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VVAW 1973-2023: 50 Years Ago
By Moses Mora
1973 was a good year to be in prison. I mean, if you had to go to jail, the early and mid-1970s were unlike any time before or since.
The primary reason was because of the many political activists who took their revolutionary politics seriously enough that they found themselves in unlawful and criminal situations. Those who went to prison saw themselves as political prisoners; some defined themselves as prisoners of war.
Some of the politics originated in the Civil Rights Movement and all the subsequent movements it spawned.
I can't make such grand claims; I was sent to prison on criminal charges: drugs.
When I returned from Vietnam and out of the military, to say that I was damaged goods was an understatement. Society wasn't waiting for me, and I was not ready for society anyway. I joined a community of hurt people and drug abusers. I was constantly in and out of the County jail, doing life on the installment plan.
In 1972, I had felony charges brought against me. One morning, someone I knew called me and asked if I would score some heroin for him. I agreed. He came over and drove me to a dealer's house. He handed me $25. I went into the house and, scored the heroin, went back to the car; he drove me back to where I lived. He gave me a small amount for the favor.
I did not know then that when he called me earlier that morning, the police were listening and recording the call. The police witnessed the entire transaction.
I was arrested a few days later. The police report described me as a drug dealer. I saw myself as a "go-between"—scoring for people was part of my hustle. By doing that, I wouldn't have to do other crimes like burglaries and robberies to get money to buy drugs. Nonetheless, it was a crime, and I was charged with a felony.
The trial judge, the prosecuting attorney, the public defender who represented me, and the jury members who found me guilty did not know that I was a Vietnam veteran. I am not blaming my military or war experience for my actions, but I can't help but wonder if my fate would have been different had anyone along the line known. I guess it's naive of me to expect any mercy when veterans of the era hardly got a kind word or acknowledgment anywhere.
The judge sentenced me to five years to life in prison and wrote an accompanying letter suggesting to prison authorities and the parole board that I be kept for more than five years.
I was sent first to San Quentin prison in the Bay Area of San Francisco, CA. Upon arriving, I thought back to my first night of combat in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam when we destroyed a village in the middle of the night, leaving no survivors. I was shocked and traumatized by my first night of combat, and I remember thinking that now I knew what I could expect the rest of my year in Vietnam to be like. I had similar feelings with a strong dose of helplessness in San Quentin, and I couldn't even predict how many more years of imprisonment I would have to endure.
Vietnam and San Quentin have destroyed a lot stronger men than me. I had to learn how to live with that sense of bewilderment of going from an 18-year-old fresh out of high school to a battle-fatigued veteran and a convicted criminal in what seemed like no time. I was still an adolescent and wondered how this happened to me.
With my prison sentence, I had a lot of time to try to make sense of it all. Those political prisoners I mentioned above —I naturally gravitated towards those types, and I received a great revolutionary education.
War and prisons share something in common—hatred, racial hatred might be more accurate. Usually, the prison system could easily keep the various races apart yet antagonistic towards each other.
Solidarity is at the core of revolutionary thinking. So, it was easy for us to interact in prison with Black Panthers, Chicano Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the Prisoners Union, white prisoners who held politics similar to the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) and the Weather Underground, such as Berkeley's Revolutionary Army who had and have members still in prison.
I spent one year in San Quentin and served the rest of my time at Soledad prison. I did time with and knew most of the San Quentin 6 and the Soledad Brothers.
At the same time, another quiet phenomenon was going on in the United States that was largely unnoticed: the large number of Vietnam veterans who went rather quickly from one institution (the military) into another (the prison system).
I was by no means the only Vietnam veteran who was caught up in this madness. There were lots of us. What we had in common as young prisoners with undetermined futures was the option to plug into the Movement or the madness. By and large, we plugged into the Movement; we had already been plugged into the madness, that's how we ended up in prison.
Hartnell Community College in Salinas, CA was near Soledad prison and offered evening accredited college classes to the prisoners.
A veteran amongst us suggested that we apply to the Veterans Administration for college benefits. We did, and we were successful in getting them. We started receiving monthly checks while in prison. The VA check sure beat the $1 a day the prison system paid us to work. Part of that $1 was taken and put into a fund for victims of crimes.
Our minds were on justice beyond punishment as we took advantage of our situation and turned our lives around. We were clear-minded and sober and had remarkable teachers serving time with us.
We began understanding and practicing fundamental tenets of restorative justice. We helped ourselves to lessons that the prison system was not even aware that they helped create in this unique merging of politically minded prisoners and Vietnam veterans looking to heal and serve on a whole other level previously unknown to any of us.
I can say for myself, and the ones I could keep in contact with, was that none of us ever returned to prison after our release dates—anti-recidivism at its best. I also started practicing indigenous Native spiritual ceremonies like the Sweat Lodge purification ceremony, the Vision Quest, and the Sun Dance. Those are the practices of Peacemakers.
Prison in the early and mid-1970s was unlike any time before or since.
I spent two years of my life as part of the war machine and the rest of my life working for peace.
Moses Mora served in Vietnam from May 1968 until March 1969, in the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands and currently lives in Ventura, CA.