When we speak of revolutionary leaders we immediately think of Mandela, Malcolm, King, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Gandhi. They are wonderful examples of virtue, but others immediately come to my mind like Ramon Emeterio Betances, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron, and the Young Lords. The Young Lords have had a great impact on the lives of Hispanic Americans and on my life personally.
The Young Lords instilled a sense of Puerto Rican pride during a time when Puerto Ricans were looked at with great racial, cultural and language discrimination as well as economic exploitation. They changed the sanitation standards on inner city streets, started free children’s breakfast programs when the city wouldn’t, provided free medical care in el Barrio, free clothing drives, free classes on Puerto Rican history, and many other community building programs all while facing forceful opposition from the city of New York, the NYPD, and the FBI.
The story of the rise and fall of the Young Lords is motivating and inspiring for current and future revolutionary Puerto Ricans. In 1969, a young socially conscious group of Puerto Rican college students gathered together to discuss the issues that plagued El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). They eventually called themselves “Sociedad de Albizu Campos”. They named themselves after El Maestro, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos; Harvard educated lawyer, President of the Puerto Rican National Socialist Party and one of the most beloved freedom fighters in Puerto Rican history.
This organization included founding members such as Pablo Guzman, Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, David Perez, Juan Ortiz and Mickey Melendez. Five months after continuous meetings, they realized they no longer needed to talk about the problems that plagued Spanish Harlem but they needed to act on them. While reading the Black Panther paper, they found out that there was an organization of a group of Puerto Ricans called the Young Lords in Chicago also fighting for Latino rights. They meet with the Chicago Young Lords Organization and formed a union.
They were now the New York State Chapter of The Young Lords Organization. After questioning the Spanish Harlem community on what the most pressing issue was, they heard la basura (garbage) over and over. The New York City Department of Sanitation at the time was all white and did not see the point in cleaning the streets or picking up trash in the ghetto, so for months at a time they left Puerto Rican neighborhoods rotting and filth ridden. The Young Lords Organization went to the Sanitation department to ask them for brooms and shovels so they could clean the area themselves but were denied.
They grabbed the brooms and shovels, yelled that they would return them and ran. The YLO including Juan Gonzales and Felipe Luciano swept the streets and put all the garbage in bags, only for no sanitation to pick it up a week later. This went on for two more weeks with more and more of the community joining in on the cleaning, with no sanitation picking up the garbage. Finally, after a month of no trash removal, it was all gathered into the middle of the street blocking car and bus traffic and set on fire.
The YLO figured if the busses couldn’t move NYC could not make money and they would have to pick up the garbage. Now firefighters had to come put out the fire, and police had to come investigate, and sanitation still had to remove the debris to open up traffic all because they refused to do it before. This went on week after week on block after block until sanitation started coming on a regular basis, this was known as the East Harlem Garbage Offensive. Now that the Young Lords were known throughout el barrio, young Puerto Ricans were flocking to join the YLO.
African Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and other Latinos also joined. They were workers, students, unemployed, and Vietnam War veterans. Pablo Guzman, their Minister of information, suggested they have their core principles written and outlined for all to read. There was only one issue which was corrected, point number ten originally said “Machismo must be revolutionary, not oppressive”, but after some discussion it was agreed that Machismo is oppressive so it was revised. The 13 point program reads as follows: The Young Lords Party is a Revolutionary Political Party Fighting for the Liberation of All Oppressed People (Corrected Version) 1. We want self-determination for Puerto Ricans–Liberation of the Island and inside the United States. For 500 years, first spain and then united states have colonized our country. Billions of dollars in profits leave our country for the united states every year. In every way we are slaves of the gringo. We want liberation and the Power in the hands of the People, not Puerto Rican exploiters.
Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre! 2. We want self-determination for all Latinos. Our Latin Brothers and Sisters, inside and outside the united states, are oppressed by amerikkkan business. The Chicano people built the Southwest, and we support their right to control their lives and their land. The people of Santo Domingo continue to fight against gringo domination and its puppet generals. The armed liberation struggles in Latin America are part of the war of Latinos against imperialism. Que Viva La Raza! 3. We want liberation of all third world people.
