Thursday, April 05, 2018

Patrolling the Streets of Our Nation's Capital

  Daniel Cano                                                                  
                                                                National Guard in Washington D.C.           

I write this on April 4th, 50 years to the day that Martin Luther King was executed in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1968, I was a naïve, 21 year-old paratrooper, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed at Fort Bragg, just outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina. In the Day Room, between games of pool and cards, we watched events unfold on television. Then came the riots, as the media called them. Washington D.C. was on fire. It reminded me of the Watts' Riots, not far from my home on LA.'s west-side, 20 miles away, and a world removed from the violence of the inner-city.

Many of the guys in the 82nd had served in Vietnam. We figured we'd return to the relative safety of our stateside Army posts, play war games, hit the bars, do our time, and go home. We never considered, for a moment, we'd be patrolling our own country's city streets.

The newscasts showed the National Guard and nearby Army units having difficulty quelling the rioters. I don't remember exactly how the word came down to us, but, somehow it did. Our NCOs ordered to pack up our stuff and get ready to ship out to Washington D.C., just like we were heading into a battle zone. It was strange. We trained for war, not for civil disturbances, not to view our own people as the enemy.

Before we knew it, they loaded a thousand of us, or so, on to two-and-a-half ton trucks, and they drove us to Pope Air Force Base, placed us on to C-130s, and flew us into the nation's capital. Somewhere along the way, they outfitted us with weapons, M-14s, much heavier and less deadly than the AR-15s we'd used in Vietnam. A few guys carried M-60 machine guns, and grenade launchers, more for show than for real use, we later learned.

At Andrews Air Force Base in D.C., we marched in formation from the planes, hopped onto the backs of our deuce-and-a-halves, and drove into the city. They ordered us not to put magazine clips into our weapons. They wanted us to keep the rounds of ammo in our pouches. No one wanted a tragedy. We knew we were an intimidating force driving down the streets of our capital, muzzles raised high, and red All American patches on our shoulders, so that everyone on the sidewalk could see the U.S. Army had arrived.

It must have been the 5th or 6th of April because the fires had died down and the streets were quiet. We were in the middle of D.C.'s black neighborhood, not far from Howard University, where, instead of names, the streets had letters and numbers, like H and 7th.

   Where there's smoke there's fire

We saw no new flare ups, just smoke coming off the buildings, many standing on their foundations, walls and windows blown out. It's difficult to describe what it felt like, armed and ready to shoot fellow Americans, if necessary. What we'd learned in the military was that anybody who was not us was "them," and we could shoot "them" and be carrying out our duty. Yet, this theory hadn't been tested, and, most of us hoped we wouldn't have to do it.

A lot of what we did in D.C. was OJT (on the job training). The traffic lights were out. A sergeant ordered me to direct traffic. "Like a traffic cop?" I must have answered. I'd never directed traffic in my life. The look he gave me was all I needed to know he wasn't going to tell me again. With rifle slung across my back, I got out into the middle of the chaotic intersection. What an irony. I'd made it home from Vietnam, and  now, here I was, a target for any angry driver, or sniper, who wanted revenge. KIA on the streets of D.C. My parents had no idea I was in the thick of it.

So, I started directing traffic. It took me awhile to figure it out, but eventually I got pretty good at it, until another paratrooper came out to the intersection to relieve me. He had the same look in his eyes that I had when I started the new job. As I changed places with him, I saw an eerie sight, one that remains vivid in my mind, even today: smoke coming from some burning buildings, and through the gloomy haze, I see the nation's Capitol rise like a specter far off in the distance. If we truly had "liberty and freedom for all," we wouldn't be in this mess. Today, we know these weren't riots at all, but an uprising for a people crying to be heard.

Rather than patrol the streets in squads, we decided to walk the streets in twos and threes. D.C. was still cold on April mornings but warmed up in the afternoon. People were friendly. They smiled and waved as we passed their homes. One African-American woman, probably in her fifties, came out of her house with a batch of freshly made ice-tea. She wouldn't let us leave until we'd had a glass. She told us she was sure glad to see us. Little kids ran up to us and wanted to see our weapons. I remember the kids in Vietnam coming up to us and asking for American chocolate bars. It may have all been fake, artificial, but it made us feel good, little kids looking up to us. The older kids, teenagers and young adults just glared at us.

We began pulling regular duty, in shifts, three or four hours on and two hours off. We made local laundromats our headquarters and barracks, sleeping wherever we could find an open spot. Lucky was the guy who could stretch out on the table that was normally used to fold clothes.

