Tag Archives: Venceremos Brigade

Racism and Bigotry

I still believe we are misusing the words “racism” and “racist.”

Racism is institutional, systemic, and structural. It’s insidious and buried deep in every aspect of our society and economy. Bigotry is right out in the open.

And this isn’t whitesplaining on my part. This is what I was taught by members of the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets in 1973. I was, along with 49 of my closest friends, required to go through about 20 hours of cultural and racial sensitivity training before being allowed to travel to Cuba with the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade.

I keep bringing this up because the public now conflates racism with bigotry and, by doing so, gives people an excuse for not looking closer at how they’ve unknowingly embraced or benefited from racism, by merely pointing out their lack of anger or visible anger/hatred toward people of color. “I don’t see color,” or “I have black friends/relatives.” All that means, at the most, is you’re not a bigot. It doesn’t change the centuries of economic and social injustice deeply baked into every aspect of our society.

We need to understand the differences if we’re going to erase racism and its insidious effects.

One other thing I learned from that education, and that has been reinforced in the intervening years, is that white people need to shut the fuck up and listen to people of color when it comes to understanding their lived reality. Because of racism, you don’t know squat about their experiences. Try it. You might be surprised.


Chasing Agriculture

I arrived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco at the tail end of the “Summer of Love.” It was either late August or very early September. Things were already starting to fall apart before I got up there, but it took weeks before I was able to recognize what was happening.

Where It All Happened

I had traveled from Los Angeles by thumb, where I had just given up a lucrative business my father had purchased for me at the very end of 1966. Fearing my life was going nowhere (which it kinda was) he took the opportunity to buy a small snack shop from a friend who was going into another business. The place was called DEBS, which was an acronym of the previous owners family’s names. We kept it . . . the name that is.

Situated directly across the street from the May Company, between 8th and 9th Streets on S. Hill Street, I was making big bucks for a snot-nosed teenager. I didn’t realize just how lucky I was at the time which, I suppose, is the very definition of privilege. I just did a time/value calculation and discovered I was making the equivalent of close to a quarter of a million dollars a year back then. Yikes! That doesn’t seem possible or even reasonable, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

Unfortunately, I was only 19 years old at the time, fresh out of High School the previous year and recently honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after a total of one month and twenty-three days of service. I’m surely one of a few people in the country who has served, received the National Defense Service Medal, and also a medical discharge while I was still in boot camp. Since I was in for such a short time, I am not eligible for veteran’s benefits, nor have I ever sought to receive them . . . but that’s another story I’ll get to later.

This is a screenshot from Google Maps’ Street View. According to Yelp, they’re still in business, though I know it’s not the same people

DEBS Snack Shop was open six days a week, twelve hours a day on weekdays, and ten hours on Saturday. I had to be there for every one of those hours and, since I lived in the North end of the San Fernando Valley, the commute took at least an hour and a half, round-trip, every weekday. Saturdays were a little quicker. So I was putting in about 70 hours per week, not including time getting ready to head out the door.

Not only were the hours long, I had to deal with my father coming by every day and pointing out everything I had done “wrong,” i.e. not how he would do it. Not that I didn’t screw up; 19-year-old boys aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, no matter how high their IQ. But my old man was not the kind to hand out compliments or praise. Nope. He was a genius at pointing out shortcoming, though.

I remember one weekend I finally had a date with a young woman I had met somewhere. Much of the detail is lost in the mists of time, including who she was and where we met, and the relationship didn’t last long at all. We went out to dinner and were going to go to a movie afterward. Unfortunately, if memory serves, I actually fell asleep at dinner, I was so tired. I don’t think we made it to the movie, and I’m not sure I ever saw her again.

That particular debacle was one of many compelling reasons I asked my father to sell the place after only seven months. I was young and restless, and I had no social life. I had also started smoking pot the previous year and was beginning to experiment with acid (LSD.) I needed to spread my wings and I didn’t see that ever happening as long as I was tied to a demanding business and an overbearing father. But I digress.

What I was thinking of when I decided to write this post was the agricultural workers here in my native County of Ventura. Some of the laborers post videos to a local Facebook group and seeing them brings me back to my two encounters with working in the fields, one of which took place while I was living up in the Haight.

