AUGUST 29, 1970 CHICANO MORATORIUM MARCH
Historically, Mexican Americans have defended their country and have distinguished themselves in the wars of the United States. Mexican Americans fought in U.S. wars as far back as the American Civil War and Spanish Surnamed soldiers received more Congressional Medals of Honor in World War Two than any other ethnic group. But by the late1960s it became apparent that the percentage of Mexican American casualties in the Vietnam war far outnumbered their percentage in the general population.
In an eye-opening study, political science professor Dr. Ralph Guzman found that from 1961 to 1967, Mexican Americans made up 19.4 percent of U.S. casualties in Vietnam from Southwestern states even though they represented only 10% of the overall population in these states. Something was clearly wrong. By 1970, Chicano anti-war activists were speaking out publicly that Chicanos were being used as cannon fodder.
In 1969, Rosalío Muñoz, the first Chicano student body president of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), burned his draft card in protest over Chicano casualties in Vietnam. In 1970, following his attendance at the Second Denver Youth Conference, he joined with Roberto Elías and the two began a systematic tour of the Southwest, recruiting Chicano activists for a major anti-war march to be held in Los Angeles in August of 1970.
Often screening the film I Am Joaquin, based on the epic poem by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez and produced by Luis and Daniel Valdez of the Teatro Campesino, the anti-war activists traveled from city to city calling attention to the injustice of Chicano Vietnam deaths.
Their efforts paid off. On August 29, 1970, approximately thirty thousand people, hailing from throughout the Southwest, assembled for a march along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles to a peaceful rally in Laguna Park. But a disturbance at a local liquor store provoked the presence of scores of Los Angeles police officers and Los Angeles County Sheriffs who descended on the peaceful rally and began to beat and arrest people.
Within moments the largest confrontation in East Los Angeles history had begun. Before the day was over, hundreds of fires had been set in East Angeles as angry Chicanos vented their anger over the unjust police attack on women, children and grandparents who were attending the peaceful rally. Hundreds of people were arrested and three people were killed, Angel Díaz, Lyn Ward and respected Los Angeles Times journalist, Ruben Salazar.
In the aftermath of the riot, it became clear that the death of Ruben Salazar was far from the “accident” claimed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. In the 16-day televised coroner’s inquest that followed the riot, two versions emerged as to what had transpired at the Silver Dollar Bar when Salazar was killed. According to the Sheriffs, they had gotten a call of someone with a gun in the bar, they had called out for people to come out, and when no one responded, they fired a tear-gas projectile into the bar.
It was the nine-inch tear gas projectile that hit Salazar in the head and killed him. According to the Sheriffs they were unaware that anyone had been hurt until several hours later, when the head public relations officer for the department entered the bar and found the body of Salazar. But according to many civilian witnesses, including people at Salazar’s side inside the bar, the call to vacate the bar had never been given. To the contrary, witnesses testified that when individuals in the bar tried to come out they were pushed back in by the officers and that when an ambulance, called by Salazar’s news crew, came to the front of the bar, it was sent away by the Sheriff officers. At the time Salazar was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and news director of Spanish-language television station KMEX.
Raul Ruiz, a photographer on the scene, captured the moment when Sheriff officer Thomas Wilson shot the deadly tear gas projectile into the bar. During the inquest, when officer Wilson was asked about the photo which depicted him shooting into the bar with the tear gas projectile that killed Salazar, he replied that he couldn’t recall the event taking place. The Inquest Jury returned a verdict 4 to 3 that Salazar had, indeed, been killed “at the hands of another,” but the District Attorney of Los Angeles, Evelle Younger, opted not to charge Officer Wilson with manslaughter or murder.
The doubtful circumstances surrounded Salazar’s death, coupled with the fact that Salazar was writing an exposé of police malfeasance at the time of his death, and that the Los Angeles Chief of Police had tried to get Salazar fired from his job at the Los Angeles Times only days before, left more than a trace of suspicion that Salazar’s death was not accidental. In 2008, Salazar was honored with United States postal stamp in his honor.