Venceremos: Arming for a Fight
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of awkward cultural juxtaposition, both in the nation at large and here in Palo Alto. Today, pop culture sometimes simplifies those years as a time when the whole society turned into LSD-dropping, free-love-making hippies. But in reality, most Americans -- especially outside big cities -- were living a life a lot closer to the 1950s. While the counterculture certainly had a large influence on mainstream life, most Americans were still living according to the rules of the “silent majority.”
In a small university town like Palo Alto, the juxtaposition could be even stranger. While hometown locals might be marching in the May Fete Parade on Saturday morning, campus radicals would be clashing with police on Saturday night -- all on the same street. It was a time when two countries existed side-by-side, sometimes engaging in a cultural civil war, sometimes pretending the other didn’t exist.
One example of this odd Palo Alto political juxtaposition was Venceremos, the Communist radical group headquartered in and around Palo Alto in those years. Founded in 1966 by Aaron Manganiello, the originally Latino left-wing protest organization was named for Che Guevera’s battle cry, “We will prevail!” By 1970, Venceremos had evolved into a multicultural Maoist/Communist revolutionary brigade that was a mainstay at any mid-Peninsula protest in those years. Under the leadership of Stanford Professor and Melville scholar H. Bruce Franklin (fired in 1972 for leading a student takeover of the university’s computer lab), Venceremos took an active role in community issues and demonstrations.
And these guys weren’t fooling around. Venceremos believed that “an unarmed people are subject to slavery at any time” and held vast amounts of weaponry to back it up. They had secret stashes of rifles, grenades, pipe bombs, and other explosives and they urged members to stay armed at all times -- advice that was apparently followed. With their rifle logo and violent rhetoric, Venceremos startled the local population and caught the eye of federal law enforcement. Many believed they were one of the largest revolutionary groups in the country and a 1972 House Internal Security Committee Report called the group “a potential threat to the United States.”
Venceremos’ ultimate stated goal was the overthrow of the government. On their way to armed insurrection, their platform called for (among many other things): “The firing of…profit-motivated murderers, like David Packard and Richard Nixon,” “an end to the Fascist court system and fascist judges,” and “an education which exposes the lies and oppression created by the corrupt court system and teaches us the true history of oppressed people.” Venceremos were also enemies of the police and were convinced that “the best pigs are always dead pigs.” Pretty radical stuff.
But Venceremos stressed actions over rhetoric. In 1970, they opened a revolutionary community college in a Redwood City storefront that lasted until it ran out of money two years later. They were actively involved in an anti-drug campaign on the streets of Palo Alto in the summer of ’71 and later with the Palo Alto Drug Collective. They often showed up at City Council and School Board meetings in Palo Alto with a verbal aggressiveness never before seen in the city’s politics. At an August 1971 meeting, for instance, Jeffrey Youdelman shouted down school board members as “racist, fascist pigs.”
They also tried to win elections. In May of ’71, Venceremos ran Jean Hobson for City Council; she only garnered 798 votes, some 7,000 short of victory. Undaunted, Youdelman ran as a candidate in 1973, but he fared no better. Venceremos member Doug Garrett also ran for Palo Alto School Board and Joan Dolly ran in the 1972 Menlo Park City Council elections.
Venceremos was also part of the ever-present street protest scene that marked Palo Alto counterculture life in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Every Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Venceremos held a rally with speakers and bands at Lytton Plaza, which was dubbed “The People’s Plaza.” This often led to clashes with police as the hour grew late and the music got louder.
The beginning of the end for Venceremos came in 1972, when a number of its members were involved in a headline-grabbing murder. The incident centered around a Venceremos recruit and prison inmate named Ronald Beaty. A habitual stick-up artist and con, Beaty was serving time for armed robbery and kidnapping at Chino Prison. He apparently had romantic ties to Jean Hobson -- the former Venceremos candidate for Palo Alto City Council -- that would lead to an attempt by the organization to help him escape.
