this was that nascent self-defense efforts existed before the introduction of
the BPP, as seen in the Community Alert Patrol, whose purpose was to
observe and monitor the police. In fact, one former patrol member said that
Newton and Seale saw the organization on a visit to Los Angeles and were
so impressed that they decided simply to modify the tactic by adding guns.28
In addition to such organized activity, armed individuals patrolled together
informally, as one founding member recounted:
Our history has been one of slavery, segregation, lynching, and burning,
and every generation has found some kind of reason to excuse it and
say, “Well, it’ll get better.” We just decided that that wasn’t the position
we were going to take. We took the position that we would go tit-for-tat,
bullet for bullet, whatever it took. And basically that’s what the Black
Panther Party represented. When [Newton] came down here, there was
a bunch of people ready for it. It wasn’t like I had to change my opinion
or philosophy or anything because it was already my opinion and
philosophy. So we got involved right at the beginning, ten, fifteen,
twenty people, and it grew.
A second factor contributing to the chapter’s focus on self-defense was significant gang membership and the leadership of Geronimo Pratt. Pratt, who
had served in Vietnam and was a member of the chapter, played a pivotal role
in training the BPP in self-defense. This, coupled with Los Angeles’s widespread gang structure and the extraordinarily repressive nature of the Los
Angeles Police Department, resulted in a chapter with a large underground
and a self-defense orientation. As one interviewee recounted, “What happened in Los Angeles was a unique experience. Bunchy Carter was the leader
of the Slauson gang. What he did was [make] his gang the only gang.”
The overall size of the Southern California chapter is unclear. No interviewee was sure, and estimates ranged from five hundred to several thousand. One reason for such ambiguity was the underground, which was
structured so that no one knew it in its entirety. That way, if someone was
forced to talk, he or she could reveal only limited information. The underground was composed of small cells that carried out missions together and
individually. Some of the units had names, such as the Wolverines. Also
complicating the situation is uncertainty over what constituted membership. As one former Panther pointed out, do you count those that are willing to house and harbor Panthers at great personal risk or only those
engaged as public activists?
That African Americans in Los Angeles (and other cities) gravitated so
quickly to the BPP suggests that they were on the same page politically
before the party developed and were facing similar conditions. It also suggests the extent to which the ideology of the civil rights movement had collapsed in urban ghettos. Thousands joined the BPP partly because it was a
genuine expression of the experiences of a generation of urban Blacks. All
that was needed was a charismatic leader to make it happen. At the national
level, that person was Huey Newton. In Southern California, it was
Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. According to one former Panther,
Bunchy was a natural leader, he had been the leader of the renegade
Slausons, he had been to prison, he was well educated, he was a poet.
You name it, he could do it. And he knew history. He knew Black history,
he knew world history, he was almost a scholar of history. He could fight.
He didn’t have any fear. He could dance, he could drink, and he could
lead. The Los Angeles chapter was really built around his personality,
and it started expanding and getting bigger, and going in different directions. Until his assassination, he was the leader. There was no question,
there was no doubt. And he ran it the way it should have been run.
Although Carter was a legendary leader, he was not alone in building the
chapter. Pratt contributed to the party as a whole, and so did Masai Hewitt.
Hewitt (deceased) was well regarded by all interviewees and eventually
became the party’s minister of education. In addition, there was significant
female leadership, as seen in such women as Gwen Goodlowe and Elaine
Brown. Despite this wealth of leadership, however, the chapter faltered after
Carter’s assassination.
Carter and John Huggins were shot to death in a conflict with US, a rival
organization, in January 1969. As cultural nationalists, US eschewed working with whites (and other people of color) and developed a highly patriarchal, Afrocentric philosophy. This was at odds with the BPP’s politics and
stated desire to fight on behalf of all oppressed people. Not surprisingly, the
conflict was exacerbated by the local police. The BPP believed that US was
working with the L.A. Police Department, and it did in fact receive some
local monies. The BPP felt that these funds were part of a larger effort to
weaken the more radical organizations and support the less overtly political
ones, such as US. It is also known that the FBI was aware of this conflict and
sought to use it to its advantage. Realizing the potential damage that such a
conflict could engender, the BPP decided that all tensions with Black organizations were to be settled nonantagonistically. Unfortunately, this executive order was not adhered to and there were violent episodes between the
BPP and US, culminating in the assassinations of Carter and Huggins at
UCLA.29 These deaths were tragic in their own right but also contributed
greatly to the demise of the chapter. Indeed, several interviewees said that
the chapter died with the murders—they just hadn’t known it at the time.
In addition to interorganizational conflicts, the chapter was beset with
other problems. As previously mentioned, Newton becoming increasingly
out of touch, and his right-hand man, David Hilliard, alienated some of the
membership with his harsh treatment. But the greatest problem, by far, was
the split between Newton and Cleaver on self-defense. Many chapter members were deeply attached to the principle of self-defense, so the dispute had
devastating consequences for the chapter. For instance, Pratt was being considered for the Central Committee but was replaced for several reasons,
including his commitment to self-defense. Subsequent efforts by the party
leadership to eliminate Pratt led to expulsions, betrayals, and the abandonment of other party members. Such chaos and callous treatment were devastating to chapter members and led some deeply committed individuals to
leave the organization.
