« Selon la célèbre formule de Léon Trotsky, « Louis-Ferdinand Céline est entré dans la grande littérature comme d’autres pénètrent dans leur propre maison. » C’est avec cette même désinvolture qu’Oscar Zeta Acosta semble avoir griffonné deux romans autobiographiques. »
SESSHU FOSTER – extrait de la postface
Traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Romain Guillou
Postface inédite de Sesshu Foster
360 pages // 20 euros
ISBN : 979-10-92159-04-2
Diffusion-distribution : Les Belles Lettres
Parution : 22 mai 2014
Leon Trotsky famously remarked, “Louis-Ferdinand Céline walked into great literature as other people walk into their own house.”
Like-wise, Brown Buffalo Oscar Zeta Acosta seems to have casually scribbled two autobiographical novels, Hunter S. Thompson style, that directly became Chicano classics in spite of—and in the face of—academic resistance to shaggy dog Gonzo storytelling. These books (Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, 1972, Revolt of the Cockroach People, 1973) bear their end-of-the-60s/ end-of-a-dream/ end-of-an-era/ time and place ostentatiously. They announced for all to hear, “it’s all over now, Baby Blue,” as the author sauntered out of sight, disappearing off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico, by some accounts, in 1974.
Never to be seen again.
The books remain. Still shaggy, bruising and barreling down the road Brown Buffalo-style, still announcing the end of the dream, the end of the era, the never-ending but still approaching apocalyptic End. “When the music’s over, turn out the lights,” sang Jim Morrison and the Doors, writhing on the floor of the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. Wasn’t that music over so many lifetimes ago? Who forgot to turn out the lights?
Hunter S. Thompson put Oscar Zeta Acosta in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (that other end-of-the-era, end-of-the-dream book), among others, and pissed off Zeta Acosta by characterizing him as a “300 pound Samoan.” Zeta Acosta threatened to sue, but then he disappeared. The rancorous spirit remained in the air, causing Thompson to try to exorcise the ghost in his May 1977 obituary for Zeta Acosta, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” It was full of Hunter Thompson’s hyperbolic mythologizing: “Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Especially if the bastard is already 33½ years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can’t handle any more raw tequila.”
But in 2005 Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon over the valley of Roaring Creek River at his Colorado ranch in 34 fireworks shells, after a blast of red, white and blue. Johnny Depp paid the $2 million fireworks bill. The smoke has long since dispersed over those gentrified Rockies—and probably some ghosts were exorcised—but still the books remain.
What about them?
Honesty counts for a lot. Emotional honesty, sometimes called soul, counts for so much because it’s the unspoken veracity that lends the heft of lived-in truth to a bunch of otherwise unremarkable or merely historical events—that vow of honesty that’s unannounced but kept nonetheless, that matters. It goes on mattering—goes on, after the music is over, after the lights go out, after the authors have left the stage and even after the ghosts come and go, flitting over the shoulders of people reminiscing or gossiping about who did what, who made a splash in the old days.
Oscar Zeta Acosta and Hunter S. Thompson collaborated on the adventures that their books are based on; as friends they were friends together: they wrote their books separately—after, in some sense—living the stories together. In his own books, Oscar Zeta Acosta seems unafraid to feel his feelings—even, or especially the thrill of fear, zipping through the body from throat to anus like a seam fraying apart. He’s baring his soul and bearing witness to the awful weirdness of the times. Anybody can see that, I think.
Even those who come along after those rugged, terrible, ragged years. You can still feel the street heat.
Yesterday I walked across the street to talk to someone who knew Oscar Zeta Acosta during those years, my neighbor, Carlos Montes. Carlos has been a revolutionary activist since the 1960s, a co-founder of the Chicano Brown Berets organization, and as Brown Berets “Minister of Information” Carlos was a leader in the 1968 walkouts where tens of thousands of Chicano students walked out of school and protested educational inequality. Because of these and other activities, Carlos has been a continual target of FBI and police harassment and arrest (see Ben Ehrenreich’s March 2012 Los Angeles Magazine article, “Never Stop Fighting” http://www.lamag.com/features/2012/03/01/never-stop-fighting-11).
