It was in 1969 or 1970. I was in Junior College. I was a volunteer in The College Readiness program, an on-campus effort to help minority students upgrade their academic skills. There was going to be a demonstration that day to protest the lack of attention/budget the College Administration directed toward minority students. I was to be one of the speakers. The rally would be followed by a march.
An hour before the event one of the organizers informed me I would be replaced by a minority student as they wanted more representation on the podium. This made a lot of sense, but something felt off. When the speakers were introduced, a white male had replaced me. In the midst of the speeches the mood changed; that white male started the change. The next few speakers began screaming anti-government attacks and slogans and berating students. They accused the Administration of things we knew were not true. Something was very wrong. All of a sudden there was an unknown influence.
The demonstration ended and a newspaper writer and I began walking towards the middle of campus to watch the march. As the march began a small group of these anti-government individuals forced their way to the front of the marchers. We saw protesters reach into bushes and pull out baseball bats and metal pipes. We heard banging from one of the buildings. There was chaos as the “marchers” went from building to building, smashing structures and attacking people. My future wife was in class and a student ran into the classroom and yelled there was a riot; they barricaded themselves inside the classroom. I had just been released from active duty in the Army and I knew how to protect myself—stay out in the open where we could see and meet any threats. Students didn’t have guns in those days. But someone had pre-planned this violence and had placed weapons throughout the campus. The next day, military vets met in the cafeteria to map out sniper positions; there was fear in the air.
During the riot a group was gathering around an African American and a white student. They were angrily shouting at each other. A fight broke out. More white students joined in the fight against this African American man. In the midst of this, John Brandon (I didn’t know his name at the time), another African American man, jumped in and broke up the fight. He yelled, “You want to fight, do it one on one.” His courage stopped what could have grown into an uglier situation. The group dispersed. The newspaper writer and I were 30 yards away and witnessed the whole thing; it had lasted less than 45 seconds.
A few days later we read that John Brandon had been arrested for inciting to riot. One of my best friends’ fathers was a police officer who worked in headquarters. I called him to let him know that I had witnessed the entire event and that the newspaper writer and I would testify that John had succeeded in stopping the fight, not inciting it. He was “on site” in less than 90 seconds. I learned later they put John in jail due to a “parole” violation. I also let the Administration know what we had witnessed. No one followed up with us.
Pete McCloskey was the U.S. Congressman representing our District. We had crossed paths so we knew each other by name. I saw him on campus a month after the riot. These next few minutes scared me in a way I had never experienced before and that fear is part of my DNA today. There are “influences,” even in the U.S. that are difficult to confront and identify.
I brought up John Brandon to Congressman McCloskey and expressed my frustration at the unfairness. I told him that the reporter and I would freely testify that John was innocent. His reply was chilling: He told me he was aware of the case and had been working on it for over a month. He said, “I am a U.S. Congressman. I have met with the Administration, the Police Department, and the Parole Board. I thought that as a Congressman I would have influence. But there is some power, some unknown influence that wants John Brandon in jail. This influence has greater power than I as a Congressman and I cannot find who represents this power. I don’t know what else I can do; they want John Brandon in jail.”
You could see that he was visibly shaken by this.
A number of seniors in my family, American citizens who were born in the U.S., were put in U.S concentration camps, here in California and on the West Coast, during World War II. The government said they were putting them in these camps for their own protection. The internees knew better; they asked, “If we are here for our protection, why are the guns/soldiers in the guard tower pointed at us?” Years later, the government apologized, but they can’t undo the fear of incarceration and they never returned the land and property that were lost.
Our greatest protection against those elected officials who abuse power is our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. If we want democracy we have to choose to work at it, and we have to protect it when it is under threat.
It’s been 50 years since that riot. I have searched for years for John Brandon’s name, but never discovered what happened to him. A man fighting for fairness was jailed by a “force” that for some reason didn’t want him free. This is what many believe to be the institutional racism which still exists today. My 91-year-old mother-in-law has lived her life in fear that she might be gathered up again and sent to camp because of her race; she was 11 years old when put in camp. Don’t believe for a second that this can’t happen again. Think about the anti-Muslim rhetoric after 9/11.
I understand how in one moment someone’s life can change from forces beyond one’s control. When I was 5 years old and in kindergarten, I was playing in the schoolyard. In the midst of recess a girl came up to me and started yelling, “You killed Christ! You killed Christ!” Other students heard her and I knew this was trouble. I ran to the teacher and started yelling, “I did not, I did not!”
At 5, I had heard of Christ but had no idea who he was. I will never forget Ms. Whiting’s response. At first she turned beet red, I could tell she was flustered. But with the expertise and the dedication of a great teacher, she crouched down and explained to the young girl that I had nothing to do with killing Christ; I was only 5 years old. But it did not stop this young girl’s belief that I had indeed killed Christ, nor did it stop her comments. That’s what they taught her in church in those days. This kind of influence lasted throughout school.
When I was working, not a month went by when someone didn’t point out my religion. I worked for 2 years in a company where the CEO and 2 top salespeople thought that telling jokes about the German concentration camps was funny. Some have asked why I stayed for 2 years at that company. To me it is simple: their bigotry was about them, not me.
My ancestors all had to flee Russia in the early 1900s because they were killing people there due to their religion. My mother’s family fled to China, where she was born and raised. During World War II, her friend was housed in a refugee camp down the street. Until my mother died, she spoke of the fear that she and her Chinese friends felt in Shanghai. One moment they could all be together and the next moment someone in their family could be arrested and never heard from again. She detested those who claimed to represent the “poor” and disenfranchised, but were using it for their own political gain. There was always this “unknown presence.”
Sometimes people believe things because they trust in statements made by others. Whether it is racism, bigotry, or just plain ignorance, the only way that we can improve things, again, is by exercising our First Amendment right of free speech. I’ve traveled to many countries where Free Speech does not exist. It is a horrifying thing to see the fear in people’s eyes when you know that they can’t speak out. It’s just as uncomfortable as I watch my mother-in-law’s reaction when our leaders are condemning people because of their culture or religion. That fear of an 11-year-old being gathered up and put in a concentration camp lives with her each day.
I cherish the First Amendment; it is the foundation of our Democracy. It is our duty as Americans, as people who cherish the freedom in our country, to responsibly speak out and hold elected officials and our government accountable. It may be one of the only powers we as individuals actually have. At 19, many of us signed up and were willing to die for this freedom.
Written by: Joseph Weinstein
Featured photo caption: Joseph Weinstein in 1969.