The conflict was also an expression of the organization’s class tensions.
The lives of the rank-and-file members were far different from those of the
BPP leadership. Life was a constant struggle for many members, as they
were essentially in a state of war. For such individuals, many of whom had
never gone to college and had limited hopes of upward mobility, it was
unthinkable that the party could shift its focus to politics. In contrast,
Panthers who were students, or came from the middle class, were apt to
embrace a more political strategy. Such individuals were often assigned to
teach political education classes, published the newspaper, and assumed leadership roles within the organization. In turn, many of the rank and file held
such individuals responsible for pushing Newton toward a political path.
As can be seen, there were many substantive political disagreements
within the BPP, but as a nondemocratic organization it was ill equipped to
resolve them productively. Instead, the organization’s hierarchical decisionmaking apparatus, reliance on force, and paranoid tendencies led many individuals to leave the party, despite their continuing commitment to the Black
community, social justice, and self-defense. In December 1969 the Los
Angeles Police Department initiated a devastating attack on the chapter’s
headquarters at Central and 41st that essentially destroyed the chapter.30
This, coupled with the party’s retrenchment in Oakland, led to the temporary suspension of the Southern California chapter. While some party
members went to Oakland, some followed the Cleaver faction, and others
tried to maintain the spirit of the party through other initiatives, such as the
Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA). In the late 1970s, under the leadership of Kwaku Duren, a new organization was established that called itself
the New Panther Vanguard Movement, although its ties to the original BPP
are disputed. The Southern California chapter of the BPP lasted only briefly
and preceded both East Wind and CASA, but it had an enormous effect on
the radical politics of both Chicanas/os and Japanese Americans.
Yellow Power
Unlike the Panthers, we weren’t heroes.
—Art Ishi, quoted in Martin Wong,
“Art Ishi and Guy Kurose”
Although I have emphasized the importance of Black Power to the Third
World Left, the rise of an Asian American left must be appreciated on its
own terms. Indeed, the Asian American movement was distinct in many
ways from both the Black and Chicana/o movements. Though inspired by
Black Power, it arose in response to the concrete problems facing Asian
The development of an Asian American movement posed special chalSERVING THE PEOPLE AND VANGUARD POLITICS / 105
lenges. For one, most Asian Americans did not yet identify as a group;
rather, they identified along national lines.32 In addition, many, including
the majority of Japanese Americans, were not altogether comfortable with
political agitation. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that the pre–
World War II radical tradition among Japanese Americans had all but vanished. Finally, more than a few Japanese Americans had bought into the
model minority myth and did not see themselves, or wish to see themselves, in the same light as their Black and Latina/o neighbors.33 In recounting early organizing efforts in New York, Wei has described the painstaking
way early activists had to reach out to each Asian American they encountered at antiwar demonstrations.34 Such was not the case in Southern
California, where many young Asian Americans were poised for action
based on their growing political consciousness.
Asian American radicalism differed from Black and Chicana/o activism
in several respects. One key difference was that activists, including those
predating Yellow Power, were more likely to support and join organizations
associated with other racial/ethnic groups, especially African Americans. For
example, Yuri Kochiyama was active in the Congress of Racial Equality and
African American Unity, Richard Aoki was a field marshal in the Oakland
BPP, Grace Lee Boggs devoted her life to the Black struggle, Shinya Ono
joined Weatherman, and Wendy Yoshimura was associated with the
Symbionese Liberation Front.35 Asian Americans joined such organizations
out of solidarity, an awakening identity as people of color, but also because
nothing comparable existed in their community early on. Such interethnic
participation accounts for some of the ideological and political overlap
between the Black and Yellow Power movements, but certainly not all. In
contrast, Chicanas/os and African Americans were much more likely to
focus on their own communities.
A unique feature of the Asian American movement was its historical
trajectory. Because there was no Asian American civil rights movement
comparable to those of African and Mexican Americans in the 1950s and
1960s, the Yellow Power movement did not evolve from an earlier political
ideology. Of course, the Japanese American Citizens League existed, but
even in more conservative eras its overly cautious politics were contested by
many Japanese Americans.36 Because Yellow Power was not hindered by
the same historical baggage and conflict as the Black and Chicana/o movements, it developed more independently and moved quickly to the left.37 On
the other hand, Asian Americans were basically starting from scratch without an array of organizational institutions to draw upon.
In Los Angeles both universities and the community were sites of move106 / THE THIRD WORLD LEFT
ment activism.38 College campuses were crucial to the development of Asian
American activism, as young people were grappling collectively with questions of politics, identity, and strategy. A first step for many was articulating
an alternative consciousness and identity. This was actually a three-part
process. First, activists rejected the label Oriental, because of its colonial
connotations, in favor of Asian American, which was more accurate geographically and emphasized a shared U.S. experience.39 Second, individuals
began to add a pan-Asian dimension to their already existing national identities. Finally, radical activists changed the meaning of Asian American to an
identity rooted in Third World ideology. Amy Uyematsu’s article “The
Emergence of Yellow Power” helped facilitate this process:
Asian Americans can no longer afford to watch the black-and-white
struggle from the sidelines. They have their own cause to fight, since
they are also victims—with less visible scars—of white institutionalized racism. A yellow movement has been set into motion by the black
power movement. Addressing itself to the unique problems of Asian
Americans, this “yellow power” movement is relevant to the black
power movement in that both are part of the Third World struggle
to liberate all colored people.
