By Travis Morales
Revolutionary Worker #960, June 7, 1998
May 7, 1998 marked the 20th anniversary of the Moody Park Rebellion, when people in Houston’s North Side barrio rose up to demand justice for José Campos Torres–a Mexican proletarian who was drowned in a bayou by the Houston police in May of 1977. The rebellion had left an indelible impression on Houston; every major television network affiliate did a major story on the anniversary–and all of them included interviews with Travis Morales, notorious for his support of the rebellion.
At an old library not far from Moody Park, participants in the rebellion from the community gathered with youth and middle class professionals to hear Travis Morales–one of the Moody Park 3 defendants and a supporter of the RCP. José Campos Torres was enrolled into the Stolen Lives Project. In the week leading up to the celebration, throughout the North Side barrio, older people told the youth with pride how they rose up to fight the police. One youth proudly retold the story of his mother hitting a cop with a brick that night.
Following are edited excerpts from a talk at the celebration by Travis Morales:
Speaking here tonight has special significance for me personally. Back in 1970, when thousands of Chicano students walked out of H.I.S.D. schools in a strike against a bogus desegregation plan, the old library on this site was one of the dozens of huelga schools that were established and operated over the next year. I was an 18-year-old sophomore at Rice University and came here several times to teach in the huelga school.
In 1977 and 1978, the old library was the site of our monthly meetings for People United to Fight Police Brutality, an organization initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Party and built up by people from the North Side and other barrios to demand Justice for José Campos Torres. We held meetings here right up until the Moody Park Rebellion. So this ground is full of historical significance for the struggle of the people.
To this day the police remember Moody Park and squeal. Whenever I’m at a demonstration I see the older ones pointing me out to the younger ones…. Back in the early ’80s I was walking along Main Street in downtown Houston, after selling the Revolutionary Worker for a few hours. A huge Lincoln Continental turned the corner in front of me. The old white man driving it came halfway out of the door window and he screamed, “Fuck you, Travis,” as he gave me the finger. It was ex-police chief Harry Caldwell. He was the police chief at the time of the Moody Park Rebellion. It made my heart feel good. When he retired as police chief he was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that two of the three things he regretted were Moody Park and what the communists did there.
So what was this all about?
On May 7, 1978 several thousand Chicanos and Mexicanos rose up in Moody Park. To shouts of “Viva Joe Torres” and “Justice for Joe Torres,” police cars were overturned and burned. The police were met with rocks and bottles and driven out of the North Side for several hours. Almost one year to the day after six Houston pigs beat José Campos Torres within an inch of his life and then threw him into Buffalo Bayou to drown because as one of the cops said, he “wanted to see if a wetback could swim.” People got a little sweet taste of justice.
On May 8, 1978, the second day of the Moody Park Rebellion, I stood on the steps of City Hall during a press conference. The airwaves were full of the ranting of Police Chief Harry Caldwell, Mayor Jim McConn, then State Senator Ben Reyes, and other so-called Chicano leaders–all crying and screaming about what they called the “senseless drunken violence” in Moody Park and how people had been stirred up by outside agitators to attack the police and burn down their own community. To over a dozen news reporters from television, newspaper, and radio, I declared, “This was a glorious day in the history of the Chicano and Mexicano people when they gave the rich capitalists and their cops a small dose of the justice they deserve.” This was widely reported in the news.
The shit hit the fan. Every day, screaming newspaper headlines and special television news reports attacked me, People United to Fight Police Brutality and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Within two days Mayor McConn was threatening my life. This would not have been the first time that a revolutionary had been murdered in Houston. In 1970 Carl Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party affiliated with People’s Party II, was shot down by police snipers over on Dowling Street. McConn was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “If I were Travis Morales, I would get out of town while I still could.” Well, I would not and did not.
Five days after the rebellion, I was leaving a press conference at City Hall where we announced a demonstration and march the next day in Moody Park to demand that the charges against the over 40 people arrested in the rebellion be dropped and that the cops who murdered José Campos Torres be jailed for life. As I left the press conference and walked down the street, someone who was obviously a plain-clothes cop was following about 10 feet behind me. And even stranger, all the news reporters were following as a group about 50 feet behind me. I knew something was up. All of a sudden, a car came up really fast and screeched to a stop. I stepped out into the street with my hands in the air. I wanted everyone to see I was not going for a gun in case they shot me. Three men jumped out and along with the one following me, threw me over the hood of the car, handcuffed me, and away we went.