Just as Latins first slaved under spain and the yanquis, Black people, Indians, and Asians slaved to build the wealth of this country. For 400 years they have fought for freedom and dignity against racist Babylon (decadent empire). Third World people have led the fight for freedom. All the colored and oppressed peoples of the world are one nation under oppression. No Puerto Rican Is Free Until All People Are Free! 4. We are revolutionary nationalists and oppose racism. The Latin, Black, Indian and Asian people inside the u. s. re colonies fighting for liberation. We know that washington, wall street and city hall will try to make our nationalism into racism; but Puerto Ricans are of all colors and we resist racism. Millions of poor white people are rising up to demand freedom and we support them. These are the ones in the u. s. that are stepped on by the rules and the government. We each organize our people, but our fights are against the same oppression and we will defeat it together. Power To All Oppressed People! 5. We want equality for women.
Down with machismo and male chauvanism. Under capitalism, women have been oppressed by both society and our men. The doctrine of machismo has been used by men to take out their frustration on wives, sisters, mothers, and children. Men must fight along with sisters i the struggle for economic and social equality and must recognize that sisters make up over half of the revolutionary army: sister and brothers are equals fighting for our people. Forward Sisters in the Struggle! 6. We want community control of our institutions and land.
We want control of our communities by our people and programs to guarantee that all institutions serve the needs of our people. People’s control of police, health services, churches, schools, housing, transportation and welfare are needed. We want an end to attacks on our land by urban removal, highway destruction, universities and corporations. Land Belongs To All The People! 7. We want a true education of our Creole culture and Spanish language. We must learn our history of fighting against cultural, as well as economic genocide by the yanqui.
Revolutionary culture, culture of our people, is the only true teaching. 8. We oppose capitalists and alliances with traitors. Puerto Rican rulers, or puppets of the oppressor, do not help our people. They are paid by the system to lead our people down blind alleys, just like the thousands of poverty pimps who keep our communities peaceful for business, or the street workers who keep gangs divided and blowing each other away. We want a society where the people socialistically control their labor. Venceremos! 9. We oppose the Amerikkkan military. We demand immediate withdrawal of u. . military forces and bases from Puerto Rico, Vietnam and all oppressed communities inside and outside the u. s. No Puerto Rican should serve in the u. s. army against his Brothers and Sisters, for the only true army of oppressed people is the people’s army to fight all rulers. U. S. Out Of Vietnam, Free Puerto Rico! 10. We want freedom for all political prisoners. We want all Puerto Ricans freed because they have been tried by the racist courts of the colonizers, and not by their own people and peers. We want all freedom fighters released from jail.
Free All Political Prisoners! 11. We are internationalists. Our people are brainwashed by television, radio, newspapers, schools, and books to oppose people in other countries fighting for their freedom. No longer will our people believe attacks and slanders, because they have learned who the real enemy is and who their real friends are. We will defend our Brothers and Sisters around the world who fight for justice against the rich rulers of this country. Que Viva Che Guevara! 12. We believe armed self-defense and armed struggle are the only means to liberation.
We are opposed to violence–the violence of hungry children, illiterate adults, diseased old people, and the violence of poverty and profit. We have asked, petitioned, gone to courts, demonstrated peacefully, and voted for politicians full of empty promises. But we still ain’t free. The time has come to defend the lives of our people against repression and for revolutionary war against the businessman, politician, and police. When a government oppresses our people, we have the right to abolish it and create a new one. Boricua Is Awake!
All Pigs Beware! 13. We want a socialist society. We want liberation, clothing, free food, education, health care, transportation, utilities, and employment for all. We want a society where the needs of our people come first, and where we give solidarity and aid to the peoples of the world, not oppression and racism. Hasta La Victoria Siempre! This 13 point program served as a structure and frame work for, not only those who wanted to learn about the Young Lords, but it allowed current Young Lords to keep their focus on what was important.
In October 1969, the Young Lords began a free breakfast and lead poisoning detection program in the community. Through the lead poisoning detection program, it was discovered that 1/3 of the children in East Harlem had abnormally high levels of lead in their blood. As a result of the YLO’s program legislation was passed banning the use of lead based paints in apartment buildings and landlords would have to go in and remove all lead based paint from any apartments that had it.
