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Brown Berets Regroup to Fight Gang Crisis

August 30, 1993|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 20 years after the young rebels of the Brown Berets disbanded, a now-graying group of the Mexican-American activists made a noisy return from obscurity in East Los Angeles on Sunday, launching a new movement to end gang violence.

In the late 1960s, the Brown Berets rose to prominence as self-described community protectors, battling racial discrimination and the Vietnam War.

Now, more than two decades later, the group says it has resurfaced to tackle a problem as daunting as any in the past: gang warfare.

"The Mexican-American community is facing a crisis with out-of-control violence," said David Sanchez, once the "prime minister" of the Brown Berets and now a professor of Chicano studies at East Los Angeles College. "We have all lost friends, we have all lost neighbors, we have all lost family. We are here to understand the problem and do something about it."

Sanchez said he hopes the memory of the group, which existed from 1967 until 1972, will help members forge a gang peace where other groups have failed.

"The Brown Berets have a good reputation in the barrios," Sanchez said. "The older guys remember the Brown Berets. And the young people are looking for a positive role model."

Sanchez had expected up to 500 people to attend the "barrio peace conference" Sunday marking the group's official return. Only about 150 people showed up to participate in organizing meetings and watch a performance by an Aztec dance troupe.

Nevertheless, Jeronimo Blanco, a youth counselor in San Diego and the Brown Beret's new national commander, was unfazed, saying that the process of building a movement is often long and strenuous.

"The kids are still too young to know about the Brown Berets," he said. "We may seem strange and out of place now, but we hope one day to become a household word."

The Brown Berets were formed by Sanchez in 1967 at the height of the Chicano movement, which sought to forge a political and social identity among Mexican-Americans. The group of young activists donned crisp brown uniforms to draw greater attention to their activities, which often centered on supporting Cesar Chavez's farm workers union and opposing the Vietnam War, in which a disproportionate number of Mexican-Americans served.

Thirteen members of the Brown Berets were arrested for actions in support of 1968 high school walkouts by thousands of Eastside Chicano students who demanded changes in their curricula. At the height of its power in the early 1970s, the group claimed 5,000 members in 80 chapters across the country.

The Berets' most famous action was the 1972 "invasion" of Santa Catalina Island. A group of 26, led by Sanchez, claimed the tourist spot as Mexican territory, arguing that none of the islands off the California coast had been ceded to the United States.

After 26 days, the group quietly left the island after being declared in violation of camping ordinances.

The Berets' strident rhetoric and militant looks attracted the attention of law enforcement officials, who saw them as a potentially violent force on the streets.

Shortly after the "occupation" of Catalina, the group disbanded, citing police infiltration and harassment.

In the next two decades, members pursued their own paths. Some, such as Sanchez and Blanco, became part of the Establishment they once battled.

Sanchez said he and other former members often talked about reorganizing the Brown Berets. But it took the continuing toll of gang killings to finally galvanize the group.

Despite the media attention focused on black gang violence, deaths from Latino gang warfare in Los Angeles exceed black gang-related homicides.

Sanchez said the group hopes that its deep roots within the Mexican-American community will help it become a mediating force in neighborhoods beset by gang violence.

Sanchez said he believes that the system he once battled can work. Sanchez said he is considering running for political office, which is one reason he has not formally joined the new Brown Berets, preferring to take a position as an outside supporter.

"Before, we attacked the system, but we didn't know what the system was," he said. "We're working within it now."

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