. . . Frightened “yellows” allow the white public to use the “silent
oriental” stereotype against the black protest. The presence of twenty
million blacks in America poses an actual physical threat to the white
system. Fearful whites tell militant blacks that the acceptable criterion
for behavior is exemplified in the quiet, passive Asian American.
. . . The yellow power movement envisages a new role for Asian
Americans: It is a rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and symbolizes the birth of a new Asian—one who will recognize and deal with
injustices. The shout of Yellow Power, symbolic of our new direction, is
reverberating in the quiet corridors of the Asian American
Uyematsu identifies several of the impulses that were shaping the nascent
Asian American movement. For instance, she underscores the extent to
which Asian Americans were conscious of their ambiguous role in a bipolar
racial structure and the way that supposedly positive stereotypes were used
to further oppress African Americans. Nonetheless, Uyematsu is not suggesting that Asian American activism is merely a response to Black-white
political tensions. Rather, there is a call to form a movement that addresses
Asian Americans’ own experiences of discrimination and oppression. “The
Emergence of Yellow Power,” originally published in Gidra, was rapidly disseminated and had a powerful effect on many young activists. Its publication was soon followed by such conferences as “Are You Yellow?” and the
“Asian American Experience in America—Yellow Identity,” both of which
provided forums to discuss issues and inspired young people to organize.41
Asian American organizations developed on several campuses in
Southern California. While some of these groups focused on providing support and cultural activities, many others, such as the Asian American
Political Alliance and Orientals Concerned on the UCLA campus, were more
explicitly political. Ethnic studies, as mentioned in chapter 3, also played a
pivotal role in the development of the movement, as it contributed to students’ political consciousness and encouraged community ties. Community
involvement, in fact, was a cornerstone of early ethnic studies programs.
Mo Nishida has argued that by 1969 two key themes could be identified
within the movement: Identity and Serve the People. As he has described
the dominant thinking, “We are people with no identity except the white
man’s and the only place and ways you could find your identity was to
serve the people in our respective communities.”42 The burgeoning Asian
American movement did in fact embody these themes. There was a burst of
activism, and new organizations proliferated across the country, especially
in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Southern California. In Los
Angeles a range of groups and programs covered numerous topics and
interests, including community and social services, the arts, media, labor,
education, women’s issues, and politics.
Key among movement institutions was the newspaper Gidra, begun by
UCLA students who later went off campus.43 Working solely as volunteers,
the Gidra collective managed to produce a monthly publication for five
years with a national readership. Gidra was extremely important because it
provided a regular forum for the exchange of ideas and documented and
analyzed the movement in fairly self-conscious ways. Besides highlighting
the activities and histories of movement organizations, Gidra provided news
coverage and analysis. Moreover, because it was not the organ of a single
group, it illustrated the breadth of the movement. According to one founding member, “Because the newspaper was mobile and in ink, it had a real
permanence to it. We found out similar things were going on with Asians in
New York, in the Midwest, [and] in Canada. . . . So there were all these connections that were made nationally.”
Community was the second anchor of the movement. During the late
sixties, both drug abuse and gang participation reached crisis proportions
among Japanese American youth, prompting widespread activism. The reasons for these problems were complex.44 First, Sansei were largely the children of camp internees, and many grew up in homes affected by the pain
and confusion of unexpressed and unresolved trauma. Simply put, the
internment created a crisis in Nikkei families. One Japanese American
activist cogently summarized its influence: “It was not until I was in college
that I learned about the camp experience. Prior to this time I was told that
Manzanar was a small town in California where Japanese people lived.
