Venceremos (political organization)

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Not to be confused with Venceremos Brigade.
For other uses, see Venceremos (disambiguation).

Venceremos, Spanish for "We Will Overcome", or "We Will Prevail", was a radical left political group which took its name from the battle cry of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a revolutionary communist leader from Argentina and high-ranking member of Fidel Castro's communist government in Cuba.

Venceremos began as a Chicano political organization in Redwood City, California in early 1969. An early chairperson was the jazz musician Aaron Manganiello (1943-2009).[1] Venceremos's next chairperson was Katerina Del Valle. In 1971 a faction of the Maoist organization Revolutionary Union (RU), led by H. Bruce Franklin and consisting of about half of its members, split to join Venceremos. The split was over doctrinal differences; followers of Franklin favored of a strategy based on protracted urban guerrilla warfare while followers of Robert Avakian favored a strategy of building a revolutionary movement through recruitment and political confrontation.[2] The more militant stance of Venceremos suited the Franklinites better than remaining with the Avakianites. According to Franklin in his 1971 anthology "From the Movement Toward Revolution", RU

"split on the question of armed struggle, particularly as it related to national liberation movements within the U.S. Over half the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, including all the collectives from South San Francisco through Sunnyvale and some in San Jose, merged into Venceremos. Since these collectives had been heavily involved in youth organizing within white proletarian communities, in factory organizing and in anti-imperialist struggles on the campuses, the new combined organization was multi-national, extremely diversified in its activities and base, and quite militant"[3]

Franklin's version of the reason for this split is that it had to do with racial issues: originally, Venceremos had been a Chicano organization, while the RU had a policy of suggesting to prospective black members that they join the Black Panthers instead. Franklin and others believed that this racial separation of the organizations was inappropriate, the Venceremos went on to become a multiethnic organization. They also believed that the lumpenproletariat had a strong revolutionary potential.

Some sources[who?] say that the issue was Venceremos' belief that revolution was imminent, but Franklin says that is incorrect. Other sources[who?] say that the split had to do with ideology, with Venceremos having a more voluntarist or anarchist approach, rather than a Marxist one.

Venceremos publicly advocated armed self-defense of the citizenry, community control of the police, and reform of the prison system. To these ends, the group's members engaged in a number of legal activities, such as working to educate prisoners and defend war protesters. They also participated in various anti-war demonstrations. They would gain notoriety and head towards their demise over an incident of deadly violence related to their "prison outreach project," which sought to recruit guerilla fighters from prisons.

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 1971 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 fought elections. In May 1971, Venceremos ran Jean Hobson for City Council, she received 798 votes, some 7,000 short of victory. 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 in the 1972 Menlo Park council elections.

Venceremos was part of the ever-present street protest scene that marked Palo Alto counterculture life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Every Saturday night at 7:00 pm, Venceremos held a rally with speakers and bands at Lytton Plaza, which they 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 council -- that 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 [by Beaty, who flipped after he was arrested and facing murder charges] as the other ambushers.[4]

Under the duress of legal troubles, recriminations over the Beaty incident, and general factionalism, Venceremos disintegrated and ceased to function as an organization by September 1973. Seabok was convicted of first degree murder. Hobson, Andrea Holman Burt and Benton Burt were convicted of second degree murder.

Another of Venceremos' prison contacts, Donald DeFreeze, escaped Soledad Prison on March 5, 1973 and found shelter with members of Venceremos in the Bay Area. He took upon himself the task of organizing an armed strike force including ex-Venceremos members named the Symbionese Liberation Army, under his command as "General Cinque."

One Venceremos alumnus who attained mainstream success is Michael Sweeney, who became the director of the Mendocino County, CA, Solid Waste Authority, but was perhaps better known as the husband of Earth First! and Redwood Summer organizer Judi Bari. On May 24, 1990, a pipe bomb exploded under the driver's seat of Bari's car in Oakland, CA, while she was driving. Various theories were floated as to who Bari's assailant was, promoted mainly on the basis of political narratives while unconnected to evidence. In 1991 KQED reporter and documentary producer Stephen Talbot produced a documentary with the title "Who Bombed Judi Bari?", in which he uncovered witness suspicions and circumstantial evidence that Bari's assailant was Sweeney, forcing him to shift emphasis from his original hypothesis that the assailant was connected with the logging industry.[5] The local publication Flatlander Magazine further investigated Talbot's findings, uncovering what it believed was convincing evidence that Sweeney was the assailant. Ed Gehrman of Flatlander Magazine published a summary of his findings, reprinted in the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper in 2008.[6]After the death of Bari and the conclusion of a civil rights lawsuit trial on behalf of Bari in 2002, Talbot went public with Bari's acknowledgement that she suspected Sweeney had planted the bomb, and had knowledge of Sweene's firebomging of hangars at a Santa Rosa, CA, airport on October 24, 1980,[5]

Franklin has written several books which provide a detailed account of Venceremos' aims and activities, including "From the Movement Toward Revolution" [a contemporary anthology of New Left / SDS / Black Panther / Young Lord documents compiled & introduced by Franklin]; his political memoir "Back Where You Come From" [Harper's Magazine Press, 1975]; and his most recent account of the war and the anti-war movement "Vietnam and Other American Fantasies" [Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000][7]

That the US Government considered Venceremos a serious threat is evident in the 202-page 1972 U.S. Congress House Committee on Internal Security publication titled "America's Maoists: the Revolutionary Union, the Venceremos Organization: Report"

The Chino escape and Venceremos internal politics leading to its dissolution are the subject of a thinly veiled novel set in August to November 1972 by Max F Crawford titled The Bad Communist [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ obituary
  2. ^ Bill Evers. "America's Maoists: The RU and Venceremos". Stanford Daily, June 30, 1972. 
  3. ^ Bruce Franklin "From the Movement Toward Revolution" [New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold (1971), p.128]
  4. ^ "Venceremos: Arming For a Fight". 
  5. ^ a b Stephen Talbot. "The mysterious bombing of an environmental activist"., May 23, 2002. 
  6. ^ Ed Gehrman. "Maxwell's Hammer". Anderson Valley Advertiser, June 12, 2008. 
  7. ^