White Powder, Bronze Culture

As UC Berkeley's student body turns more conservative, recipients of a threatening letter look for answers.

It began by insulting Cesar Chavez.

“The best thing you will do this year is celebrate Cesar Chavez Day on April Fool’s,” began the obscenity-rich form letter sent to more than fifty Latino attorneys and community groups this month. It ended with a warning to “watch for the white powdery stuff in this envelope.”

Four of the letters arrived at UC Berkeley. When a student advisor set up a town hall meeting last Tuesday to discuss the hate mail, roughly 150 students showed up. A panel of authorities gave tips on handling suspicious mail. But the audience, mostly Latino students, was interested in more than just the public-health aspect of the letters. They lined up behind a microphone to speak about the political and social implications; they spoke with the urgency of a community under siege.

When it was Noura Erakat’s turn, she spun around to face Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who had quietly slipped into the meeting. She read a letter she had composed to him. As a Palestinian American, she said, she felt the university fails to support students of color. She offered examples. When Students for Justice in Palestine held a rally last year, the chancellor took out a half-page ad in the Daily Californian criticizing the rally as inciting hostility. Yet, when the Daily Cal ran a cartoon depicting Muslims in hell after September 11, he remained silent, she said. She noted that Berdahl also defended the right of the California Patriot, a conservative student magazine, to print an article likening the national Chicano student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) to Nazi Germany.

Why the double standard, she asked?

The audience erupted in applause. In response, Berdahl chided Erakat. If she had not seen him supporting Muslims it was because she was not present when he publicly expressed his solidarity with that community, he said. Then, as he has in the past, he supported freedom of expression on campus, calling it a foundation of democracy. But in doing so, he also twice mispronounced MEChA as “Meecha,” to the hissing and eye-rolling displeasure of students.

The chancellor’s faux pas lent an inadvertent validity to Erakat’s assertion that the administration was out of touch with its minority students. On campus these days, anxiety grows among progressives in general and ethnic minorities in particular, who find themselves at odds with an increasingly vocal right-leaning minority. The students they’re referring to say they just want the same free speech rights as anyone else on campus, noting that when the conservative writer David Horowitz appeared on campus last March, a disruptive audience member prevented him from finishing his talk.

The only thing both sides can agree on is that the student body seems more conservative in recent years. Still, the stereotype of all-liberal Berkeley remains.

That reputation attracted Monica Fernandez, co-chair of MEChA de UC Berkeley. But once she arrived at school, she said, most of her classmates turned out to be conservatives from privileged backgrounds. Sometimes, the junior said, she is the only person of color in a classroom: “You feel like you’re in the spotlight, like if you do speak up you have to represent for your entire group.”

Kelso Barnett, who hails from Napa Valley, counters that students such as him are the real minority at UC Berkeley. He is a college Republican. Barnett says that while most students are politically apathetic, the radical left makes the most noise. So Barnett started the Patriot in 2000 to balance them out.

The Patriot has celebrated the war on terrorism, ridiculed hip-hop, criticized the student government, bashed antiwar US Representative Barbara Lee, and dismissed ethnic and women’s studies as nonsense. But one article in particular pushed a whole lot of buttons and gained a bit of national media attention. An article in the February issue, “MEChA: Student Funded Bigotry and Hate,” stated that a goal of the Chicano activist group is to reclaim territories Mexico lost to the United States, mostly the American Southwest, to establish a Latino nation.

“Obviously we disagree with it and find it to be racist and dangerous to America,” said Barnett, chairman of the Berkeley Conservative Foundation and publisher of the Patriot. Rob McFadden, associate editor and president of the College Republicans, agrees. “I think they’re able to slip by because they are nonwhite,” he said. “Because they’re an ethnic group, they can’t be racists.”

Barnett and McFadden, both third-year political science majors, believe MEChA violates the state education code because it supports the overthrow of the American government. To support the charge that MEChA promotes hate-mongering on the same level as white supremacists and the Third Reich, the article cites a Web publication called “La Voz de Aztlan” (www.aztlan.org) that imparts pro-Chicano rhetoric and claims “Jewish/White” people dominate American government and media.

Indeed, the Web site is filled with virulent anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. But according to articles in New Times Los Angeles, the site is not run or endorsed by any MEChA chapter and is the pet project of a lone individual in Los Angeles, Hector Carreon, a former LA County real estate commissioner and self-proclaimed radical, who other Chicano activists make a point of distancing themselves from.

