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The Revolt of the Cockroach People
By Oscar Zeta Acosta
Vintage: 262 pages

 

I just read The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta, that famous Latino lawyer from back in the day who got really involved in civil rights, wrote a pair of legendary books and then disappeared in 1974. I think they said he went down to Mexico and never came back, which happens.

You might know Acosta as Dr. Gonzo the 300-pound Samoan that Hunter Thompson blasted and snorted through Vegas with, but he wasn’t Samoan he was Latino, Mexican American, Chicano, as the old-timers say. I hear Acosta, who called himself “Buffalo Z. Brown,” wasn’t happy about how Hunter portrayed him in that famous book of his, or infamous I should say, because Acosta was a proud Chicano. White people are always trying to exoticize immigrants—I was going to say foreigners—anyway, white people are always trying to exoticize non-white people. Like how they did Rita Moreno in all her early movies, where she played some kind of Polynesian or Persian or a Hungarian and would “a tawk lyka dissss.”

Man! I never realized how ridiculously hot Rita Moreno used to be. And talented too, of course—obviously—and brave. She had to be. You don’t get to do everything she did with only a pretty face. It takes guts and balls and brains, and Rita Moreno’s are the size of New York.

And not that she’s not beautiful now, but, well, nothing lasts forever…

Oscar Zeta Acosta was a Mexican American, but Rita Morena is from Puerto Rico. I feel the need to say that because a lot of people, even a lot of Latino people, seem to be under the absurd belief that Puerto Ricans have no culture, as if the culture had been colonized out of us. Shit, if anything we invented the culture, or a lot of it at least. So you’re welcome, America.

There’s this part in Revolt of the Cockroach People—which my bean ass kept pronouncing as “cacaroach“—where this young Chicano kid gets sent to jail. Robert Fernandez, only seventeen from Tooner Flats, a fictionalized name of a very real place in East L.A. The cops took him in just for hanging out in a diner that played black music and yelling “Chicano Power!” The one cop that instigated the whole thing was Chicano himself, or Mexican American at least. But like Bernie Mac in Don’t Be a Menace, this brown cop had it out for his own people. Baldwin talks about that, how the black cops patrolling Harlem were the worst, because they had to prove themselves to the white cops.

Robert was known for having a drug problem but he’d been clean for a while. He had tracks on his arms but they weren’t fresh. The cops grabbed him hoping to score a bust—again, trying to prove themselves worthy of the badge. The cops told his sister Lupe not to worry, that they would release him in a few hours. Then Robert called from the jail saying the cops were charging him with “Plain Drunk, a misdemeanor,” and his bail was set at 500 bucks.

His mom set things up with the bail bondsman before she got another call from the jail. It was the cops saying they’d found her boy hanging in his cell by the neck and called it suicide. “Robert wouldn’t do a thing like that,” the mother tells Brown (Acosta). “He was católico, Señor Café.”

At the funeral the mom’s crying over the body in the casket when her tears happen to rinse away some of the caretaker’s work, revealing “purple spots on the nose.”

“She wiped away the tears and the undertaker’s white powder came off his face,” Acosta writes. “It was purple underneath. She called John [the sister’s husband] over and he verified it. They began to look more closely and noticed bruises on the knuckles.” 

Buffalo Brown takes the case and immediately calls the L.A. corner, a man by the name of Thomas Naguchi, whom I kept imagining as someone like Judge Ito who presided over the O.J. trial; both were Japanese jurists who loved the camera and their names in the press. Naguchi agrees to conduct a second autopsy with Brown present, plus a Coroner’s Inquest, sort of like a trial where a Coroner’s Hearing Officer acts like a judge and Brown and someone from the District Attorney’s Office present their cases to a jury of eight men and women. “But it isn’t an adversary proceeding,” Zeta writes. “I cannot participate as a lawyer. There is no cross-examination.” The Hearing Officer “calls the witnesses; he questions them; he instructs the jury. There can be no talking by counsel for the family or from the DA’s representative, just from Pitluck” the Hearing Officer. 

“But he has invited us to bring anything to his attention that we feel is relevant. If I know of witnesses, I should give him their names. If I have a question, either before, during or after the hearing, I should write it out on a piece of paper and hand it to him. But I can say nothing to the jury. That is state law. Period.”

