Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Canopy Above our Heads

  Daniel Cano
The canopy above
I wrote this on April 4th, 2018, 50 years after Martin Luther King was executed in Memphis, Tennessee, and I decided the situation in our country today was as good as any for a resurrection.

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 on television as civil unrest erupted in cities across the country. Then came the burning and looting. Washington D.C. was on fire. It reminded me of the 1960's Watts' Riots, not far from my home on LA.'s west-side, where we were safely tucked away from the violence on the other side of the city.

Many of the guys in the 82nd had served in Vietnam, most of us with the 173rd Airborne, the First Cavalry, and the 101st Airborne. We had hoped once we arrived to the safety of our stateside Army posts, we'd play war games, hit the bars, do our time, and go home. We never considered, for a moment, we might be ordered to patrol the streets of our nation's capital.
Agustin (black t-shirt) and I hoping for a little rest 
The newscasts reported the local police and National Guard having difficulty quelling the rioters. There were rumors of snipers on rooftops and militant militias patrolling the streets, rumors greatly exaggerated by a federal government anxious to see federal troops patrolling the city streets, to prove D.C.'s residents, a majority African-American, needed the federal government to protect them.

We didn't know it then, but as many historians affirm today, they sent us right into the middle of an age-old political struggle between the federal government and the citizens of D.C., a majority African-American, who wanted to control their own political destiny.

Our presence on our capital's streets made the then-president look like a no-nonsense, law and order commander-in-chief and his party tough on crime, which really meant, back in '68, keeping the majority African-American citizenry "out of power," exactly what the white business community and the southern Dixiecrats in the government wanted. After all, if the black citizens of Washington could rule themselves, what would stop the southern blacks from thinking they could do the same thing.

I don't remember exactly how the word came down to us, but it did. Our NCOs ordered us to pack our stuff and get ready to ship out, just like we were heading into a war zone. It was strange. We trained for combat against foreign forces not for civil disturbances, not to view fellow Americans as the enemy.
My friend, Raul and I training for war and not for crowd control, Pope Air Force Base, N. Carolina 
Before we knew it, we had our weapons and were loaded on to two-and-a-half ton trucks. They drove us to Pope Air Force Base, placed us on to C-130s, and flew us into the nation's capital, off-loaded at the famed Andrews' Air Force Base, home of Air Force I and the greeting place for dignitaries and presidents from around the world.

We carried M-14s, good sniper rifles, and M-16s, the deadly weapons feared by the Vietcong. One accurate round from an M-16 could turn a person's internal organs to mush, as Americans learned from the shootings in Las Vegas a few years ago, where doctors said they felt helpless at the carnage.

Some guys carried M-60 machine guns and grenade launchers, more as deterrents, we later learned. We had our full rucksacks, sleeping gear, ammunition, and tear gas masks.

Once inside the city limits, they ordered us keep our magazine clips into our ammo pouches. No one wanted a needless tragedy. We had already experienced in combat that a shot from one weapon could initiate a volley from an entire squad. Give assault weapons to 19, 20, and 21-year-olds finely-tuned for combat and anything could happen.

We knew we were an intimidating force driving down the streets of our capital, muzzles raised high, red All American (AA) patches on our left shoulders and various combat patches on our right, people on the sidewalk stopping to gawk at us.

It must have been the 5th or 6th of April because the fires had died down and, though, the streets were chaotic, they had quieted significantly. The police and National Guard had done their jobs. So, really, why were we there, political pawns?

We patrolled the middle of D.C.'s African-American neighborhood, not far from Howard University, where, instead of names, the streets had letters and numbers, like H and 7th.

Civic protests and the burning of city blocks are not the same

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 citizens, 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. It wasn't until Kent State, a couple of years later, people realized how easily a mistake could lead to disaster.

A lot of what we did in D.C. was OJT (on the job training). We weren't trained for civic disobedience. Much of the electricity was out, and the traffic lights. 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. lines of honking cars everywhere, a perfect target for a sniper.

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 what they were probably watching on television.