When I learned more about the camps, many aspects of my life and identity as a Nikkei person began to fit into place—the family pressure to
‘blend’ into the society and not rock the boat; the pressure to act the right
way and the stress upon education as a means to overcome racial hostility.”45 Or, as another activist put it, “It was like there was an elephant in the
room and nobody would talk about it.” Certainly not all Nikkei families
responded this way, but the approach was quite widespread. Second, and
relatedly, because many Nisei parents felt that the best way to ensure the
acceptance and well-being of their children was for them to become professionals, Sansei were under intense pressure to succeed, and many found
themselves unwilling and/or unable to meet such expectations. Some
youth internalized the racist ideologies of the larger society and sought
professional and social success to prove their “Americanness.” But many
found themselves struggling against discriminatory barriers. Unlike other
groups, Japanese Americans were expected to be quiet and behave and thus
did not have sanctioned outlets to express the anger and indignation that
accompanied their racially subordinated status. A clear set of expectations
was imposed on Japanese American youth by the society, community, and
family. Consequently, many young people turned to drugs in an effort to
Janice Tanaka, in her film When You’re Smiling, reports that in 1971
thirty-one young Sansei in the Los Angeles area died. Despite the efforts of
the Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese American daily, to obscure the causes of
death by, for example, attributing deaths to heart attacks, she and many
others believe they were drug related.47 Activists realized that the larger
Japanese American community was ignoring the problem and that mainstream service organizations were ill prepared to serve them. Besides the
general reluctance of social service agencies to address the needs of particular ethnic groups, there was an assumption that Japanese Americans took
care of their own and did not need assistance, although this was simply
untrue. Thus young people in Los Angeles took it upon themselves to address this problem and formed organizations such as the Yellow Brotherhood, Asian American Hardcore, and Japanese American Community
Services–Asian Involvement (JACS-AI). Activists aimed not only to rebuild
their community but also to do political intervention. The Yellow Brotherhood was composed primarily of streetwise Nikkei, including former prisSERVING THE PEOPLE AND VANGUARD POLITICS / 109
oners and/or drug users. Not everyone was comfortable with the Yellow
Brotherhood’s occasional use of force, however, which prompted Asian
American Hardcore to develop an alternative approach. Eventually, Hardcore aligned itself with the BPP and began working with JACS-AI.48
While many organizations were male centered, women did participate,
and there was a vibrant Asian American women’s movement, which
included such organizations as Asian Sisters.49 Though many groups served
a particular constituency, several drew the “lumpen” elements of the
Japanese American community, including former gang members and exconvicts (many of whom were older), into political organizations. Due to the
social and spatial fragmentation that the Nikkei were undergoing, many
young people did not realize the diversity of their community. As one former East Wind member suggested,
For a lot of Asian students, it was a new experience connecting with the
poor of the community, the ex-gang members, and people who had been
to prison. It’s probably true in every community, but especially in the
Japanese American community there was this sense of shame, the sense
of being the model minority and being good students and high achievers
and all. In that kind of culture you have a separation with people who
were “bad guys” and that was engrained in kids, “You don’t mess with
people who are from the streets.” That was broken down in the sixties.
The movement was created by a combination of students, graduate students, and also people whose experiences were mostly on the street, the
working class.
The Yellow Brotherhood and Asian American Hardcore helped drug users
become sober and rebuild their lives. Besides addressing drug abuse, they
became sites of political discussion and one of the launching pads for the
community-based left. While some of these individuals later established
social service organizations geared toward Asian Americans,50 others pursued community-based arts, while still others followed an explicitly political path, joining the New Communist movement in the 1970s.
As both students and community residents became more politically
aware, study groups proliferated. Study groups were extremely popular and
could be found in the women’s, antiwar, and antiracist movements. Within
the left, study groups have a long tradition, as study has always been part of
Marxism-Leninism. Besides introducing people to theory, study clarifies
larger social and economic processes, promotes political development, and
fosters discipline. Numerous activists, including Japanese Americans, were
drawn to study groups in order to better understand the world and how to
transform it. According to one interviewee, “As people learned more history,
about the world and society in terms of economics and politics, there was a
corresponding thirst for more understanding of what makes things the way
they are and how you change. [Unlike today], people were looking for a
coherent ideology that explains social processes and history. So naturally we
looked to those forces that were fighting what we considered to be the common enemy, U.S. imperialism. There were a lot of people who started study
groups. That was one step beyond teach-ins, people reading the same books
together and discussing them.” According to Roy Nakano, Garbagemen,
named after a New York garbage collectors’ strike, was the first MarxistLeninist Asian American study group to emerge in Los Angeles, and
although it lasted only one and half years, it was instrumental in laying the
groundwork for future left organizations.51 Among Los Angeles–area Asian
American study groups, two tendencies emerged: multinationalism and
nationalism, a parallel seen among other leftists of color. Multinationalism
emphasizes working with other nationalities, whereas nationalism privileges working with co-ethnics. Although chapter 5 discusses these issues in
detail, clarifying the distinctions now is important for understanding the
development of East Wind. According to one interviewee, “There were a
large number of political collectives that were forming within the Asian
American community. There was one in Chinatown, there was KDP
[Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino] in the Filipino community. A couple of them were substantially Japanese American but had other Asian
Americans in it [them] as well, [such as] Storefront, on the Westside.” While
several organizations worked closely with other oppressed nationalities,
others focused on Asian Americans or nation-specific groups. East Wind
was representative of this latter tendency.
East Wind East Wind was created in 1972 in response to the desire of some
activists for a “political cadre organization in the community to give analysis and overall direction and to be involved in the party-building process.”52
Initial membership drew from study groups, the Community/Workers
Collective, the Westside Collective, Asian American Hardcore, JACS-AI, the
Gidra collective, and assorted individuals. One interviewee described the
membership as consisting primarily of the main leaders of local mass
organizations within the Los Angeles Asian American movement. Essentially, two streams of activism, campus and community, merged in the
Community/Workers Collective, a predecessor of East Wind. The collective
was formed when some members of Asian American Hardcore sought to
develop a politics that went beyond drug issues.53 One interviewee who had
been a member of both groups recalled,
The group [Hardcore] evolved to the point where they decided they
needed a political living collective. Some people decided to go with it and
others decided to leave. It was a real commitment. They also invited
some women to live in this collective. . . . I don’t remember what the
criteria [were], but there was a big discussion and you were [voted on]
by the whole group. It wasn’t like you joined because you were related
to somebody, but you [had to be] on your own, involved, and committed
to some sort of principles. You had to be willing to really, totally, collectivize your life, everything you owned.