I had been arrested by undercover police from the HPD Criminal Intelligence Division, CID. These are the secret political police whose job is to spy on, harass, frame up, and sometimes kill political activists and revolutionaries. Along with Mara Youngdahl and Tom Hirschi, I was brought before a judge in the CID office, not a courtroom. He formally charged us with a nine count indictment of “felony riot” and read us our rights. We were facing 140 years in prison. He then gave us a copy of the indictment which listed our bond as $500,000 each. I asked, “Will you take a check?” and we all cracked up. They did not seem to think it was funny.
The government was not charging us with attacking the police or burning their police cars or anything else, but rather with having been there. This felony riot law means that they can send someone to prison for whatever someone else does as a way to go after the revolutionary leaders of the people’s struggles. This was a highly political law for going after people because of their political activities. Our real crime was that for a year we had been organizing people to demand “Justice for José Campos Torres” and to “Jail the Murderers for Life.” And worse, when the people rose up in Moody Park to get some justice, we went and joined them, and more, we dared to publicly defend the rebellion.
Year of Struggle
In May of 1977, when José Campos Torres was murdered, people all over the city were outraged. His death followed a string of highly publicized murders by the police and the exposure of the “throwdown gun.” These are guns carried in the trunks of police cars to be placed at the scene when they shoot someone so they can say the dead person pulled a gun on them. Seventeen-year-old Randall Webster, who was white, was chased down on the freeway and blown away by the cops, who planted a gun at the scene. Bobby Joe Connors was riddled with bullets by two cops who fired through the windshield of their patrol car as Bobby Joe went for the Bible he carried in his back pocket. And there were many more.
These were the days when the KKK openly recruited in the police locker room. Back in the late ’60s, a newspaper photographer had snapped a picture of a Klansman in his white robes getting out of an HPD car. When shown this picture, then police chief Herman Short said, “I see no contradiction between being in the Ku Klux Klan and being a Houston police officer.”
Not that many years had passed since there were signs that said, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” My father grew up in Galveston. He told me stories about driving with his family to Houston and how they dared not stop for gasoline or food along the way. Many Chicanos and Mexicanos could tell stories of the brutality and murder at the hands of los pinches rinches, the Texas Rangers. When my parents moved to Houston in 1951 they tried to rent an apartment at the Fulton Village Apartments, a few blocks from Moody Park. My father was turned down because they said, “We don’t rent to Mexicans.”
So when this outrageous murder of José Campos Torres went down, it concentrated so much of what people’s lives were about. People had a-thousand-and-one reasons to hit the streets and they did. Immediately, marches and demonstrations involving hundreds and representing the feelings of thousands were held to demand justice. And immediately, the powers-that-be went into overdrive to cool out the struggle, telling us that we would get justice in the courts, that these cops were just a few bad apples, and to have faith in the wheels of justice, and that though they may grind slowly, they do grind.
Fairly quickly, many people were taught a lesson about what they meant. Charges were only brought against two of the murdering pigs. And then they moved the trial to Huntsville, the home of the state prison system where everybody and their brother either works for the Texas Department of Corrections or has a family member that does.
Then the system gave everyone a big lesson in how it works. The all white jury convicted these two cops of only the misdemeanor of criminally negligent manslaughter! They received one year probation and a $1 fine. The life of a Chicano was worth $1. Again, hundreds took to the streets. And again, the system came up with new tricks to try and fool the people. Now we were told to have faith in the federal government, that they would step in and give us justice. But People United to Fight Police Brutality and others redoubled our efforts, going out among the people with tens of thousand of leaflets, rallies, car caravans, and marches, saying that only the people could get justice.
And again we went through a trial, this time around in federal court. Three of the cops, the two from the state trial plus one more, were convicted of civil rights violations and assault. But the judge put off the sentencing for six weeks until March 28, 1978. And no wonder. He gave them a ten-year suspended sentence on the civil rights violation charges and one year in a country club federal prison on the assault charge.
After almost a year–a year in which many people put their faith in the courts and waited for justice to be served–the system had given its verdict. The life of a Chicano was worth $1 and there would be no justice. Tension was building throughout the city. Everyone’s eyes were focused on this struggle. For several months, people in the community had been telling us that if the courts let the cops off, there was going to be hell to pay.