Much like the Simpson trial, the Coroner’s Inquest is a finely orchestrated shitshow. Not only does the law hamstring Brown as the Fernandez family’s lawyer, but Pitluck the Hearing Officer and Mayer from the DA’s Office are as racist as Vegas is hot—and racist in the way where you’re not sure they even realize just how racist they are. They and all of their witnesses keep making assumptions about the dead boy based on his brown skin and last name. The psychiatrist they bring in to do a “psychological autopsy” says Robert probably killed himself based on his profile: “a Chicano. A poor boy. …a history of drug abuse. …in jail an average of three months of every year since he was twelve. …never held a steady job. …had numerous women companions, drank heavily, took amphetamines and depressants … had a pregnant girl asking him to marry her.”

“Goddamnit, I object!” Brown shouts out in the courtroom. The man’s testimony is “premised on a racist view.”

“There he goes,” Mayer chortles.

“What do you mean, sir?”

“That idiot is saying that because Robert was a poor screwed-up Chicano, he probably committed suicide.”

“How is that racist? Never mind. Let’s get back to work. Do you have any more questions of this witness?”

“Not that you’d permit me to ask,” says Brown.

The Hearing Officer calls in the son of a local Chicano leader, celebrity, businessman and snake by the name of de Silva, who claims to speak for the people but whom the people suspect of being in cahoots with the white power structure, having served on the mayor’s Chicano Community Board “as a rubber-stamp nigger for the establishment.” The kid was arrested for grand theft auto and locked up with Robert, but tells everybody he didn’t see or hear how Robert died.

“We talked for a while,” he says. “Then I fell asleep. When I woke up a little later, I heard some noise … It was the police. They were taking Fernandez out of the cell … I didn’t see nothing.”

The jury deliberates for a whole hour and comes back with a unanimous decision: the Fernandez boy did it to himself.

Oscar Zeta Acosta in the Baccarat Lounge of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, 1971

Acosta was a lawyer but he had no particular affinity for the law. “When I first arrived in Los Angeles in January, ’68,” he writes, “I had no intention of practicing law or of pitting myself against anything. I was only anxious to find ‘THE STORY’ and write ‘THE BOOK’ so that I could split to the lands of peace and quiet where people played volleyball, sucked smoke and chased after cool blondes.

“I had only gotten the degree and my license to prove that even a fat brown Chicano like me could do it.”

That’s why I stuck it out through college myself and left with a degree in history even after I didn’t want the damn thing anymore, a degree being about as worthless as it is expensive. There are a few good, important things that college can teach you, depending on where you go and who does the teaching, but the majority of it is an incredible waste of time and energy. Most Latinos go to college to prove they can get in but then drop out a couple semesters or so in, once they’ve sufficiently proven it. Most of the ones that see it through and actually get a degree only do it to prove that they could do that too. White supremacy makes non-white people do a lot of things they really don’t want to do, making white supremacy itself the single greatest waste of time and energy for the bulk of humanity.

Acosta got soured on the law the same way most brown people do, by seeing how ugly it is. Once you learn that the law isn’t about justice but about keeping down poor people, especially the dark ones, then you start to lose all respect for the law, as you should. You even start flouting the law, holding it in contempt like it holds you in contempt.

The people in my circle know me to speed habitually without cause, make a U-turn where a sign says I can’t, bust a left at a red light, stuff like that. I read somewhere that us Puerto Ricans have a tendency to drive recklessly, that being colonized for so long makes us a tad suicidal, and if you’ve heard about the heroic but utterly doomed exploits of the Nationalists, the FALN, or the Macheteros, then you’re likely to agree. I don’t think freedom fighters are suicidal—in fact, they love life more than most people—but they understand the strength of the enemy. And when you’re facing an enemy 100 times your size, you step into the ring not only expecting to die but planning on it.

I could see too how colonialism might give the nonviolent subject a death wish. When you kill a people’s spirit, when you implement policies to snuff it out generation after generation, you create a population of slaves, but you also create a race of people with nothing to lose. Because what good is a body without a soul? You might as well put yourself out of your own misery and, hopefully, if you can, take a swing at the person or people that gave you your misery as your checking out.

Maybe me being Puerto Rican is why I drive dangerously, but I don’t know, and I don’t think that’s it anyway. I break the so-called “Rules of the Road”—whenever and wherever I can without risking anyone else’s life too much—because to me the law is merely a suggestion, and so to follow the law at all times is for chumps.