There were thirteen of us at the beginning in this collective in East
L.A. We lived in this two-story house, that interestingly enough, a
group of people in the community collected money to pay our rent.
John Saito spearheaded it. So there was a lot of support. . . . There was
people’s work going on out of the JAC’s office and people thought that it
was a good thing. Not everybody, but this segment of progressive Nisei
supported it. I look back on it and I don’t think we appreciated it as
much as we should have.
As a Marxist-Leninist organization, East Wind was highly disciplined,
and members’ lives were filled with meetings, study, and community work.
The collective consisted of twenty-five to thirty members, but with a core of
fifteen. East Wind had two key organizational structures: the Central
Committee and work units. The Central Committee, which was elected
annually, was the primary decision-making body, while the work units were
composed of those engaged in mass work around labor, community, youth,
and so forth.
East Wind was different from the BPP in that its community work was
not limited to its own programs. Although East Wind took the lead in some
projects, including the takeover of the Resthaven mental health facility in
Chinatown, activists were dispersed throughout the community, working in
labor, the redevelopment of Little Tokyo, Gidra, and the Pioneer Senior
Center, to name just a few projects. Besides providing necessary services and
creating social change, East Wind supported other minority groups and
sought to raise the political consciousness of all Japanese Americans.
The living collective was another distinct feature of Japanese American
activism. Although both Chicana/o activists and the Panthers had versions
of collective living, the practice was most developed among Japanese
Americans. In fact, Japanese American living collectives existed before East
Wind, whereas Panthers, for example, began living together only after joining the party. Besides providing inexpensive housing, living collectives
offered the opportunity to forge alternative lifestyles as part of a larger revolutionary practice.
When East Wind initially formed it was composed primarily of Japanese
American activists with similar political tendencies. Early on, revolutionary
nationalism was the dominant ideology, but in conjunction with larger
political shifts it became more Marxist-Leninist and Maoist in the mid-seventies. While most members’ time was spent literally serving the people,
some members argued that the cadre required more time for study, theory,
and political development. The group agreed to try this approach, but some
members were frustrated with this shift in emphasis, even leaving because
of it. Eventually, it was decided to reduce the commitment to study and prioritize community work once again.
As the seventies progressed, the New Communist movement shifted
toward party building and consolidation. East Wind spent considerable time
exploring commonalities with other groups before joining the League of
Revolutionary Struggle, a multinational organization that had already
incorporated I Wor Kuen and the August Twenty-ninth Movement. Not all
made the move, as some objected to the shift, but the majority made the
transition.54 The League of Revolutionary Struggle formally dissolved in
1990, at which time the remnants of East Wind also died, although individuals from both East Wind and the League of Revolutionary Struggle are still
active in the community today.
The Chicana/o Movement
The Chicana/o movement can be described as a series of community and
campus-based struggles across the southwestern United States “agitating
for social and political change and promoting a militant version of self-help
and racial solidarity.”55 Community activists mobilized around long-standing grievances and concerns, including poverty, political disenfranchisement, land rights, and working conditions. Student activists served the community and were deeply engaged in questions of Chicana/o identity and
The political landscape of Chicana/o activism shifted in the mid-sixties in
response to the Vietnam War, growing ethnic consciousness, the influence of
Black Power, and frustration with Mexican Americans’ social and economic
marginalization. These forces resulted in an expansion of struggles, organizations, and activists and a growing militancy. As among African Americans,
the younger generation became disillusioned with the strategies and tactics
of their parents and were no longer willing to accept and tolerate what previous generations had endured.
One arena that dramatically illustrated this shift was identity. The previous generation encouraged the assimilation of Mexican Americans and even
argued for their designation as white. Organizations such as the League of
United Latin American Citizens and the GI Forum hoped to “Americanize”
their constituents by emphasizing hard work, education, English, and patriotism.56 Such politics reflected the civil rights and integrationist strategies of
the Cold War era. In contrast, the Chicana/o movement of the sixties and
seventies sought to validate mestizaje57 and affirm Chicanas/os’ indigenous
In addition to racial pride, the movement tapped into long-standing
frustrations and unleashed a torrent of activism. The early movement was
diverse not only in terms of the issues addressed but also in terms of its
range of ideologies. It included such struggles as La Alianza Federal de
Pueblas Libres, a northern New Mexico group fighting for the return of
communal grant lands; a series of walkouts in East L.A. high schools; and,
of course, the United Farm Workers. Born in California’s Central Valley,
United Farm Workers attained international prominence as it urged consumers to boycott grapes, with its leader, Cesar Chávez, becoming an icon
of el movimiento. Other pivotal organizations included the Crusade for
Justice in Denver, focused on youth organizing and led by Corky Gonzales,
and La Raza Unida Party, an alternative third party begun in Texas that
eventually spread throughout the Southwest. Many Chicanas/os felt
strongly that a third party was necessary to achieve political power since
neither the Democrat or Republican parties were willing to attend to their
concerns.58 La Raza Unida was so promising initially that more than a few
Black leaders studied it as a possible model.
