Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Miguel/died waiting for the welfare check/to come and go and come again/Milagros/died waiting for her ten children/to grow up and work/so she could quit working/Olga/died waiting for a five dollar raise” These lines, from the poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Petri, the resident poet of the Young Lords organization, “capture the struggle for survival around which the Young Lords organized,” according to historian Johanna Fernandes of Carnegie Mellon. In her talk on Thursday, she described the Young Lords. Her interpretation of these and similar groups “challenges mainstream depictions of civil rights as racially based… they were integrally tied with grievances of economic importance and driven by a strong class import.”
The Young Lords Organization was founded in Chicago in 1968. They were “heavily influenced by the politics and protest style of the Black Panther party” and “self-proclaimed revolutionary nationalists.” The Young Lords were “led by first and second generation Puerto Rican radicals who were raised in the US,” although up to 30% of the group was composed of African-Americans or other Latinos. Their leaders were between thirteen and twenty-two, with the majority in their late teens.
Fernandes described the youth as “radicalized by the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s… they wore berets and paramilitary uniforms… most importantly, their political outlook was shaped by the social and economic crises that began to grip northern cities in the postwar period.” Before its emergence as a political organization, the Young Lords were actually a Chicago gang, “a way of life in poor and working-class neighborhoods… understood as the poor man’s social club.” Although gangs certainly “engaged in competition for turf control along racial and ethnic lines,” a large part of this was because “urban renewal policies exacerbated rivalry… all of the Lords I interviewed were forced to move multiple times… they suffered brutal racial harrassment at the hands of working-class white ethnic groups.” Because of this climate, “gang networks prepared them to navigate the mean streets of these unwelcoming neighborhoods.”
How did it transform into an organization? It was started by Jose Jimenez, who was “radicalized in prison.” He read books “made available to him by a prison librarian who was a member of the Nation of Islam,” including the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He followed the lead of the Black Panther party and took on “the herculean task of redirecting the activites of his gang.” The gang resisted at first, but after the fatal shooting of a member by an undercover cop and the unjustified arrest and imprisonment of five of its members, they were more willing. They began “militant neighborhood protests against urban renewal… they became known for savvy protest campaigns.” They called their campaigns “offensives” in reference to the Tet Offensive against US forces in Vietnam, which had occurred in the spring of 1968.
Their first campaign in New York was the “Garbage Offensive” in the summer of 1969, which “protested irregular sanitation services in East Harlem and the absence of garbage cans in those neighborhoods… the Young Lords erected traffic barriers at major intersections with the garbage they had collected and this stopped traffic for up to fifty blocks on end.” These demonstrations caught the attention of local officials and “single-handedly contributed to making sanitation a major issue in the mayoral elections of that November.” In the fall of 1969, the “Lead Offensive” did door-to-door lead testing in East Harlem to find that 30% of children were lead positive. The Young Lords have been credited with the passage of anti lead-poisoning legislation in New York City.
Other protests pulled off by the group included taking over a church to turn it into a social service sanctuary for the poor, occupying Lincoln Hospital for over twelve hours, and hijacking a TB testing truck which only operated in the middle of the day, so that workers could not use its services. The truck was a stick shift that none of the Lords could drive, so they had to push it around the city. They also “spearheaded a battle over the control of the community mental health clinic” which “dramatized Lincoln’s deplorable health conditions.” When over one hundred mainstream and alternative newspapers picked up the story, the government was forced to act. Geraldo Rivera was actually a lawyer who defended the Young Lords and was “quite friendly to their causes.” Fernandes explained that “the Young Lords and Black Panthers were organizing around issues of racial import but a crucial element was also class.”
Fernandes emphasized the structural quality of the problems that the Young Lords were facing. According to her, World War II “encouraged a mass migration of people of color into the cities in search of wartime jobs… the process of suburbanization which happened simultaneously encouraged the whites to leave.” With rural people coming into urban cities, they underwent “urbanization and proletarianization… the experience improved their wages and their confidence and their sense of power in numbers.” With regard to Puerto Ricans specifically, over one-third of Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in this period, and “the convergence of Puerto Rican migration with the rise of the civil rights movement had a profound impact on their racial consciousness.” They expected change because of the civil rights movement, and their activism was “rooted in a deep social disenchantment at worsening urban conditions.”
However, by the end of the war, “the industrial base of the cities was now evaporating… people of color were most affected by this crisis of deindustrialization.” At one point in Chicago, 47% of Puerto Rican men were un- or under-employed. Because this population was disproportionately young, it was also disproportionately affected. “Ironically, this was the second time they had been victims of structural displacement,” said Fernandes, who described a project to industrialize Puerto Rico that failed to help the rural population, who had to migrate to the United States as a result. This “double instance of structural displacement… is one of the reasons Puerto Ricans are consistently identfied as the poorest group in places like New York and Philadelphia.”
The problem is that “urban poverty was increasingly seen as a racial phenomenon rather than a product of structual change in post-war urban centers.” Because of this, claimed Fernandes, there are racist theories that poverty in urban minority groups is connected to problems with the structure of the black family or with the tendency of minorities to commit violent acts. She stressed that all of these theories are wrong and ignore the structural causes, which the Young Lords and the Black Panthers were among the first to identify. These groups worked together to address the “causes of riots in economic and political terms” rather than racial terms.
Fernandes particularly praised the vision of the Black Panther Party, which “proposed an alternative view of how society might be organized on more humane bases, engaged with the local community, articulated a theory that explained the black crisis, and presented a compelling vision for the future… today the movement is maligned and not accorded its proper place in history.” Because of the retroactive maligning of the Black Panthers, “we know little about the movements it inspired” such as the Young Lords. “At their best the Young Lords demonstrated a willingness and keen ability to build coalitions and link local concerns with international causes.”
Finally, Fernandes applied her lessons to today. “We see in New Orleans that the urban disrepair against which the Young Lords and Black Panthers fought and its racialized character is still with us today.” She thinks we should look to them to build new activism movements, because in the sixties, these two groups accomplished a remarkable achievement. “They won the argument that poverty was brought about by circumstances beyond the control of the poor… they won the argument that urban renewal would not solve the profound problems in the structure.”