The need for space was growing and they needed a warm place to work from, so in December they asked the Methodist church on 111th St and Lexington Ave if they could work out of the church when it was not having services, they were denied. That Sunday, Felipe Luciano followed by the Young Lords and community supporters went to “testimonial”. As he stood up to speak to ask why the Church denied them the service, 25 uniformed officers who had been following the Young Lords, attacked and beat Luciano, the Young Lords, and their supporters.
The officer’s arrested 13 Young Lords on various offenses including riot, disrupting a religious service, and assault. The community rallied around the Young Lords “taking” the church two weeks later. It was renamed “People’s Church” and for 11 days they held breakfast programs, clothing drives, a liberation school, political education classes, a daycare program, health programs, and nightly entertainment including movies, bands, and poetry all free of cost. Over three thousand people came to take part and take advantage of these services, known as the People’s Church Offensive.
After an 11 day occupation of the church, 105 Young lords and supporters were arrested. While being arrested they sang “que bonita bandera”, to signify Puerto Rican pride and the NYPD’s failure to break their spirits. Around this time drugs were flooding the ghettos of New York, and the YLO noticed. From January to March they engaged in many street battles with the NYPD, for not stopping the drugs from coming into these neighborhoods but busting the junkies and not the dealers. They were also able to get many junkies off drugs and become helpful within the movement.
It was around this time two things happened, the New York Chapter of the Young Lords parted ways from the Chicago Young Lords and became The Young Lords Party, due to differences. The FBI also began paying very close attention to every member of the YLP and their supporters, using their Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO, they gathered information, listened in on phone calls, and infiltrated the YLP organization. The Young Lords saw that the health needs in el barrio was more than they could handle, so a sub organization was ormed from Doctors and healthcare workers called, the Health Revolutionary Unity movement (HRUM). The Young Lords Party and the HRUM did TB testing in public housing and apartments, and found high percentages of people testing positive. At the time, the city had a TB testing truck but it somehow never made into el barrio, so they “liberated” the truck, and took chest X-rays of hundreds of people in the community. In July 1970, the YLP and HRUM took Lincoln Hospital, a hospital which was condemned by the city yet reopened without any renovation for the minorities in the South Bronx.
One of the programs to help the community was a Detox program for those needing help coming off of Heroin. YLP proved its point by its actions, Lincoln Hospital saw on average 300 people a week when run by the city but 300 people a day while run by the YLP. On September 22nd and 23rd, 1970 a joint conference was held on, the liberation of Puerto Rico, by the YLP and the Puerto Rican Students Union at Columbia University, where over 1,000 high school and college students attended.
At the conclusion of the second day, they all marched from Columbia University to Plaza Borinquen in the south Bronx. On October 1970 the YLP spread word to all the Puerto Rican Student Unions in NYC and nearby cities that there would be a march on the UN, 10,000 people showed up calling for an end to police brutality, release of the Nationalist Party political prisoners in prison since the 1950s, and independence of Puerto Rico.
Juan Gonzalez stated in an interview, “As soon as the Young Lords stepped into dealing with the issue directly of the independence of Puerto Rico, we were immediately subjected to a much stronger vigilant investigation. ” The false arrests made on the Young Lords were stepped up and more officers were placed undercover to infiltrate the organization. Declassified COINTELPRO files state, “The Bureau is considering the feasibility of instituting a program of disruption to be directed against organizations which seek independence for Puerto Rico through other than lawful, peaceful means.
Because of the increasing boldness apparent in the activities of such organizations, their utter disregard of the will of the majority, the inevitable communist and/or Soviet effort to embarrass the United States, and the courage given to their cause by Castro’s Cuba, we must make a more positive effort, not only to curtail, but to disrupt their activities. Director to SAC, San Juan, Aug. 4, 1960 It is believed that upon instituting a counterintelligence program in this field, efforts should be directed with the following aims in mind: I. Disruption and discord. II. Creating doubts as to the wisdom of remaining in the independence movement.