One of the legacies of el movimiento was the creation of a consolidated
regional identity among Chicanas/os. Given the geographic concentration of
Mexican Americans in the Southwest at the time, it was inevitable that
political activity would be spatially concentrated. This led Chicana/o
activists across the region to begin seeing themselves as one people with a
common heritage. Like Japanese Americans, Chicanas/os had to figure out
who they were and how they fit into a bipolar racial structure. Mexican
Americans were neither white nor Black, and although nominally more
accepted by whites, they had a low socioeconomic position and were even
more politically marginalized than Blacks.
In March 1969 activists gathered in Denver for the National Chicano
Liberation Conference, where they adopted “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.”
The poet Alurista argued that Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs,
was located in the contemporary southwestern United States, which
Chicana/o activists sought to reclaim. “El Plan” established nationalism as
the ideology of the Chicana/o movement:
With our hearts in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the
independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a
bronze culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all
our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a nation of
pueblos, we are Aztlán.
Nationalism is the key to organization that transcends all religious,
political, class and economic actions or boundaries. Nationalism is the
common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon.59
This emphasis on nationalism was crucial to the subsequent development of
the Chicana/o movement and contributed to activists’ identifying themselves as a colonized people, one whose land had been stolen by Anglo
America. Nationalism provided a powerful framework to help Chicana/o
activists understand their experience.
I got involved in the movement in 1969 through the first Chicano studies class the University of Colorado offered. We had a guest lecturer,
Corky Gonzalez, who was the director of the Crusade for Justice. He
just had a tremendous impact on my political consciousness. As he
began to describe Chicano history and discussed Chicanos’ contributions
to the Southwest and their oppression, I realized that that was my own
family’s history. [It was] the stories I had been hearing from grandparents and my aunts and uncles and parents over the years. Our family
were coal miners and railroad workers, and owned land and lost land.
I realized how much of that was a part of the history of an oppressed
people. That really motivated me to get involved.60
In this quote we see the loss of land, and of the Southwest in particular, as
crucial elements in the formation of a dispossessed people.61 The activist
later joined the Brown Berets, La Raza Unida, the August Twenty-ninth
Movement, and finally the League of Revolutionary Struggle.
One movement organization that merits special attention is the Brown
Berets. While many campus-based organizations existed, including MEChA
(El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán/the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán), United Mexican American Students, and the Mexican
American Youth Organization, the Brown Berets offered a political vehicle
to the many Chicana/o youths who did not attend college. Because the
Berets were a militant, Los Angeles–based organization, many have considered them to be the Chicano version of the BPP. But though the Berets were
certainly inspired by the BPP, they were more nationalist than revolutionary nationalist. In fact, understanding the politics of the Berets is necessary
for understanding CASA.
The Brown Berets evolved from a mainstream organization called Young
Citizens for Community Action (YCCA). YCCA was a city-sponsored initiative spearheaded by David Sánchez. In 1967 YCCA opened a coffeehouse,
La Piranya, which became a meeting ground for Chicana/o activists. Young
people held meetings, participated in history and cultural classes, and organized around various issues, particularly educational concerns and police
abuse. On November 24, 1967, police responded to a family disturbance on
the Eastside and beat the residents. YCCA protested the beating, and soon
after, the Brown Berets were born. The Brown Berets considered themselves
to be the shock troops of the movement. Like the Panthers, they wore a
semiuniform, stressed self-defense, developed a platform, and adopted a military culture. The Berets published a newspaper, La Causa, and engaged in
service projects, including a volunteer health clinic, but were best known for
protecting the community. One former member described their role:
“During the high school ‘blowouts’ [walkouts], the Brown Berets acted to
protect, support, and advise the striking students. The Brown Berets placed
themselves between the police and the students, taking the brunt of the
beatings.” By 1969 there were ninety Beret chapters stretching from Los
Angeles to Chicago to San Antonio.62
The Berets embraced a Third World ideology. They saw the Chicana/o
struggle as rooted in this paradigm and believed the loss of the Southwest was
central to their oppression. Yet despite this seemingly radical position the
Brown Berets were in some ways quite conservative. Besides hesitating to join
coalitions and responding tepidly to internationalism, Sánchez often opposed
such efforts, arguing instead that the Berets should concentrate on their own
community. Most important, however, Sánchez held deep antipathies toward
communism. He eschewed Marxism and Leninism as irrelevant European
theories that did not speak to the struggle of Chicanas/os.63 Although there
were a number of leftist Berets, they represented individual tendencies, not
the official position of the organization. Carlos Montes, who served as minister of information, described the political tensions within the organization:
Vietnam made a big political impact on me and the Berets. Even though
we weren’t Marxist-Leninist, we supported the Vietnamese because
they wanted their own country. We went from civil rights to more
revolutionary politics. We started talking about Che Guevara, the
Cuban revolution. We started forming a Third World ideology, we
started reading Mao, Fanon, etc, but we didn’t go beyond that really.
