My weekend with the Fresno Brown Berets

Thursday, August 25, 2011

by Melanie Tom, Field Organizer

I once had a friend disparagingly refer to Fresno as the "armpit" of California because it was supposedly smelly, sticky, and gross. Why would anyone want to go there, he asked? All the pollution from the coastal cities blows inland and sleeps over the city. And it's dangerous! Haven't you ever seen Ganglands on the History Channel?

Like every other city or neighborhood that has a disproportionate number of poor people of color, Fresno has an uphill battle with its image--to say the least. Urban elitism and rural conservatism adds another layer. As for my perception of the city, I hadn't given it much thought--until this past weekend where I found myself completely inspired.

I had a chance to visit Fresno as part of a statewide caravan heading to the Ventura youth prison in the city of Camarillo. Family members from a dozen cities were gathering there to expose inhumane practices in the youth prison system: solitary confinement, contaminated food and undue violence. A family member in Fresno was rallying folks to come, and that is how we came to meet the Fresno Brown Berets.

The Berets started up two years previous and are a special mix of leaders who come together after school and after work. Some are affiliated with Californians for Justice, the Prison Moratorium Project, and Fresno City MEChA while others are radical teachers or spiritual leaders. Items on their agenda: get the corrupt police chief canned, support local Kettlemen residents with their campaign against Waste Management (contaminated water Erin Brockovich style), and plan the annual Chican@/Xicana Moratorium Day.

We had a chance to attend one of their weekly Friday night meetings and I'll be honest: I was skeptical that a weekly meeting on a Friday night would yield anything or anybody. When I walked into the room, I was shocked. About twenty folks were present. The meeting was on time. People of all ages were at the table, including elders, baby boomers, high school and college students. Not all were brown and there were as many women as men.

In true Bay Area fashion, we arrived late thinking we were on time. They gave us a warm welcome and invited us to introduce ourselves. In addition to saying our name, we were asked to respond to this quote, "Every mighty oak was once an acorn that stood its ground." Wow. I immediately felt valued, at ease and less guilty for not showing up on time.

The Berets moved forward with planning the upcoming Chican@/Xicana Moratorium Day. They needed help with set-up, security and also, passing out food to the marchers when action was finished. They considered renting a kitchen facility so they could warm up the tortillas properly. Eventually, an elder in the room shared the origins of the march. Originally an anti-war march held in East L.A. on August 29, 1972 a peaceful rally was turned ugly by police violence and in the end, three people were dead including Ruben Salazar, a Chicano journalist for the L.A. Times. The elder who spoke had been there and shared his personal experience candidly.

The first generation of Brown Berets were founded in the late sixties and were known for their militancy. They fought against police brutality, were behind the first Chican@/Xicana Moratorium Day and famously fought for and won community rights over the land now known as Chicano Park in San Diego.

The next day we boarded the van with ten Berets and headed to Camarillo for the rally. By the end of the weekend, we had gotten to know each other a little better and were part of one of the most moving actions I've ever been to, where either you spoke up or were moved to tears by the words of others. After the rally, the younger Berets sat in the van, contemplating how they could organize and get young prisoners involved—how they wanted to build consciousness and discuss basic rights for the poor, people of color, women and LGBTQ folks.

My weekend with the Fresno Brown Berets brought me back to the basics, very much like the famous Zen adage: "Chop wood. Carry water." If you happen to be in Fresno on Saturday, August, 27 please join the Fresno Brown Berets for their annual Chican@ Moratorium March for Peace:

Gather at 2:00pm at Huntington and First Street
March begins at 3:00pm and travels down Kings Canyon
Program from 4:00-8:00pm at the Sal Mosqueda Community Center

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