Rebellion at Moody Park
On Sunday, May 7, 1978, the yearly Cinco de Mayo celebration was being held in Moody Park. When a group of us from People United to Fight Police Brutality tried to enter the park, we were met by a dozen deputy constables who told us we could not come into the park. Immediately, a larger group of people came over and forced the deputies to let us in. Over the next several hours we passed out hundreds of leaflets linking the year-long struggle for Justice for José Campos Torres with the Battle of Puebla where the Mexican Army defeated the French invaders. All day long people came over to have pictures taken of their families in front of our banner which said, “Justice for Joe Torres, Jail the Murderers for Life, Justicia para José Torres, Cadena Perpetua a los Asesinos.” People were proud of the struggle that they had waged.
Late in the afternoon, we went to the North Side for a barbecue at the home of a member of People United. In a couple of hours we heard the sirens and then we saw the smoke high in the sky. Members of People United who stayed at the park came and told us that, when the police had come in to bust some people and bust some heads, they were greeted with rocks and bottles and had to run for their lives as their cars were burned and people shouted “Viva Joe Torres.”
What people in the community had been telling us for months was true. They refused to accept that the life of a Chicano was worth $1. People wanted some justice. As one brother said, “It was like a festival out there. It felt good to be free, just for a while.” And we were. The murder of José Campos Torres concentrated a whole lifetime of oppression, and that is why people rebelled. Old men were coming out of their houses to shake their fists at the police and holler, “We should throw you in the bayou.” For once the tables were turned on the police and people were overjoyed.
Later that night we assembled about 15 of our members at Quitman and Fulton and marched down Fulton close to the park where hundreds of people gathered. Whenever a cop car tried to drive down Fulton they were met with a synchronized barrage of rocks and bottles. We were having a great time. They soon got the word to stay away. At one point I turned around and there was a Chicano from the steel mill where I worked standing in the middle of the street holding a Mexican flag. He and some friends at a barbecue had heard about the rebellion on the news and drove across town to join it. Hundreds of people would chant, “Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that’s what the rich call democracy.”
This was a conscious uprising of the people where they rebelled against the injustice of the murder of José Campos Torres and went after the police who torment us all our lives. We’d pass around the bullhorn and people would talk about what was happening. Some people wanted to talk about how to continue it the next day. This was truly a festival of the oppressed with tremendous joy and pride.
Defending the Rebellion and the Revolutionaries
Every time I turned around I was being busted. From the time of the rebellion until the trial almost one year later, I was arrested a total of seven times, three of these on felonies with bonds totaling over $80,000. Tens of thousands were spent on legal fees and bail bonds. At our trial, a member of the Criminal Intelligence Division testified that the three of us had been under surveillance for ten months before the rebellion. In other words, they had been spying on us from the beginning.
Fundamentally, by going after us, they were really going after the right of the oppressed to rebel against their oppression. They wanted to be able to say look, this is what happens if you dare to raise your head. And they wanted to chop off the head, as the prosecutor said in our trial, and rip off the revolutionary leaders who had come to concentrate the people’s determination to fight for justice for José Campos Torres.
With their screaming headlines about communists inciting drunken crowds in Moody Park, the authorities thought it would be a cakewalk to lock us up and throw away the key. To them it was unimaginable that self-avowed revolutionary communists who openly proclaimed the need for armed revolution could stand true to their principles and go out and unite all kinds of people to defeat their attempts to railroad us into prison. But that is exactly what we did.
Something that we read over and over during that time was this quotation from Mao Tsetung that basically said that to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and that it shows you are doing something right, that if they don’t attack you then you must not be doing much and that it’s even better if they wildly attack and slander you and paint you as utterly evil because it means you must be accomplishing a whole lot in fighting them. We took a lot of heart and inspiration from Mao’s words.
People all over the country demanded “Free the Moody Park 3.” Police Chief Harry Caldwell told the Chronicle that he had received numerous demands that charges be dropped against “the three communists.” At the close of our trial, Judge Keegans showed our lawyers a stack of telegrams that she had received from around the country demanding “Free the Moody Park 3.” She bragged that she would use them in her re-election campaign to show that she was an enemy of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
One telegram signed by 40 General Electric workers in San Jose, California and sent to the District Attorney of Harris County in Houston, said, in part, “We demand that all the charges be dropped on the Moody Park 3 and all arrested during the Cinco de Mayo Rebellion in Houston.”