Roberto Hernandez of MEChA de UC Berkeley said a MEChA document that the Patriot article cited, “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan,” was taken out of context. Yes, the plan does speak of the “gringo” invasion and about “bronze people with a bronze culture,” but it was written in 1969 during the self-determination movements. It was written to express cultural pride.

“It’s called the Spiritual Plan of Aztlan. That’s just what it is: spiritual,” Hernandez said. He regards the plan as a poem. Sure, some Chicanos read “With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our Mestizo nation” literally. But few do, he said. There are two MEChA organizations on campus, and neither one advocates reclaiming the Southwest.

“Of course that’s impossible,” said Jorge Rivas of Berkeley MEChA, a separate campus group. “I don’t believe we should strive for that.”What both MEChAs do strive for is encouraging Latino high school students to attend higher education and promoting ethnic studies.

Patriot staff began distributing copies of the controversial issue on a Monday. A confrontation ensued on Sproul Plaza between Republicans and Latinos. And that’s all anyone can agree on. Barnett (who wasn’t there) says Latino students called the Patriot staffers “gringos” and shouted death threats at them. Fernandez and Rivas (both also absent) say a Patriot staff member grabbed the arm of a Chicana student when she tried to take several copies of the issue. By Tuesday morning, 3,000 copies, nearly the entire press run, which had been stored in the College Republicans’ office on the third floor of Eshleman Hall, had vanished, just as issues of the Daily Cal disappeared on two occasions last year. The Patriot filed two complaints with university police, one on the alleged harassment and another on the theft, valued at $2,000. Barnett and McFadden accused MEChA of the theft, though they did not specify which group they meant. Both MEChAs deny involvement.

The Patriot versus MEChA confrontation played out in typical fashion: The right received generous funding, while the left remained divided against itself. By March 12, the Berkeley Conservative Foundation had received $6,000 in private donations and reprinted the issue. The Patriot, which features full-color covers, enjoys financial support from The Leadership Institute, a Washington D.C.-based group that mentors young conservatives, Barnett said. It was at one of their workshops that Barnett learned how to publish magazines.

Meanwhile, the College Republicans now number in the hundreds, while each of the two campus MEChA groups numbers only thirty to forty members. An ideological split in the fall of 1998 produced groups that don’t work with each other.

Tensions were already running high when the hate mail arrived a few weeks later, calling Latinos prostitutes and drug pushers. “Be thankful that Europeans came here and knocked up some Aztec squaws. This was a major improvement to your race, without which even affirmative action could not have helped,” read one paragraph. One student on campus also received an e-mail with similar sentiments.

To students who attended the town hall meeting, the timing of the Patriot story and the letters seemed like no coincidence. “I’m not saying the people at the Patriot necessarily did it,” Hernandez said, “But the language is similar. It has escalated from a student publication to hate mail.” Barnett, who sat down for one interview, could not be reached subsequently for comment on the hate mail.

To dismiss the letter’s author as a lone, crazed individual would be a mistake, said Alegria De La Cruz, a second year law student. Cruz is co-chair of La Raza Lawyer’s Association, one of the campus organizations that received the letter along with the Ethnic Studies library, the Latin American Studies office, and the Chicano/Latino Agenda office. “It was laughable at first,” De La Cruz says of the letter. “It was hard to take it seriously because it was so poorly written and filled with grammatical errors while it was attacking Latinos being in higher education.

Yet De La Cruz couldn’t shake the feeling that other people shared the same hate as the letter writer. Communities of color are already under attack, she said, with fewer minorities being admitted in a post-Prop. 209 world and ongoing struggle over the ethnic studies department, which has complained about decreased funding and few tenured positions. But since September 11, she said, xenophobia seems to be on the rise everywhere — even on campus.

It’s a sentiment shared by the students who started X, a new campus publication that resulted from a collaborative effort between members of the Latino, black, Asian-American, and Muslim communities.

“It is meant to create a space for the voices of the marginalized,” wrote the X editorial board in its first and, so far, only issue.

If the Patriot began to balance out the left, X has arrived to balance out the Patriot — and not a minute too early for De La Cruz and other minority students. “People feel okay to do this right now,” she said of the hate mail. “It is a sign of the real state of our country.”

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