David Sánchez, the prime minister, he didn’t make that political
change, however. He stayed in a cultural nationalist stage, and we
became more revolutionary nationalists and internationalists. He
became anti-red. There was a struggle within the Brown Berets for
more revolutionary positions within the newspaper and in what we
talked about and did. He would always say, “We got to think about our
own backyard.” That was his way of saying, “Don’t talk about this other
shit.” He would rationalize, “We got to think about the issues here, the
police abuse, the housing . . . ,” which all sounded real good, but I knew
what he meant. He didn’t want to talk about international issues.
The above distinguishes between cultural and revolutionary nationalism.
Nationalism is advocating for the social or political interests of a nation.
Cultural nationalism suggests a greater emphasis on one’s own nation and
heritage, whereas revolutionary nationalism implies a concern with other
subordinated groups as well and often anticapitalism. As can be seen, there
were tensions within the Berets between cultural and revolutionary nationalists. To his credit, Sánchez allowed such political diversity. For instance, the
newspaper would have a different political line depending who was putting
it out. Likewise, when members were invited to speak at events, they were
not required to adhere to a uniform position. Nevertheless, tensions
mounted until eventually a group of more leftist Berets broke off to form La
Junta.64 As the Chicana/o movement continued to evolve, a growing number of activists were confronting the limits of cultural nationalism and felt
the need to adopt a more materialist and internationalist politics, thus giving rise to groups like CASA.
CASA CASA was founded in Los Angeles in 1968 by Bert Corona, Chole
Alatorre, and the Mexican American Political Association. Initially, it was a
chapter of La Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (the National Mexican
Brotherhood), a San Diego group established in the 1950s to defend the
rights of immigrants. Corona admired its work and decided to pursue similar activities in Los Angeles, where he developed a multifaceted organization—part mutualista,65 part social service organization, and part legal
defense center—geared to Mexican immigrants. In addition to protecting
immigrants’ rights, La Hermandad organized immigrant workers.66 Before
then most unions eschewed immigrants, assuming that they were “unorganizable,” but La Hermandad helped to change this.
[T]he unions in the building trades and the metal trades, as well as the
big service unions, would have nothing to do with the undocumented.
Their organizers told me that they weren’t interested in organizing
plants with mostly undocumented workers; they believed that these
workers were not organizable, because the INS [Immigration and
Naturalization Service] could come in and threaten them with deportation, and the people would run like quail.
This attitude didn’t begin to change until we proved during the 1970s
that immigrant workers could organize and win contracts…. Some of the
unions didn’t have enough Spanish-speaking organizers, they couldn’t
communicate with the workers . . . but many of our people could. So we
talked to the workers outside the plants in the mornings and in the afternoons. We also had Hermandad members who worked inside some of
these plants, and they organized internally. The fact was that most of
the workers trusted us rather than the regular union organizers.67
Because of La Hermandad’s successes and popularity it grew rapidly. Eventually, the leadership decided to create a series of separate centers that would
focus on meeting the daily needs of immigrants, while La Hermandad would
function as more of an umbrella organization. These individual centers were
called CASAs (Centros de Acción Social Autónomo/ Centers for Autonomous Social Action). As the name implies, the individual centers were fairly
autonomous, but they were united under the larger Hermandad. Many volunteers, often Chicana/o professionals, staffed the CASAs and carried out
much of the work. Through their efforts, CASAs spread throughout Los
Angeles and as far away as Chicago.
At the same time that CASAs were developing, an organization called
Casa Carnalismo (Brotherhood House) formed in East Los Angeles. Casa
Carnalismo, which provided legal services and information, was led by several
young Chicanos, including Antonio Rodriguez. In 1973 activists associated
with Casa Carnalismo became involved in a police abuse case when three
Chicanos trying to uncover police corruption in the barrio were falsely
accused of shooting an officer. The national Committee to Free Los Tres
(CFLT) was formed to support the accused, with strong participation from
Casa Carnalismo. Their participation in the case led some members of the
CFLT to become increasingly politicized so that they “began serious study
into the drug question, and through their study of marxism, ultimately analyzed it as a tool of the capitalist system against working people.”68 As the
campaign began to wind down, these individuals began to see CASA as a
potential vehicle to carry out their political work and hopefully build a mass
movement. Consequently, a large number of students and young Chicanas/os
(versus immigrants) became active in CASA, beginning with the Los Angeles
CASA on Pico Boulevard.According to Bert Corona, the young people sought
to take over some of the CASAs in order to use them as building blocks in the
creation of a revolutionary movement. Though Corona and Alatorre thought
the young people were somewhat misguided, they agreed to it, with the stipulation that the immigrant services be maintained. The young activists were
ready to assume the role of the vanguard, but it was uncertain whether
CASA’s membership would serve as the requisite masses.69
Under the new leadership, CASA changed radically. First and foremost
there was a profound ideological and political shift as the new leaders
embraced Marxism-Leninism.
We are not negative towards the Chicano movement. Most of us in
C.A.S.A. are a product of the movement and were formed politically
in that movement. But we must recognize that in the world there is
consistent change and that one must move in tune with the laws of
social development and especially in revolutionary times one must be
careful to learn the lessons of practice and to advance our theoretical and
political actions according to that. Once we apply a scientific outlook to
our history and to our struggle, the possibilities of our liberation are
that much greater and our clarity and confidence in our identity and
our destiny will truly be in our hands.70
This quote emphasizes CASA’s roots within the larger Chicana/o movement but also illustrates the extent to which it moved beyond it, embracing
a scientific Marxism-Leninism.