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 could see the nation's Capitol rise like a specter far off in the distance.

If we truly had "liberty and justice for all," we wouldn't be in this mess. Martin Luther King, George Floyd, and many others would be alive. 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 older African-American woman came out of her house with a pitchers of freshly made ice-tea and lemonade. 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 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. Those of us, black soldiers, and other Chicanos, knew why.

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.

                                       Catching a nap in a laundromat before the next patrol

At 2:00 A.M., it was back on the streets, patrolling the dark neighborhoods, three or four hours at a time, pounding the concrete. The place looked like a war zone, G.I.s on foot, G.I.s in jeeps, and trucks, whipping up and down the streets and boulevards. Our radios crackled into the night. It was a far cry from the jungles we'd patrolled a year earlier, where any time, day or night, we knew snipers or ambushes awaited us. We knew a kid could smile, shake our hands, drop and grenade at our feet, and run away. How can one's nerves already be shot at 21 years of age?

The third day was cleanup, which for us meant the end of the violence, and slack time. They treated 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, and make dates to meet later on the campus. Though, lost in all of this, was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a man of peace, who knew this day would come. I'm sure he would have been distraught to know his death would lead to 13 dead and 7600 arrests, in D.C. alone, in addition to millions of dollars in property damage, mostly, in African-American neighborhoods.
            The regular army in full combat gear ready for war not for civil unrest
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 sensed 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 as attack dogs ripped at their legs and arms.

Still, I'm ashamed to say I didn't know more about Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement. California was the land of milk and honey. Except for the media-dubbed Watts Riots shaking us awake, most of us believed in the American Dream, 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 teenage brain was soaking up. It wasn't until I taught Ethnic Literature that I read King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, and I truly came to know the man, especially his courage in the face of evil.

King's letter is a manifesto to action--now, to wait no longer, and that if one acts according to what is morally 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 often meant death. It symbolized banishment, often torture. So each time Martin, or any African-American man, went to prison, he didn't know whether he was coming out alive.

Our education system should make it mandatory for every American to read King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. I still don't know why it isn't an American masterpiece, right up there with the Gettysburg Address, Waldon, and Moby Dick.

A friend of mine, Donzleigh Abernathy, daughter of Civil Right icon Ralph Abernathy, who was there at MLK's side 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 thing is, the struggle for civil rights shouldn't be just an African-American issue. It should be an American issue, and taught as such, not to be hidden in shame but to be raised to illuminate U.S. erudition, to guide us forward, teach us from where we came and to where we still must go.

My education in race relations, no, not in high school, not a word mentioned. But my 18 months in North Carolina opened my eyes, seeing the billboards along the side of the road, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL KKK. I knew that meant segregation not only against African-Americans, but against Mexicans, Catholics, Jews, and most other American ethnic groups.

In downtown Fayetteville, I remember 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 can remember seeing a friend of mine crying outside a bar that refused to serve him, Vietnam veteran or not. If he couldn't drink there, neither would the rest of us. We boycotted the place.

I remember Chicanos from Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado who told me stories of the same injustices, lack of political representation, police cruelty, poor education, the worst jobs, as if we were still living in the 1930s and 40s, a time, some people today think--when "America was great" and want us to return to those days.
                                         Always looking toward the future and not the past      
The Reverend King was more optimistic than many leaders, and maybe that was one of his messages: to stay optimistic, positive, like to today's young protestors, who have every right to cry out, and to realize 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 Americans who prefer to look back instead of forward.

Today, ICE is pulling Latinos from their homes in front of their children, arresting, and deporting them for not having legal documents--no excuses no explanations, yet American employers encourage more to come north to work the fields, meat-packing plants, restaurants, and hotels, exposing themselves to virus, illness, and death while we stay safely locked-up in our homes avoiding the epidemic.

When rogue cops can kill American citizens before the eyes of an entire nation--world, and feel justified and free of retribution; at 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," like the canopy opening up above, stopping the freefall, and helping bring us safely to the ground. Is that too much to ask?