Oscar Zeta Acosta was Carlos Montes’s attorney for several years, through 1970, and served as his counsel, fighting various indictments, in particular one for conspiracy to commit arson at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel speech of then-governor Ronald Reagan. Zeta Acosta, according to Carlos, told him that the evidence against Carlos was prejudicial to the cases of the five other defendants and for their sakes, that Carlos must flee and go underground. With his attorney counseling him to flee, Carlos disappeared from Los Angeles for seven years. During those years, Carlos skipped across the Mexican border (as Zeta Acosta would himself, later) and lived “on the lam,” living on the run. After some time, Carlos returned to the U.S., surreptitiously crossing at El Paso, Texas, where he lived under an assumed name, even while re-engaging in political organizing. Carlos returned to Los Angeles in 1977 to face charges (he was acquitted when it was proven that a police agent was involved in committing the arson). Oscar Zeta Acosta never returned.
Carlos Montes said:
The thing about Oscar was that his presence was very big, he was very big physically, but he was also very outspoken, very big in his personality. He was not your usual uptight lawyer. Young people idolized him, because he had a very big presence. Curly hair, kind of long, tie loose… You know, he was not only confrontational; he could get people to do things.
The first time we met him was at the Church of the Epiphany, where we used to meet at the episcopal church in Lincoln Heights, with Father Luce. That was where we met with the Brown Berets and Eliezer Risco (a Cuban who had worked with the United Farm Workers) who put out La Raza newspaper. The first time we met Zeta Acosta he showed up in a suit and tie and we made fun of him, calling him a ‘sell-out.’ “I’m not a sell-out!” he said. He gave us his card; it said, “Oscar Zeta Acosta,” you know, and underneath his name it said, “Chicano Lawyer,” and remember this was in 1968, and nobody did anything like that then. I mean, a lawyer? “Chicano Lawyer.” So he took off his tie and had a beer with us, and that’s how he won us over.
He might’ve been working with Maldef [the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund] then, at that point, I don’t know. Anyway, he left them to set up a private practice on his own, to pursue more controversial cases, that maybe Maldef didn’t want to pursue. Higher profile cases, police brutality cases, things like that.
I was a student at ELAC (East Los Angeles Community College) and that was where I was politicized. I was vice president of the student government, but at the same time I was working—I was always working. During the Watts riots, I was working as a janitor at Garfield High School and other schools. I used to listen to the other janitors, the black janitors who were from South Central talk about what was going on, arguing, you know, about the Watts riots and the Vietnam War, and this made a big impression on me, hearing them debate whether it was right for people to riot or use violence (“Burn them out, burn, baby, burn—loot those stores,” you know, versus, “No, that’s not right, you can’t be doing that,”) and seeing the Black Power Movement, the Black Panthers and such on TV. That influenced me politically.
In 1968, I remember one case at East L.A. College where we had a demonstration, we took the U.S. flag down and replaced it with the UFW flag. Luis Carrillo was arrested and called Zeta Acosta. He came right down and was very confrontational with the cops. He was very confrontational, not just in the street but in the court room. You know, some lawyers are very intimidated by the trappings of the court, they get timid in front of a judge. Oscar Zeta Acosta was not like that. He was very confrontational and would take it seriously and would take it all the way. All the way to trial or whichever way it would go. And he recruited Ralph Segura and other Chicano lawyers to represent the Chicano Movement. I mean, because to get a lawyer to represent you, that wasn’t easy. That’s one of the things that Zeta Acosta did do.
Zeta Acosta was my lawyer representing me in several cases over the years. He represented me and the Brown Berets against the charge of conspiracy to commit arson against Ronald Reagan, at the Biltmore Hotel downtown. That was the “Biltmore 6.” The L.A. Times smeared us—the headline was, “Rookie Cop Saves the Day,” when it was (undercover LAPD officer) Fernando Sumaya who bought the road flares that they found inside a linen closet at the Biltmore and who brought them into the hotel and who drove us there. They never explained how the other fires in secured areas of the building behind police security were started.