Given activists’ desire to build a vanguard movement, it should hardly be
surprising that the immigrant services suffered. Dues-paying membership
dropped from an estimated high of two thousand in 1972 to less than one
thousand in 1977.71 Nonetheless, CASA continued to do important work in
terms of immigrant organizing and defense and was pivotal in providing the
leadership necessary to push the larger Chicana/o movement to adopt a
more progressive position on immigrant workers. It did so by organizing
around immigration legislation, co-founding a conference that led to the
establishment of the National Coalition for Fair Immigration Laws and
Practices, calling for worker amnesty and an end to deportations, and shifting the discourse within the Chicana/o movement itself.72
As a Marxist-Leninist organization, CASA was highly disciplined and
offered differing levels of membership, ranging from militante to aspirante.
Being a militante, the highest level, required one to attend study groups and
meetings, sell the newspaper, and take on a major piece of work, whether it
was helping to publish the newspaper or organizing workers. An afiliado
had somewhat fewer responsibilities and rights, an aspirante hoped to
become a militante, and a member was simply someone who needed
CASA’s services and was not necessarily interested in building a revolutionary movement. Such individuals were simply required to pay their dues
and abide by the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.” As in other
organizations, membership requirements varied over time, but they always
included a high level of commitment and political agreement.73 One member recounted how he joined the organization: “I went and asked them,
‘How do you join CASA?’ because nobody would recruit me. They said,
‘Oh, we’re going to have to give you a test.’ So I had to go and read up on
everything. I remember going into this building on Pico and spending about
six hours just writing. It was really intense. It was like, ‘Write until you finish answering your questions.’ Then I got a call saying, ‘Yes, we are going to
accept you.’“
CASA also had a fairly elaborate organizational structure. At the highest
level, key decisions were made by the Political Commission. Each individual
CASA had a Local Committee, which oversaw the work and activities of
various secretaries, including Labor Affairs, Finance, Information and
Propaganda, as well as the nucleo. The nucleo or cell, was the smallest unit
of CASA, and its leader reported directly to the Local Committee. CASA
also created a Centro Legal, which was akin to a legal collective. The Centro
focused on immigration, as well as family and work-related matters. Besides
providing much needed services to the community, the Centro Legal generated revenue for CASA.74
Arguably, CASA’s greatest work was in changing attitudes toward immigrant workers in the political arena. Figure 6 presents a list of CASA’s
demands, which convey a great deal about the organization itself. In addition
to immigration, CASA was actively involved in mobilizing against the
Bakke decision, which challenged affirmative action in California. Given its
politics, CASA developed close ties to some Third World countries and
movements, including Cuba and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. In this
way, CASA enlarged the terrain of Chicana/o politics by making important
connections with other Latinas/os.[insertFgu6abother]
CASA was far less successful, however, at building a social movement, let
alone a revolution. Its primary problem was its inability to translate the
dues-paying immigrant membership into a viable base that the cadre could
lead. In addition, CASA, like many other organizations of its time, suffered
from severe internal problems, including undemocratic practices, a patriarchal culture, and sectarianism, and, of course, police surveillance.75 In the
late seventies there were severe tensions over the political direction of
CASA, and the contradictions between the organization’s political rhetoric
and its actual practices mounted. The Political Commission decided to adopt
an increasingly leftist line, and as a result several chapters pulled out. This
began a long downward spiral, culminating in the resignation of Carlos
Vásquez, a key leader, in December 1977. Soon after, the entire Political
Commission resigned en masse and the organization folded in 1978.76
As can be seen in these brief sketches, the BPP, East Wind, and CASA had
a great deal in common but were also quite distinct. One of the most impor120 / THE THIRD WORLD LEFT
tant distinctions was the different foci of each organization. The BPP was
focused on self-defense and survival programs; East Wind concentrated on
community service, leadership, and identity issues; and CASA devoted itself
largely to immigrant rights and labor organizing. In addition, we can see
how the organizations developed along different historical trajectories. The
BPP was established first as the fullest expression of Black Power. Both East
Wind and CASA were born in 1972, but whereas East Wind was created
Figure 6. List of CASA’s
demands. CASA’s demands
and accompanying graphic
reflect both its commitment to
worker rights and its tendency
toward Mexican nationalism.
Source: Box 31, folder 12,
CASA Collection. Courtesy
of Antonio Rodriguez and
Department of Special
Collections, Stanford
University Libraries.
almost from scratch, CASA represented a new stage in Chicana/o politics,
one that can be traced to the Old Left, as seen in the activism of Corona.
While these are significant differences, the commonalities, such as undemocratic practices and the emphasis on serving the community, underscore the
extent to which all groups were influenced by the larger political culture of
the time. The next chapter explores the political ideology of each organization, specifically, how each one conceptualized race, class, and nationalism—
the theoretical pillars of the Third World Left.

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