Not the video I was referring to, but quite similar

When I was working in the snack shop, I frequently had to go and purchase produce, generally a few blocks away at the Grand Central Market. One of the items I had to buy was tomatoes. I would get them by the “lug,” each of which weighed approximately 30 pounds.

On many a day in the Haight, people would just sit around in front of the stores on Haight Street, sometimes standing to perform for the tourist buses that would pass by. They expected no less from a bunch of “Hippies,” and we were often content to give it to them. One day, a man came by and asked if anyone was interested in picking tomatoes. He said it paid a certain amount (I have no idea what it was) per “lug.” I accepted.

The following day, early in the morning, I boarded a bus with a group of fellow “hippies” and we were taken to a field right next to a mental hospital. We were set loose in the fields to pick tomatoes and it was then I discovered their definition of a “lug” was considerably larger than what I had grown used to purchasing for the snack shop’s use. At least twice as big! I had just turned 20 in June, a couple months prior to selling the business. I was in good shape, yet picking tomatoes, which requires bending over continuously, was physically demanding and, based on how many tomatoes had to be gathered to complete a “lug,” I soon came to the conclusion this was NOT how I wished to make money in the future.

I don’t think I spent more than a couple of hours in the field, but I’ve never forgotten how difficult and back-breaking the work was. It has given me a sense of deep respect for the people who spend their lives working in the fields. It is extraordinarily difficult (and sometimes dangerous) work, for which I’m sure they are not paid enough.

I did mention, above, there were two times I had worked in the field. The second one was in 1973, when I spent two months in Cuba as a member of the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. During that time I worked primarily in construction, making concrete slabs and pillars used to construct small, single-family dwellings. However, on one occasion we spent a day in the fields cutting sugar cane. In addition to the work being back-breaking, the fields were torched prior to our work in order to burn off some of the vegetation on the canes. It meant we were covered in burnt sugar cane juice by the end of the day.

Cutting Sugar Cane is a messy and exacting task

I had purchased a pair of brown Red Wing boots for the trip. After one day in the fields, they were mostly black from that burnt juice. It never came off.

Those two, admittedly short stints in the field gave me an appreciation for anyone who works in agriculture – especially those who bend over and pick and pack our food for distribution. I’ve done a lot of other things in my life that were difficult, some equally so, but none more difficult than picking tomatoes or cutting sugar cane. I have nothing but respect for someone who makes their living doing such work. It’s why I have long supported the United Farm Workers and all who struggle to be treated with dignity and respect.


The Farmdale Boyz

This pic was taken in about 1972 or 1973. I lived for about two or three years with these guys in two three-bedroom homes, side-by-side in North Hollywood, CA. Two sets of brothers and two close friends. In the background, at one time or another, those two tanks held a couple of snakes. One of them was named “Ellis A. Piary” (because that’s where he/she was rudely captured by one of our number) and the other, naturally, was named “Lefty.” Two of the people in this photo are not on Facebook, but everyone’s still alive!! — with Rick London, Loren Goetz, Stephen Ladd, Tom Shannon and Mark London.

Sometime after this picture was taken, I traveled to Cuba with the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade and, shortly after my return in the Summer of ’73, I began attending law school. There have been some changes over the years, and a couple of us don’t talk much with each other, but for the most part we’ve all remained friends.


The Irony is as Thick as the Karma

Venceremos Brigade-FBIWhen I returned from a two-month working journey to Cuba in 1973, the FBI showed up at my door with questions about my trip. I had been a member of the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade, and a small part of my education for the trip was the admonition to politely refuse to speak with them, which is what I did.

It was a short, pleasant conversation. I told them I wasn’t going to answer any questions and they asked me if I was sure. I said “yes” and they said “have a nice day” and left. That was it.

My years of activism had brought me to the attention of many law enforcement agencies, chief among them the LAPD and the FBI.

All to say, there’s been little love lost between me and these organizations . . .

Yet I’m really looking forward to what James Comey has to say.


Racism & Bigotry Aren’t Quite the Same

I wrote the following four paragraphs a couple of days ago. Today (8/19/17) I ran them through the Hemingway app, which informed me the text’s readability score was 11th grade. It also pointed out numerous issues to address and suggested I aim for a readability score of 9th grade. I then worked to remove all the issues (well, as many as I thought made sense to me) and was able to bring the score down to 7th grade . . . in Hemingway’s algorithms. It still says three of the 14 sentences are hard to read. I’m adding the second version for readers to judge which they find more readable. Hemingway seems a little harsh. I suppose, if I were writing for the general public, it might make sense to shoot for 9th grade readability, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do. What do you think?