III. Causing defections from the independence movement. Director to SAC, New York, Nov. 15, 1960 (p. 1 only) Your files will contain descriptive information appropriate to our investigative reporting. We should, however, for the purposes of this program, delve deeply into that part of their lives which do not show on the surface; for example, we must determine their capabilities of influencing others, capabilities of real leadership, why the intense desire for Puerto Rico’s independence, what they expect to gain from independence, and the support they have from other leaders and rank-and-file members.
We must have information concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life, educational qualifications and personal activities other than independence activities. Director to SAC, San Juan, June 12, 1961” We saw evidence of this as Julio Roldan, a member of the Young Lords Party, was arrested for allegedly setting garbage on fire in the middle of the street after sanitation went back to the practice of not collecting trash in el barrio. The next day, it was reported Julio and 8 other inmates committed suicide by hanging in a prison, in Tombs.
These shady circumstances got even more questionable when the Young Lords Party gathered an independent autopsy, where Julio was found to have a fractured skull and bruises to his body. In response, the YLP lead a march of over 2,000 people with his casket through the streets, where 200 Young Lords reoccupied the Methodist Church in Spanish Harlem. This time, hidden in Julio’s casket was an arsenal of weapons. YLP occupied the church for several weeks where they made a demand for a Legal Aid Center for inmates and city investigation into the prison system. This was their Fourth Offensive.
In 1971, the prisoners in the Attica Correctional Facility had enough of the same mistreatment that the YLP spoke out against. They rioted, took control of the prison and took hostages. The prisoners requested the Young Lords Party be present in negotiations. The YLP met with the inmates and prison administrators, they spoke on the behalf of the prisoners to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff. However, on the order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, police were to take the prison by force. This ended in the injuries of 89 people and deaths of at least 39 people, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees.
All which could have been avoided by heading the warnings of the YLP and allowing them to negotiate. By 1976, the Young Lords Party disintegrated due to the success of COINTELPRO, police infiltrators and agitators, and self-implosion similar to the Black Panther Party. Ansel Herz, journalist and Young Lords documentarian states, “The New York Young Lords broke under the weight of unrelenting police harassment and infiltration, compounded by a series of tactical missteps that ignored the main source of their strength – their support from the Puerto Rican urban poor.
These communities were oppressed and ignored, rather than represented, by social institutions. The Young Lords stepped into that vacuum and restored a sense of pride and togetherness to “El Barrio” in East Harlem. But the leadership of the organization subsequently turned its focus away from the direct action campaigns that inspired unprecedented solidarity in the ghetto. The group’s paramilitary structure was over-dependent on the charisma and cooperation of a few leaders and failed to recognize the voices of the Young Lords’ rank and file members.
An attempt to open a revolutionary front on the island of Puerto Rico proved to be a fatal mistake, spreading the organization too thin, diverting resources from community programs, and initiating an acrimonious factionalism in the leadership from which the Lords would not recover. With much of the original leadership resigned or exiled, a hardline Marxist clique took over the Lords and it disintegrated. ” The Young Lords are known for its free community programs, it’s direct in your face responses to police injustice, and instilling Puerto Rican pride and culture in its community. I will remember the Young Lords for a more personal reason.
Before I was ever born my family was given a chance for a better life all thanks to the Young Lords. In the early 1970’s, the waterfront pier in Columbia Heights was rat infested slums. My father was working 2 jobs and still struggling to support my mother and two brothers. The apartment they lived in should have been condemned due to infestation, my father wrote to the city for help and was put on a waiting list for public housing for months. Out of desperation he contacted the Young Lords for any help they could give. They took all of my parents’ information and within the month they were moving to a project in
Flushing, Queens. The Young Lords did what the city of New York refused to do, improve the quality of life and safety for my family, and I am indebted to them. This is the mark they have left on my life and the lives of thousands of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in New York. The Young Lords cared for Puerto Ricans and all minorities when New York didn’t. Unfortunately history did not pay them the same respect, as many next generation Puerto Rican New Yorkers don’t know who to thank for the improved conditions they live in compared to the 1960’s, they are our forgotten revolutionaries. Abramson, Michael.