“We are all cockroaches.” I have this realization, and it hits home and tears stream down my face. I have to take refuge in the airplane bathroom. There is turbulence and my tears drip down onto my jeans and my shoes and the airplane bathroom floor. I sob for Oscar Zeta Acosta. I sob for all of the pain in the world. I sob for my uncle and aunt who were just murdered by their own son with a pair of hammers. I sob for my Grandmother who died before Christmas. I sob for Eric Garner who was strangled to death by NYPD on Staten Island. I sob for myself.
Finally I clean myself up and wash my face in the impossibly tiny airplane sink. I feel like a giant. I am six foot one and I hit my head on some white hard plastic in the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror. I look like I have been crying, or that I am really stoned or maybe just red-eyed from lack of sleep.
I head out into the world of the plane and order a whiskey and coke from a pair of haggard flight attendants. They are friendly and I open up to them, telling them the story about the murder of my uncle and aunt in rural Michigan.
I’m on a gargantuan metal bird, soaring 3000 feet in the air. It’s an American Airlines flight from JFK to LAX. I am reading about Buffalo Brown, the Chicano lawyer with a lust for life and a fire in his belly. He has a thirst for the truth and a revolutionary spirit. He is defending the vatos locos in East Los Angeles during the Chicano Power movement in the late 60s. Bobby Kennedy is killed, LA Times journalist Ruben Salazar is killed, Molotov cocktails are thrown, it is a war between the pigs and the people on Whittier Boulevard. They blow up a Safeway and they try to blow up a courthouse. As a civil rights attorney, Brown is representing dozens of Chicano defendants who he lovingly refers to as Cockroaches. They cannot be killed, there are millions, they are despised by Anglo society but they refuse to hide, they have come out into the streets and are marching against Vietnam, marching for justice for their murdered brethren, fists in the air and Buffalo Brown is their lawyer and compatriot. In between he enjoys drink and drugs and women, after all this is the 1960s, but he wakes with that fire and he fights the good fight for the cockroaches.
I am reading this book and a very kind man from Jamaica has given me some free booze because he is an employee of American Airlines and can drink for free on the flights.
I drink a bottle of Merlot, not the tiny bottle, one of those medium sized ones. And then I upgraded to Jack Daniels and Diet Coke. I drink 3 or 4 plane cocktails and I am reading this book and I come to this realization.
In America we are all cockroaches.
My cockroach family tree:
My paternal great great grandfather, Jonas Maurer sailed from Bremen, Germany to Baltimore in 1906 and he was a cockroach. He went on to sweat and bleed in the factories of Youngstown, Ohio. Every 10 years he would change his nationality on the census: “Polish,” “Slav,” “Austrian.” He may have been illiterate, the borders in Eastern Europe may have been changing or maybe he didn’t know who he really was or where he was from.
My maternal great grandparents were Irish apple pickers in Yakima, Washington. They were migrant workers, they were cockroaches. My grandmother had to move to a different house every month because her father would drink and gamble all of his money away. He was a cockroach.
And so now here I am, a cockroach in America. I think of this. And the whole Occupy Wall Street movement, about the 1% controlling all of the wealth and the other 99% wage slaving to make these 1% even richer. I think about the Hands Up and the Black Lives Matter movement where black kids and all kids are saying enough to police shooting unarmed black men. I was in New York City and I saw the video of the cops choking that guy to death on Staten Island. He was selling cigarettes on a street corner to try and make money for his family. And they choked him to death.
I remembered the WTO protests in Seattle in the 90s. I remembered the cops billy clubbing teenage girls and grandmothers. I remembered the black woman who had her ear dangling in a bloody mess because she was hit by a rubber bullet. I remembered the tear gas and the danger and the broken windows and the cries of “WHO’S STREETS? OUR STREETS!”
And everything started to make sense to me while riding this great metal bird and tears welled up in my eyes.
So I had to lock myself in the airplane bathroom and tears were streaming down my face and onto my jeans and onto my shoes and onto the floor.
I was sobbing uncontrollably because I knew in my heart that I was a cockroach too and that I was related to all cockroaches everywhere. And I have to start changing around my life so that I can help other cockroaches because there are so many less fortunate than me, fighting over scraps, barely surviving. My talents are music and writing and so I need to hone these weapons, sharpen them, prepare for battle, prepare for war.
Before I can help any cockroaches I have to dig myself out of poverty and stop living paycheck to paycheck, stop living in debt. Poverty can be suffocating and I have to pull off this plastic shopping back tied onto my head. I have to get out of poverty. End that vicious cycle of debt in my life. Then I can help the cockroach.
So what are our weapons to fight back in the meantime? Words. Writing. Poetry. Literature. Comedy. And Music.
We can kick at them.
Writers’ words need to grow teeth and start biting ferociously. We have to start tearing at flesh.
Musicians chords need to cut through and their words need to have fire, the harmonies can be sweet but the intention must be all out war in defense of the cockroach.