Readability score = 11th grade

In May of 1973 I traveled to Cuba with the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. I spent two months, mostly just outside Havana, working and learning as a guest of the Cuban government.

Prior to our departure, we were required to undergo some pretty extensive training in history, cultural chauvinism, and the roots of racism and bigotry. Some of these classes were led by members of both the Brown Berets and the Black Panthers.

One thing I remember well from this training was the difference between racism, which we were taught is systemic and insidious, and bigotry, which is personal and obvious. I have occasionally posted about these differences, but I’m coming to the conclusion that current usage has blurred the distinction between the two. I have also decided maybe I should stop bucking the trend, as I find myself using them somewhat interchangeably as well.

It’s a bit disturbing, as it is ingrained in me that racism is embedded in our laws, institutions, and normative cultural behavior, while bigotry is evidenced by individual prejudices and hatred or fear of the other. Nevertheless, just about everyone I read uses racism for what I would call bigotry. I think I’ve decided to give up worrying about the distinction, though I find it important. Carry on!


Readability score = 7th grade

In May of 1973 I traveled to Cuba with the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. I spent two months outside Havana, working and learning as a guest of the Cuban government.

Before our departure, we received training in history, cultural chauvinism, and the roots of racism and bigotry. Leading some of these classes were members of both the Brown Berets and the Black Panthers.

They taught us racism is systemic and insidious, while bigotry is personal and obvious. I have posted about these differences, but am concluding current usage blurs the distinction between the two. I have also decided I should stop bucking the trend, as I find I use them as well.

It’s a bit disturbing. I know racism infuses our laws, institutions, and normative cultural behavior. Bigotry involves individual prejudices and hatred or fear of the other. Even so, most everyone I read uses racism for what I would call bigotry. I’ve decided to give up worrying about the distinction, though I find it important. Carry on!


You’re Privileged to be Playing the Game

Levels of Difficult

You Can’t Choose This Difficulty Level!

I think I received my first comeuppance regarding white privilege around 1973. I was not quite 26 years old and had been a very active member in the anti-Vietnam War movement in Los Angeles. I had attended, organized, publicized, and provided security for a number of demonstrations and events.

Now I was preparing to spend a couple of months in Cuba as a guest of the Cuban government. I was a member of the Sixth Contingent (Sexto Contingente) of La Brigada Venceremos. I was excited. However, nobody was allowed to travel without first undergoing some rigorous training in how to not be an ugly American.

We Americans (even the term American is somewhat arrogant, as the U.S. is only one country in an entire hemisphere referred to as America), especially us straight males, have got it way better than we like to think. Unfortunately, due to the concept of American Exceptionalism, we really do like to think our shit doesn’t stink and we are in a class by ourselves.

Well, actually, we are in a class by ourselves – but it’s really not something to be all that proud of, in my less than humble opinion. But I digress.

Part of my ongoing training (which lasted several months) was learning about white privilege, i.e. the numerous and subtle ways in which being white gives those who sport the color (or lack thereof) a leg up on everyone else. The training was excellent. I was not made to feel guilty; merely shown how it works, the evidence of which was impossible for me to deny.

As a Knowledge Management professional, one of the things that’s important to me is the avoidance of re-inventing the wheel. That means, among other things, using the work of others to build on, where appropriate. I think this is an appropriate place to do that with a blog written by John Scalzi who, frankly, I don’t know much about. Nevertheless, this blog he wrote is absolutely brilliant and draws an analogy I think useful in understanding the concept I’m talking about. I want to share it with my small group of readers.

Here’s the link to his post – http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

I also want to share a video that’s a nice supplement to it. Enjoy!


Not So Tough Now, Are We?

Cuban Palm Trees

An Early Spring Morning Outside Havana

Mornings in the fields outside of Havana were something special. I had been arising before the Sun since I became a teenager, largely because any day there was a school holiday I would have to work with my father. My Bar Mitzvah coincided with him leaving his job at Faber’s Ham Shop in the Grand Central Market to strike out on his own as a peddler of luncheon meat. Every check I received for my thirteenth birthday was immediately signed over to him so he could purchase the truck he needed in his new venture. Until I graduated High School and moved on, I was his “swamper” whenever I wasn’t required to be in school.