On October 6, 1972, two unarmed prison guards were taking Beaty to a court appearance in San Bernardino when they were ambushed. According to police and Beaty, who would become the prosecution’s star witness, the government car was forced off a remote highway road near Chino. Four Venceremos members jumped out of two vehicles to set Beaty free. As they prepared to flee the scene, 23-year-old Venceremos member Robert Seabok shot both guards at point blank range, killing 24-year-old Jesus Sanchez and wounding his partner George Fitzgerald. Venceremos members Hobson, Seabok, Andrea Holman Burt and Benton Burt were named as the other ambushers. Both Hobson and Seabok were Palo Altans and neighbors, residing at 656 and 666 Channing Street.
Hobson and Beaty, possessing a trunkload of weapons, were arrested two months later on the Bay Bridge by San Francisco police without incident. Now wanted for murder on top of past convictions, prosecuting lawyers convinced Beaty to sing. He named the four members who helped him escape, fingered Robert Seabok as the gunman, and described how other members of Venceremos helped hide him in a rural San Mateo County mountain cabin for close to a month. Beaty pleaded guilty for his involvement in Sanchez’ death and received a life sentence.
All four Venceremos members would eventually be found guilty in subsequent trials. Jean Hobson, 19 year-old Andrea Holman Burt and 31 year-old Douglas Burt were all found guilty of second degree murder in 1973 and 1974, while Seabok got life imprisonment and a first degree murder conviction.
Following legal difficulties related to the incident at Chino, Venceremos began to come apart at the seams. Arguments erupted between various factions in the organization and members began to pull out and join other groups. Venceremos founder Aaron Manganiello also blamed a dope addict in the group’s central committee for stealing thousands of dollars from the treasury. By September of 1973, Venceremos had officially disbanded.
Many ex-Venceremos members went on to other organizations, including the Symbionese Liberation Army group that assassinated Oakland superintendent Dr. Marcus Foster at a School Board meeting in November 1973 and then kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in February of 1974. While the SLA never operated in Palo Alto, law enforcement saw substantial links between the two groups.
Today Venceremos has either been forgotten by Palo Altans or is remembered as part of the city’s wacky early '70s counterculture. But at their height in 1971 and ’72, when they were leading weekly rallies, advocating violent action and shouting down School Board members, Venceremos had more than a few Palo Altans spooked.
"I was a classmate of [Andrea Holman's] at Gunn High School and remember the shock when I heard of her involvement with this group. We traveled in completely different circles but she and I had many youthful and good natured debates concerning the Vietnam War and other issues of the day. Such an intelligent person, such a shame. Does anyone know what happened to her? Has she been released from prison?" --James
"My son was in a class [of Bruce Franklin's] and didn't agree with him. Anyway, [Franklin] said, 'Today we're going to meet outside' and so they did. And they met outside the computer center and he said, 'We are now going to go in and destroy it'...He did these horrible things." --Kim
"Bruce was the very first tenured professor in America to be fired. He was actually world renowned for his Marxist interpretation of Moby Dick, specifically. I had many pleasant encounters with Bruce (who let me sneak in and 'audit' his course,) and the group, itself (who were gracious enough to smuggle me out of California after a rather nasty situation went awry, once). Nice kids. As for the negative comments (in the comments section), bear in mind that Stanford was the last school in the States to shut down after the carpet bombing of Cambodia. (Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, was actually first, followed a couple days later by UC Berkeley, and the rest of the country.) That's all you really need to know about the bias inherent in Stanford students at the time. If the whole country had their insights we'd still be bombing Vietnamese poor people in their sleep." --Brian
"It seems like nobody wants to focus on the positive of Venceramos. Also the fact that people were being attacked by police for non-violent protests against the Vietnam War. One other factor is that Venceramos disbanded so obviously not everyone was on the same page as far as what they thought it should stand for. What upsets me is people always focus on the bad. The Venceramos school gave under privileged Mexican-Americans somewhere to learn that they could learn their TRUE history. In other schools lies of Christopher Columbus discovering America and Thanksgiving being a great thing were taught. Isn't it time our kids know the truth?" --Mario
"My father is Aaron Mananiello. I remember growing up in East Palo Alto during trying times. I didn't come along until after the Venceramos days but my father always stood by what he believed and was going to have his voice heard. I am not surprised to learn of what a strong presence he had in being a leader." --Mario