In response, the D.A. personally sent back a full-page letter. Part of what he said was:
“While I respect and welcome your right of free speech, I do not concur with your fatuous demands to drop all charges on the `Moody Park 3′… Certainly, you have the right to express your political beliefs, but demands like yours are frivolous…. In 20 years in the District Attorney’s Office, I have received numerous `nut’ letters and ridiculous demands. But this is the first time I have received such an offensive and absurd demand from presumably a rational and intelligent group.”
Just as we had done throughout the struggle for justice for José Campos Torres, we went out among the people to organize with them to go after the other side. The rebellion was a rebellion of the people and the battle to Defend the Moody Park Rebellion and Free the Moody Park 3 became a battle of the people. The struggle sunk deep roots out in the community. At every juncture the stakes were raised, and at every juncture the people and we refused to back down. We refused to give up our principles.
In December of ’78 Police Chief Caldwell was scheduled to dress up as Santa Claus and pass out toys to kids at a Christmas party at the Casa de Amigos clinic here in the North Side. We were outraged that he dared to come into the community and try and pass himself off as caring for the children, as his dogs in blue beat and murdered their parents. Members of People United to Fight Police Brutality went to the clinic and held a picket line with a bullhorn out front and then went inside to expose who Santa Claus really was…Santa Claus never did show his face that night.
A short time later, on Christmas Eve, I was arrested for “interfering with a police officer” after leaving St. Joseph’s Church where we had gone to collect money for our defense funds as people left midnight mass. Police Chief Caldwell was at the police station to personally book me into jail. I was honored. I asked him why he did not show up at Casa de Amigos the other night. He went ballistic. He started screaming at me, “Communism will never go over in this country because people have it too good here…”
Showdown at the January March
A few months before the trial finally began, at the January 13, 1979 nationwide march, about 500 people took to the streets, including people from all across the country. Through the revolutionary press, the Revolutionary Communist Party had been spreading the struggle nationally and uniting even more people to demand “Free the Moody Park 3.” The powers that be freaked out.
Police Chief Caldwell went on television to warn that all these people coming from out of town would end up looking through the bars of a jail cell from the wrong side. He assembled a group of community leaders and Catholic priests and told them to keep their people away from the march. He bragged that he had enough fire power to blow away these California crazies before they crossed the city limits.
All the prisoners in the city jail were released to make room for the hundreds that they planned to arrest. Special courts were set up in the basement for booking the arrested. All police leaves were canceled. Over a thousand police in full riot gear with shields, helmets, riot sticks, shotguns, and M-16′s surrounded the police station and were on the roof as we marched to it from Moody Park.
But they had to change their plans. In the face of huge threats and intimidation, over 100 people from the barrio joined the march with a whole contingent of youth on bicycles leading the way. The Revolutionary Communist Party raised the slogan at this march, “Moody Park, seed of the future, from rebellion to mass armed revolution.” All along the way from Moody Park down Fulton, Quitman, North Main, Hogan, and Houston Avenue, thousands of people came out to cheer the march and in some cases join it…. The North Side belonged to the people.
With no permit of any kind people took over the streets and marched. The police were nowhere to be seen. Later we found out that a number of people from the barrio who had joined the march with their cars and pickups were carrying pistols and shotguns to protect the march if it was attacked. The police and their bosses saw that the people of the North Side and the marchers were one and the same and decided to back off that day. They must have figured it was not worth the price to mess with the march even as we rallied in front of their pig pen.
We marched back to Moody Park and Edward Gallegos led a march of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade through the Irvington Courts housing project where he lived. He had been arrested five months after the rebellion while leaving a rally at Moody Park to demand “Free the Moody Park 3 and Drop the Charges Against All Those Arrested.” He was charged with arson and attempted murder for supposedly stabbing a newsman in the butt during the rebellion. The night of the rebellion he had been arrested outside his apartment in Irvington Courts and charged with arson because the police found a book of matches in his pocket. The arson charges were later dropped because of lack of evidence.
After the rebellion, Edward began coming to meetings of People United to Fight Police Brutality and then hooked up with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. And the cops started coming down on him. One time they arrested him outside his apartment for refusing to go home. They found Mao’s Red Book in his pocket which he had just been reading. The cops told him, “Why do you let the communists fill your head with all this bullshit.” He shot back, “You kill my people and harass my sisters and brothers and then you wonder why the communists turn us to revolution.”