We must make reality bleed. We must pop the bloated bubble and become savages. Drink the blood and march forward like a Viking army.
But back to Oscar Zeta Acosta. Acosta is best known as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Samoan” lawyer Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In reality, Thompson had traveled to Los Angeles to interview Acosta about the death of prominent Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. Acosta was an attorney taking on dozens of clients involved in the Chicano Power movement of East LA and he himself became fully involved. On his suitcase was a sticker, “Chicano Pride,” and he carried a .357 magnum inside of that suitcase which accompanied him to many a court case. He not only had to protect himself against LAPD and the FBI who were tailing him around every corner, but there were threats within the movement as well. In LA things proved too hot for Thompson and Acosta to have a quiet conversation so they decided to purchase loads of drugs and head to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. Thompson was offered a job by Sports Illustrated to cover a motorcycle race in the desert and they spent most of the $300 advance on purchasing drugs hastily gathered in 24 hours all over LA County.
Thompson’s tape recordings of 2 separate drug-fueled adventures to Vegas with Acosta became Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. However, Acosta was a writer in his own right, and he pledged to write a book about his experience in the Chicano Power movement. In 1973 this came to fruition as Revolt of the Cockroach People after his 1972 book, Autobiography Of A Brown Buffalo.
But let me go back in time for a second.
In a suburb north of Detroit Michigan my 2nd cousin murdered his parents with a pair of hammers.
I was heading to Boston where there was 3 feet of snow, but managed to reroute my trip to attend the funeral of my Great Uncle and Aunt.
After much eating and drinking and crying it was 11 degrees at 6 in the morning when my Uncle Charlie drove me to the airport.
I was overcome with grief and shock and started reading a book I brought along with me to take my mind off things.
The book was Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People.
I knew about Hunter S. Thompson’s “Samoan” attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What I didn’t know is that this lawyer was a real person. He was Zeta Acosta and he was there in the trenches of East LA, Whittier Boulevard, Boyle Heights, Tooner Flats during the Chicano Power movement of the late 60s.
When I began to turn the pages, Revenge of the Cockroach People was instantly irreverent and unabashedly un-PC. Like all great writing it kicked me in the gut, the book challenged me to continue turning the pages.
He championed the Vato Loco and described East LA and Downtown LA beautifully.
Here he writes from his Downtown LA hotel, walking distance from Skid Row:
“I’ve been in town six hours and now lie naked on my bed with the window of my sleazy downtown hotel room open to the sounds of the city. I have nothing to do until I see my sister in the morning. After checking into the Belmont at Third and Hill, I walked the streets until dark to shake the cramping bus ride from my bones. But already my bones have told me that I have come to the most detestable city on earth. They have carried me through the filthy air of a broken city filled with battered losers. Winos in tennies, skinny fags in tight pants and whores in purple skirts all ignore the world beyond the local bar, care about nothing except where the booze comes cheapest or the latest score on the radio. Where I am, the buildings are crumbling to pieces. The paint is cracked and falling to the streets covered with green and brown phlegm, with eyeless souls who scuttle between tall buildings hoping to find a bed, a bottle, a joint, a broad or even a loaf of bread. Streets filled with dark people, hunchbacked hobos, bums out of work, garbage of yesterday and tomorrow; with black men and women in bright garish clothes, brown men with mustaches to boost themselves up a notch, coffee-drinking people, wine-sipping sods who haven’t had more than five bucks at a time since the last war. And then back to the hotel…”
Buffalo Brown travels to Delano, California to meet his hero Cesar Chavez who is weak and bed-ridden in the middle of a hunger strike. Bobby Kennedy is shot and killed. Brown takes LSD in the desert with his vato loco friends. The Charles Manson family murders take place. And the death of of journalist Ruben Salazar at the hand of LAPD. Brown runs for Sheriff of LA County and his only campaign promise is to dismantle the LA Sheriff department. He comes in second place. In contempt of court, various judges throw him in jail dozens of times.
Here Zeta tells us about East LA:
“Tooner Flats, a neighborhood of shacks and clotheslines and dirty back yards. At every other corner, street lights hang high on telephone poles and cast dim yellow glows. Skinny dogs and wormy cats sniff garbage cans in the alleys. Tooner Flats is the are of gangs who spend their last dime on short dogs of T-Bird wine, where the average kid has eight years of school. Everybody there gets some kind of welfare.
You learn about life from the toughest guy in the neighborhood. You smoke your first joint in an alley at the age of ten; you take your first hit of carga before you get laid; and you learn how to make your mark on the wall before you learn how to write. Your friends know you to be a vato loco, a crazy guy, and they call you “ese,” or “vato,” or “man” …
There is no school for a vato loco. There is no job in sight. His only hope is for a quick score. Reds and Ripple mixed with a bennie, a white and a toke. And when your head is tight, you go town to the hangout and wait for the next score.