Most people’s introduction to the law comes through police officers, who are the initial point of contact between the public and the law. Before you meet a judge, you meet a cop first.

The first cop I met was my dad. He was with the Chicago Police Department in the precinct out by the Brickyard. I first knew him as a courtroom bailiff, which is how he met my former stepmom, a court stenographer, this big pale Italian lady named Madeleine.

My dad was also the first lowdown rotten motherfucker I ever met, as were his cop buddies as far as I could tell. My dad was addicted to crack and who knows what else and used to beat my mom, my brother and me like it was his hobby. He also lifted things off the people he detained, watches and stuff, and would pawn them for drug money. He even took the money my mom had for baby formula and pampers.

Anyway, that was the first cop I ever knew, and at the age of six or seven I thought, If these people are enforcing the law, then the law must be as shitty as they are. I didn’t respect my father—I feared him plenty, but didn’t respect him—so I damn sure as hell wasn’t about to respect the law he worked for. I’m sure boys who get touched by priests find it just as hard to believe in God’s benevolent hand.

When my mom fled with us out to the suburbs we ran with a group of poor kids, mostly Mexican but some black or Slavic or just plain white trash. I say that lovingly. The Mexican kids, whom my brother and I got lumped with even though we were Honduran-Puerto Rican, all called themselves “beaners,” or just “beans.” And you already know what the black kids called themselves. To keep it real, all us poor kids called ourselves what the black kids called themselves and us. Black culture being the cool culture, we did whatever they did.

Us kids used to play this game called Chase. It was our favorite for a while. It was like hide-and-go-seek, only you could run from the person trying to tag you. And the area of play was huge, though usually within the boundaries of the apartment complex; as we grew up we expanded the boundaries to include the complexes on either side.

Chase was an exhilarating pastime. We usually played after dark. It started just like hide-and-go-seek, with one or two people counting with their eyes closed and everybody else scrambling for a hiding place in some bushes, the bicycle room, a stairwell, up a tree, anything and anywhere within bounds. You’d be peeking out from your spot, trying to detect any sounds or movement in the shadows, when out came a kid, maybe your brother or somebody, and they’d be hauling ass across the lawn with a tagger on his heels. The kid being chased would laugh and scream with excitement and delight, and when we had a dozen or more kids playing at once all you’d hear throughout the complex was kids screaming and laughing, till some grownup opened their window and yelled through the screen to shut up or else they were calling the cops.

When we played in a complex that had an overnight guard we’d run from him as though he were the tagger, which was way more fun than being chased by a kid because we knew that the guard really wanted to get his greasy fat hands on us and we were in big trouble if he did. When the cops got called in to chase us it only upped the ante, and the thrill.

Having no respect for the law—fear, but no respect—and discovering the thrill of being chased by the police, naturally we started doing things to get the cops after us. Basic vandalism and mischief: smashing stuff, hanging out in the open after curfew, ding-dong-ditching, egging the school, throwing rocks at passing cars, stealing things… It sounds worse than it was; we weren’t really that bad, just bored mostly, and dangerously unsupervised. Most of us had single parents or otherwise busy parents who had neither the time nor the energy to keep an eye on us, only punish us whenever we brought the trouble home, which is why we learned to run our asses off.

We had contempt for our own parents half the time, but it wasn’t personal. We didn’t respect any grownups, except those we thought were cool. Either someone had a cool dad or a cool mom or cool uncle whom we listened to and respected.

We respected our new principal in fifth grade, Mr. Crocker, who became like a father for all us fatherless sons. He’d join the football game out in the field during recess and play quarterback, making sure to pass it to every kid on the field at least once, no matter how scrawny and unathletic—nerds like me. I remember one game where there must’ve been 30 kids on the field at least, boys and girls of all races and ethnicities—black, Latino and white of course, but also some of the Mexican kids who didn’t speak English and would only play soccer in the other field, and even a few Hindus and Muslims and a Cherokee girl with a long braid who was almost a tomboy but still girly and pretty.

We respected Mr. Crocker and did what he said for a lot of reasons, all of which had to do with him treating each and every one of us decently—not as a Mexican kid or a black kid or a poor kid but just a kid, a human being, with dreams and problems like everybody else.

He never had kids of his own, but he helped raise hundreds, maybe thousands. And being a boy in a society that you know is racist in its bones, having an old white man see you as a human being is important and powerful, especially when he’s the head honcho at school who even the teachers and the front-office Karens are forced to respect. It’s like the law finally being on your side for once. You start to imagine how the world might be different, if only there were more white people like Mr. Crocker. Then you wonder why there aren’t and, if you’re like me, you go looking for answers.