                                                    The laundromat: Headquarters and barracks

At 2:00 A.M., it was back on the streets, patrolling the unlit neighborhoods for three or four hours at a time. Luckily, nothing happened. G.I.s on foot, G.I.s in jeeps, and trucks filled the neighborhoods. Our radios crackled into the night. It was a far cry from the jungles we'd patrolled and guarded a year earlier, where any time, day or night, we knew snipers or ambushes awaited us. How can one's nerves already be shot at 21 years of age?

The third day was cleanup, which for us meant slack time. They took us to a Washington Senators baseball game. That night we stayed in the gym of the legendary college for the deaf Gallaudet University, where the administrators and students brought in a local rock band, the Fantastic Plastic, to entertain us. Some of the guys were quickly learning sign language from the pretty coeds on campus, or at least enough to take down phone numbers, or make dates to meet in dark corners of the campus at night. Though, lost in all of this was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a man of peace, who would cry to hear that after it was all said and done, 13 people would die, 7600 would be arrested, and the city would suffer millions of dollars in property damage.
            On the lookout

I've got to admit, at the time, I, and I'd guess, a lot of us, especially the guys from out west, knew little about this man who knew he would not make it to the top of the mountain with his people. Oh, like other Americans I'd watched television in the early 60s and saw Bull Connor's law enforcement terrorize Alabama's black citizens, firing high pressure water hoses at them and let the attack dogs loose.

Still, I'm ashamed to say I didn't know more about Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement. California, my home, was the land of milk and honey. Except for the media-dubbed Watts Riots shaking us awake, most of us believed the semantics that covered the real truth, and we all fell back into an existential slumber. As a budding musician, I knew more about Otis Redding than Dr. King. When Redding's plane went down four months before Dr. King's assassination, I was heartbroken. I had played Otis Redding's albums until I knew every song by heart. So when he died, I felt as though I'd lost a friend. For me, Martin Luther King didn't become a teacher or model until much later, when I started teaching school and learned about him through my own initiative. A perfect human, no, but which one of us is? A man who chose to sacrifice himself for a bigger cause, yes, and how many of us would?

I guess I was just too far removed from Dr. King, which, today, I blame on an education system fearful of teaching students about race or our own country's injustices. We should have been learning about him and his movement in high school. Instead, I'd just watch Mississippi burn on television, no context for what my fourteen year-old brain was soaking up. It wasn't until I taught Ethnic Literature that I read King's Letter from Birmingham Jail that I truly came to know the man, especially his courage in the face of evil.

King's letter is a manifesto to action, that one can only wait so long, and that if one acts according to what he believes is truly just, he can't be wrong. What I didn't realize was that for a black man in the south, jail wasn't simply incarceration, it could mean banishment or death. So each time Martin went to prison, he didn't know whether he'd come out alive.

I think that every American should read this magnificent piece of literature. I still don't know why it isn't an American masterpiece, right up there with the Gettysburg Address. A friend of mine, Donzleigh Abernathy, daughter of Civil Right icon Ralph Abernathy, who was right there next to MLK, during all his marches, protests, demonstrations, and beatings, wrote a Partnership To History: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Davis Abernathy, and the Civil Rights Movement, detailing King's Civil Rights Movement from the early days down to the end, which is really another beginning. The book is must read for anyone interested in the people who led the struggle for civil rights.

Now, as each April 4th comes around, the first thing I remember is Dr. King's death. The second thing is patrolling the streets of Washington D.C. Then I recall my education in race relations, the 18 months in North Carolina and seeing the billboards along the side of the road: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL KKK. I remember witnessing restaurants and bars refuse service to African-American soldiers, kids who fought in Vietnam alongside the rest of us, came home, only to be humiliated and discarded, as if Jim Crow was still the de facto law.

I remember Chicanos from Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado who told me stories of the same ill-treatment, as if we still lived in the 1940s and 50s, when some people thought "America was great."
                                                                         Brothers in Arms        
The Reverend King was more optimistic than many of our leaders, and maybe that was one of his messages: to stay optimistic, positive, and to realize that there are still many good people who wish many good things for all of us. But, man, is it hard, especially in times like today, when there are people who truly believe that the greatness of America is behind us.

Today, when ICE is pulling longtime residents from their homes, in front of their children, arresting, and deporting them for not having the right papers--no excuses or explanations. In times like these, it is Martin Luther King's voice in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that rings loud and clear: an "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."


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