On the day he died, Robert had popped reds with wine and then conked out for a few hours. When he awoke he was ready for more. But first he went down to Cronie’s on Whittier Boulevard, the Chicano Sunset Strip. Every other door is a bar, a pawn shop or a liquor store. Hustlers roam freely across asphalt decorated with vomit and dogshit. If you score in East Los Angeles you score on The Boulevard. Broads, booze and dope. Cops on every corner make no difference. The fuzz, la placa, la chota, los marranos, la jura or just the plain old pig. The eternal enemies of the people. The East LA Sheriff’s Substation is only three blocks away on Third Street, right alongside the Pomona Freeway. 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 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.”
In perhaps his most moving courthouse speech, a straight out of Hollywood speech, he recants the history of the American Chicano:
“It is 1509 AD…We are in Cuba…A captain from Castile wants gold…He wants land and he wants slaves. He also wants to go on a mission for his god and his king…He fills three boats with soldiers, fire powder and horses, which sail west until they land on the coast of what we now know as Mexico.
“The king, the supreme ruler in the land of the Hummingbird Wizard, hears of the arrival of white men in long boats. It is a prophecy come true. For over two hundred years, the prophets of Quetzalcoatl have predicted this event. The king, Montezuma, has taken upon himself all power in his empire. He is both political ruler and chief priest. In a word, he has assumed the status of a god. Not even his family can look him in the eye. He has become the principal deity of the people of Tenochtitlan in the valley of Mexico. The people are called, collectively, the aztecas.
The captain from Castile, Hernando Cortez, burns the boats and tells his men there is no turning back. They have come to this strange land to conquer or die for the glory of God. They attack village after village, taking captives and booty. They make alliances with the natives, promising them protection from Montezuma’s bloody rituals, from the human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.
Anxious to rid themselves of the burden of Montezuma, these Indians, as they are called by the Catholic Cortez, join up with the Spaniards. They march toward the capital, thirty-thousand strong…Through diplomacy, political chicanery and modern techniques of warfare, the white men on horses and their army of slaves enter triumphantly into the most advanced city in the world, the world’s most beautiful city. In 1500 AD, Mexico City far surpasses anything that the Spaniards have seen on the European continent. There is an efficient government. It is a city with streets and canals and a sewage system, a city of gold and birds and leopards and barber shops. A land of flowers and parrots, mountains and blue beaches. They have priests and philosophers, soldiers and artists.
…And then (Cortez) ransacks the capital and sends the gold and glitter to his king in Spain. And they rape the women. If you want to join the new nation, all you have to do is give up your slave name and your slave tongue. If you want to become a Spaniard, be baptized and take a Christian name. An attack upon the Church is an assault upon the State. And vice versa. Church and State are one.
Three hundred years later, in 1850 AD, more white men in covered wagons come to the land of the northern deserts, the land we now call the Southwest. It is the ancient land of Aztlan, the original homeland of the aztecas. New invaders. New conquerors. They, too come with fire power and the flag of a new nation…As Cortez had done before, through modern warfare, through politics and diplomacy, the new white barbarians invade the land and subdue it. They inform the people that they now have a new government and a new religion – Christianity. They sign a treaty called Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States pays a couple of million to an idiot in Mexico City for all Aztlan and for all the slaves living thereon. The treaty says that, if the people choose, they can remain as citizens of America or they can go south to Mexico.
“But we are not Mexicans,’ the people cry out. ‘We are Chicanos from Aztlan. We have never left our land. Our fathers never engaged in bloody sacrifices. We are farmers and hunters and we live with the buffalo.’
“But they are wrong. They are now citizens of America, whether they like it or not. And we’ll call them Mexican-Americans. But if they want to be Americans, they’ll have to give up their slave name.
…And when they entered they were told: There is No Room. Leave, or we’ll kill you. Or jail you. Insult you. Mace you. Kick and bite. Scream and holler. While the choir sings, ‘Oh come all ye faithful…Oh come ye, Oh come ye…to jail and court. Court and jail…Come. Come! Come!’
…And yet we are guilty of inciting to riot. We did want a riot. We sought it. And we did accomplish it!…A riot of the brain. A revolution of the spirit.”
And so I finished Revolt of The Cockroach People and it was one of the best books I read in years. It shoots from the hip and bleeds from the heart and it does not hide behind any thin veils of political correctness. It is Gonzo literature from Dr. Gonzo himself. This book was written in defense of the vato loco and all cockroaches, straight from the lips and the pen of their very own defense lawyer. From the trenches of civil rights the Brown Buffalo plowed forward. And if he didn’t achieve all of his objectives, he took a few bastards down with him. Until the bastards got him back in the end. Oscar Zeta Acosta mysteriously disappeared in 1974 while in Mexico and was never seen again.
When we learn to walk with the cockroach then we will learn to run with the buffalo.
Dedicated to the memory of Oscar Zeta Acosta.