My old elementary school where Mr. Crocker was principal (NBC Chicago)

I’ve met enough racist cops in my day. I think the earliest, the first one that left an impression, should be one my brother remembers. We were playing at the playground at school on a Saturday or Sunday—the school had the best basketball nets around—and some puny pale-ass cop drove up onto the blacktop and started messing with us, telling us to leave. He looked like a sick chicken, the uniform hanging off his angular frame. He started shoving my brother around and my brother wasn’t having it. He was only ten or so and four-foot-nothing but he had been pushed around by our dad enough early on—we had been living without him for years by that point—so my brother wouldn’t tolerate anyone manhandling him from then on out. Not me, not my mom, not the kids at school or on the block, and not no cop either. My brother was tough—is tough, especially now that he’s about my height, went with the Marines to Iraq, and weighs two-something, most of it muscle. He’s a CO at a notorious prison back in Illinois, and yet I hardly worry about his physical safety on the job.

That day on the playground he was sort of challenging the cop to a fight, saying stuff like “You scrawny bitch-ass motherfucker! I bet I can whoop your ass!” The cop was outnumbered, surrounded by a bunch of poor kids of all colors. You could see the fear in his eyes and the droplets of sweat forming under the bill of his police cap—it wasn’t even sunny out or hot, but a cloudy cool breezy afternoon; it must’ve been fall or early spring. It was just us and the cop as far as you could see, and though he was telling us all to leave we got the sense that he was only manhandling my brother because he was the smallest of the brown kids.

It took him a while to get us to go. When we finally decided to leave we took our sweet time walking away while telling him that he was “a little bitch” and a “cracker-ass cop,” the cop just saying “Yeah, yeah, get lost” but with his small voice and small hands trembling a bit. Dude was nervous, and it felt good putting a little fear in a cop’s heart for a change.

In high school once I was with my friend Dimitri from Belarus and our Mexican friend Francisco. It was almost ten o’clock at night and we were at a park in the next town over waiting for instructions on where to go for this house party some white kids were having. We were just sitting in Dimitri’s Altima, with half a handle of vodka in the trunk that Dimitri had borrowed from his dad’s supplies, when all of sudden we saw police lights flashing behind us. We must’ve been daydreaming or something—Francisco had already fallen asleep in the back seat—because we never noticed the squad car pull up behind us. Turns out that, though he had the car off, Dimitri had been mindlessly pressing and releasing the brake pedal, unwittingly flashing the brake lights. Suspicious behavior no matter who’s looking.

The two cops told us to get out of the car and made us sit on the curb. One of them was an old man with white hair, a white mustache and a white police shirt. He looked like the chief and acted like it. He grilled us on what we were doing there and we told him. He asked to search the trunk and Dimitri refused, being a proud, intelligent Slavic immigrant who resented the powers that be in America almost as much as any black or brown kid. But the Altima had one of those hatches in the back seat that allowed access to the trunk, so the chief had his young deputy search the trunk through the opening and the guy pulled out the half-empty bottle of vodka.

The chief eyed the three of us with such glee, almost affectionately.

Oh-ho! what do we have here kiddos?” he said. “Now you’re fucked.”

Dimitri told him it was his parents’ car, which it was, and that he hadn’t known a bottle was in the trunk. And anyway we hadn’t been drinking—luckily we hadn’t pregamed with swigs from the bottle like we usually did. But the chief didn’t believe us for squat, and our refusal to incriminate ourselves only made him lust for us even more.

He made us all blow into a breathalyzer, but before we did he would tell the kid about to blow how he knew we were going to blow something other than triple zero and that as soon as we did he was going to bury us good.

Well, we all blew zeroes—though we had worried that the machine might fuck us. The cops had nothing on us except the bottle they found in the trunk by illegal means. The old cop was so pissed.

“Get the fuck out of my town,” he said real cool, with a razor sharp edge on it. “Don’t let me catch you here again.”

“What the fuck he mean ‘Get out of my town’?” Dimitri was saying as we drove away. He was heated.

Me and Francisco not so much.