The Trial of the Moody Park 3
Right before our trial began in April, a half-page ad appeared in the Houston Post demanding Free the Moody Park 3 and Drop the Charges Against All Those Arrested. It was signed by over 300 people from across the country, including over 100 lawyers and law students. Over 100 small businesses in the Chicano and Black community put Free the Moody Park 3 posters in their windows. This went right up in the face of the government’s attempts to portray small shopkeepers as the victims of the Moody Park Rebellion and enemies of the Moody Park 3.
We faced 140 years in prison. In court we testified that for a year we had organized a movement for Justice for José Campos Torres, going out in the community to mobilize the people every step of the way, refusing to believe the lies of the courts and politicians. We testified that when the rebellion broke out we went to join the people. We testified that the injuries suffered by the police were an occupational hazard of being an occupying army that brutalizes and murders in the barrios and ghettos.
We testified that the day after the rebellion we supported it in a press conference and called for dropping the charges against all those arrested. The three of us testified that we were revolutionary communists who were about making revolution to overthrow this system of oppression and misery.
And after we testified to all that, we walked. They were never able to send us to prison. The people had rebelled, we stood with them, and when the battle was finally over in 1985, we were free.
And the other side tried everything. The prosecution had all the potential Black jurors removed. They put a string of police and informants on the stand to testify against us. They could not find a single person from the community to testify against us who was not a law enforcement employee or a paid informant. We had over ten people from the community who risked their jobs and ran the risk of being charged themselves in order to testify in our defense.
Two of us were convicted of felony riot and sentenced to five years probation. On the day we were sentenced we went out and had a few beers with some of the jurors. In 1984 these convictions were overturned and in 1985 we pled no contest to misdemeanor riot and did no prison time. A real victory for the people.
During the trial, the prosecutor went off on one of our witnesses, a middle-aged Chicano pipe welder who was wearing a red shirt as he testified. The prosecutor screamed, “Why are you wearing a red shirt? What does it stand for? Isn’t red the color of communist revolution? Why are all the supporters wearing red shirts? Why does your wife wear a red blouse? Isn’t it true that Mara Youngdahl’s car is red?” Our witness looked down at his shirt, looked at the prosecutor and with a subdued smile said, “I like my red shirt.”
The Meaning of Moody Park
Recently a reporter asked me if I had any regrets, and I told him, “My only regret is that I wasn’t there when the rebellion began.” But let’s dig into this. What did the Moody Park Rebellion accomplish? What good did it do? Have things changed?
Have the police stopped brutalizing and murdering us? No. Has life gotten better for Chicanos and Mexicanos? No. Can we drive down the street and not worry about being pulled over and ending up floating in a bayou? No. So what was the point?
The point is that the people refuse to accept that our lives are worth $1. The point is that the people refuse to give a green light to the police to beat us half to death and then throw us into a bayou to drown. The point is the people have a sense of our own strength to resist. The point is that the people refuse to be crushed. All this is quite an accomplishment. Just think of what it would be like if people had not rebelled, if the cops and the system had gotten off without any punishment, if they thought they could do anything and nothing would happen.
People are proud of what they did in Moody Park. To this day people walk up to me and shake my hand. For years after the rebellion, when I would go to icehouses and cantinas, people were always buying me a beer. The older I get, the harder it becomes to find a Chicano of my age who doesn’t say that they were at Moody Park. Moody Park is a living legacy of proud resistance.
And we need this spirit all the more today. In the last year a Chicano cop blew away Oliver Rodríguez in front of his house as he was cutting ribs with a knife. Police blew away Uvaldo García Armendariz for supposedly threatening them with a folding chair. In broad daylight in downtown Houston, a judge shot and killed Ronnie Tucker, a homeless man. A few weeks ago we saw on the news how an obviously distraught white woman who had driven off in an HPD patrol car was gunned down at the end of a car chase. Since 1990 the Texas prison population has tripled as the government carries out a war on the people. Last May 20, Esequiel Hernandez was blown away at the border by four Marines as he herded his family goats.
As a revolutionary communist I feel that we need the spirit of Moody Park to infuse all our struggles as we take on this epidemic of police brutality, as we organize people to resist the injustices being committed against immigrants, as we fight the attacks on welfare and people’s ability to survive. We need this spirit to resist as we and millions of people all over the world just like us prepare to get rid of this system of injustice in this country and throughout the globe, once and for all. The lessons of Moody Park are: 1) It is right to fight against police brutality and terror. 2) It is right to rebel against injustice. 3) It is right to defend revolutionary leadership.
As the Revolutionary Communist Party said in 1979, “Moody Park, Seed of the Future–from Rebellion to Mass Armed Revolution.”