For example, in meetings with white lawyers on the legal team, Neil Herring and other lawyers from maybe the NLG (National Lawyers Guild), Oscar would say things others wouldn’t say. Like he’d bring up the fact that the grand jury that handed down the indictment was all white, and he’d tell them that they should confront that. In that way, he was also very confrontational. He yelled at the lawyers—he was adamant and insistent, saying they had to challenge the indictment, because it was discriminatory, being handed down by an all white jury. Finally he got them to go along with his strategy. When the judge ordered a hearing, Zeta Acosta subpoenaed the judges! So he got these old white judges and put them on the stand! He asked the judges, who do you nominate to be on the grand jury? Well, they nominated their friends, people they knew—so of course the grand juries were all white. The system was totally set up to discriminate against the Chicano community and Zeta Acosta wanted to confront that! He finally got one old judge to admit that he nominated one Mexican American. “Mister Gonzalez.” Mister Gonzalez? Who’s Mister Gonzalez? “How do you know him?” “I know him through my (private) tennis club.” It turns out Mr. Gonzalez was the famous pro tennis player, Pancho Gonzalez. Of course, he never served on the grand jury. But Zeta Acosta pushed the envelope—and he didn’t just push it, he burned it. Anyway, the motion was denied and the case went to trial.
In 1969, after La Nueva Vida rally at ELAC, where we were protesting to get them to teach Chicano Studies, the administration called the county sheriffs, who disrupted the rally and pushed students off the front steps of the school. Afterwards, driving home, I was a half mile from my house when the cops pulled me over to arrest me. Clearly we were targeted, as Brown Berets we were targeted, as Minister of Information of the Brown Berets I felt targeted, sure—by the PDID (Public Disorder Intelligence Division) of the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Dept.), and their Special Operations and Conspiracies Division, which, all they did was spy on people as part of the national repression at that time, the COINTEL program, you know about that? And in particular, two Chicano officers, Lee Ceballos of the PDID and a Sergeant Armas of the SOC, as Chicanos, you know, they had a personal bias against me, they took it personally. One time Sergeant Armas was seated next to me in court and he opened his jacket and leaned in such a way so I could I could see that he had his hand on his pistol. I mean, what the hell was that? They felt we were scum who made the whole community look bad. So, yes, I felt I was targeted, and I kept getting arrested—these cases were piling up against me. In fact, I remember one time I was in the county jail and I picked up the newspaper and that’s when I read that the Biltmore charges, conspiracy to commit arson, had been filed.
But getting back to Oscar and this arrest, these white cops arrested me they said for assault and battery of a police officer. And I said, what assault and battery of a police officer? They charged me with throwing a soda can, maybe an empty soda can at the police at the rally, because some cans and bottles had been thrown, apparently. If that was true, why didn’t they arrest me at the rally? But they arrested me, and not only did they arrest me, but they took the picket signs that I had in my car and they wrote insults on them, like “dirty Mexicans” or whatever, and they vandalized my car, they smashed the Chevrolet insignias on the vehicle, on the steering wheel, maybe because they look vaguely like the UFW eagle. I pled not guilty and at the preliminary hearing, Zeta Acosta came in carrying the picket signs, incensed, you know, complaining to the judge, throwing the signs on the table in the court room, saying that the arresting officers wrote these racial insults on the signs and tore up the car. The judge kept trying to tell Oscar, “This is not the appropriate time or place for such a complaint.” The judge would say things like, “If you want to file a complaint against the police, you have to file it with the police,” etc. But Zeta Acosta kept bringing it up. And when I saw Zeta Acosta throw the signs on the table, I was just thinking, “Go for it, bro!” What other attorney did that?
Of course he yelled at me too. Zeta Acosta’s strategy was always to fight it all, go to trial and fight it all the way. We got into a big confrontation, and he told me—I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “you have to leave.” Because there was no evidence against the other five defendants (in the Biltmore case). Yeah, it was in a meeting with all the defendants—he yelled at me too, that we were all gonna burn because of me. The only evidence was against me, he said. So… He said it was my word against a police officer’s (Fernando Sumaya’s) and who was the jury going to believe? So I had to leave. And I did. I got married in January 1970, and the next weekend I was gone, out of the country, underground, living underground in Mexico and El Paso, and I didn’t come back to L.A. for seven years—until 1977.