At first I hated getting up that early, but I eventually learned to love and appreciate being awake before sunrise. I still enjoy the sights and the smell of the early morning, though I don’t see – or stop to see – it as frequently as I did earlier in my life. But outside Havana, in the campo, seeing the sun rise in mid spring surrounded by tall, swaying palm trees was a sight to behold.

The year was 1973 and I was a member of el sexto contingente de la Brigada Venceremos (the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade). Me and 99 of my best friends from the U.S. and Canada, traveling to Cuba to deliver books and medical supplies, working construction (with one-half day cutting sugar cane – whew!), and attending numerous cultural, historical, and political presentations.

Most every morning we were there, the day would begin quite some time before sunrise, when we would awaken to a breakfast of cafe con leche and pan. After eating, as we filed out of the mess tent, there would be three bowls on a table. One bowl contained candy (sugar!) and the other two cigarettes. The only names I can recall for the cigarettes were suaves and fuertes (mild and strong). The suaves were stronger than any cigarette I ever smoked in the states and, needless to say, I didn’t even bother with the fuertes. The tobacco was kind of coarsely chopped and in almost every pack there was at least one cigarette that would “flower” when the heat reached a piece of tobacco that was tightly compacted. It was mildly entertaining – mostly annoying.

This one morning came at the tail end of a couple of days in which one of my fellow brigadistas had been riding me hard. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering him, and didn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Although the group of people I was with ranged from members of the Democratic Party to card-carrying Communists, we were all there to show our support for the Cuban people, to protest the economic blockade of Cuba, and to learn what we could of their economy and politics. A large part of what we did was to provide labor, mostly for construction of some small homes and an elementary school.

So there I was, standing out in the middle of the countryside on the outskirts of Havana, getting ready for the workday to begin. I was enjoying the fresh air, made palpable by a slight breeze, and taking in the effects of the rising sun on the slightly swaying palm trees. It was refreshing and I was very content.

I heard a noise that didn’t sound familiar and looked in its direction to see what it was. To my chagrin, it was my so-called camarada, charging at me with his arms flailing. Now this guy was a Pinto, an ex-con and – as I said – he had been messing with me for days. He outweighed me by about twenty pounds, which didn’t make him all that big since I only weighed about 170 at the time.

Part of the reason I was in Cuba with the Brigade had to do with my political activity for the past few years, most of which was within the anti-Vietnam War movement, though some was in the general Peace & Justice movement as well. I had been studying Hapkido with a group of people who became the premier providers of security for most demonstrations, concerts, and other politico-cultural events in the Los Angeles area.

I had done everything from bomb searches to building security to armed bodyguard work. I had been the lead for organizing all of the security for Jane Fonda’s Southern California swing during the run-up to the 1972 Presidential election, including a couple of stints as her personal bodyguard. I was not quite 26 years old and in my prime. I guess he took my silence in dealing with him over the previous few days as intimidation. He was wrong.

As he got close I stepped toward him and placed a side thrust kick into the middle of his chest . . . hard. It drove him back and he fell to the ground, muttering after he hit “What’d you do that for?” There was no answer for so silly a question so I remained quietly in a ready stance. I had seen his friend standing nearby and knew he was a black belt in some form of the martial arts. I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Fortunately, that was the end of it. He got up, dusted himself off, and I never heard about it again. He did stop talking to me, which brought no objection on my part. I had learned long before that just because someone professes to have the same political goals you do, it’s quite conceivable their methodology won’t mesh well with what you think is proper. It’s also possible they won’t respect you based on their perception of you. This was surely reinforcement of those lessons. It’s been nearly forty years and I remember it well.

Aside from the time I had to take out a rooster who was threatening me and, more importantly, the two-year-old boy on my shoulders I was walking with around a farm in Morro Bay, this episode is the only time I have ever used what I learned in the martial arts in seriousness against a living being. The greatest lesson I have ever learned from my studies is that once you actually have to touch someone you’ve lost. I would have preferred it had never reached the point it did. In this case I felt I had no choice. Perhaps he learned something out of it. I doubt I’ll ever know and I’ve not lost any sleep over it.


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