Me and Francisco were brown kids and thus used to being threatened and abused by the law, used to old white men telling us to get lost and never come back, used to being chased around. It was just another day for us and if anything, though we never admitted it to each other or him, we were glad Dimitri was there that night, armed with all his white rights and the bravado that came with them. Had it just been me and Francisco in the car, with an open bottle of liquor?… Well, I probably wouldn’t be sitting where I am today.

But Dimitri wouldn’t let it go. He wanted to get his hands on a stick of dynamite and blow a hole into the side of the police station. Me and Francisco were saying “Yea! Fuck those pigs, man!” But we had no intention of going anywhere near any police station, much less with anything incriminating as a stick of dynamite, or even matches.

Cops all carry guns, you see, and when you’ve learned that they hate you to the core, you do your best to avoid them and not give them any ideas. You know a cop can put you down for anything, and though it might make the news, with your mom and friends and family members crying on TV, maybe a few people lighting candles where a pool of your blood has been washed away, nothing will happen beyond that. The cop will keep his job, after enjoying a paid vacation while his fellow officers investigate the matter and find that, lo and behold, Officer Such-and-Such did nothing wrong and was well within his rights, and that you might still be here if only you had done whatever he told you to do and not made him so damn nervous. Cops are the only people who can kill someone and it’s always the dead someone’s fault. They might even give him a medal.

We planned how and when we’d blow up the station and talked about getting ski masks, but actually procuring a stick of dynamite seemed like a serious step, the point of no return, and Dimitri hesitated just enough to calm down and return to his senses. I was so relieved. I probably would’ve gone with him to blow up the station had he asked me to; I’d at least driven the Altima. I was more loyal to Dimitri than the law, because Dimitri was loyal back.

There have been plenty of other run-ins with the law, but I don’t feel like saying much more. Plus you get the picture, I hope. And what is the picture exactly? Even I’m not so sure, but I think it has something to do with the relationship between poor kids, especially black and brown ones, and the law.

Dimitri hated cops and hated being treated that time like… well, like black and brown kids get treated by cops all the time. Seeing him get so pissed made me realize just how pissed I was but how I had to swallow it, which only made me more pissed. Being frustrated is one thing, but not being able to express that frustration makes for an explosive situation. A lot of people are walking powder kegs.

Not me. Not these days anyhow. I married rich—not on purpose—and have read enough poetry and philosophy to be above anger now, or if not anger than at least wrath. There’s not much left for me to prove or pay back. Plus I get my rocks off driving the new 5 Series around and pulling up right next to a police SUV at the light with my sunroof open and the music blasting. The look on a cop’s face when he pulls me over—the windows are tinted just enough that they can’t see who’s driving—and instead of a middle-aged white guy, or some kid named Chase, they see my young black Latino ass sitting in the driver’s seat, looking like a stack of new money. And when they tell me they’re going to give me a ticket for speeding, 350 dollars, I take it cool as a glass of iced tea, smiling, as if they had just told me I won something. And then I tell them to have a nice day.

“The best revenge is your paper,” Beyonce says, and she’s right. But revenge is not justice, and the fact that I now own a big house and drive a fancy car doesn’t make me feel any safer when I’m out walking the dog after dark.

“Even if you in a Benz…” as the old Kanye once said.

Acosta, a.k.a. Buffalo Brown, calls cops “the eternal enemies of the people. … From the blockhouse, deputies come out in teams of two, ‘To Serve And Protect!’ Always with thirty-six-inch clubs, with walkie-talkies in hand; always with gray helmets, shotguns in the car and .357 Magnums in their holsters.

“The vato loco“—which is what us brown kids called ourselves too after we watched Blood In Blood Out—“the vato loco has been fighting with the pig since the Anglos stole his land in the last century. He will continue to fight until he is exterminated.”

And so it is not only for the brown people but also the black people of course, and the Native peoples clearly, and the Asians, the Inuits, and even the Slavs—any and everybody who threatens white supremacy, capitalism, Christianity, and all the other weapons of white power.

Just look at what happened to Acosta, who “disappeared” in Mexico. Who would have had the inclination and the power to make a famous Chicano civil-rights lawyer disappear like that, I don’t know. But I bet there are only two or three degrees of separation at most between whoever disappeared Acosta and whoever had Fred Hampton and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos killed.

But it’s nothing to worry too much about. All three men are martyrs now, as they probably expected to be, planned on it, and so their names and what they stood for will echo through all of time, forever and ever, or at least as long as we’re still plagued by white supremacy… and even a little longer than that.

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO magazine as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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