Pa’Lante: “Young Lords Way” and Lessons in Struggle

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By: Carlito Rovira

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Young Lords Way

On Saturday, July 26, a new name was added to East 111th Street in New York City – “Young Lords Way.” It was named in memory of the Puerto Rican revolutionary youth organization known as the Young Lords. Despite the motives of the City Council of New York, which approved and made the street name official, in my final analysis it was the militant struggles of the Puerto Rican people during the 1960′s and ’70′s that made this special event possible.
The City Council of New York, as well as any such municipal entities throughout the U.S., are part and parcel of the overall political power structure that subjugates Puerto Ricans and all oppressed people of color. We should never be fooled by the semblances of democracy and inclusiveness that it appears to have. In the end, city councils are connected to the police state.The NYC City Council may have approved the street name of a revolutionary organization but it will never acknowledge how the Young Lords challenged the racist practices of the police, how they believed in and practiced armed self-defense; and called for the overthrow of the capitalist system and establishment of socialism in the United States. These views of the Young Lords were formulated in their 13 Point Program and Platform.

Carlito Rovira with Iris Morales, former YLP Deputy Minister of Education, at the unveiling of "Young Lords Way" in El Barrio.

Carlito Rovira with Iris Morales, former YLP Deputy Minister of Education, at the unveiling of “Young Lords Way” in El Barrio.

It is a good thing that tribute was given to the memory of the Young Lords; it was a revolutionary movement in the history of an oppressed people who deserve it. Perhaps in a future revolutionary United States the George Washington Bridge, the FDR Drive or an interstate highway can all be named after the Young Lords, the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary legends.

The point is that with the power of a people’s movement not only can we change the name to given locations, we can also change the existing social, economic and political reality.

Lessons in Struggle: A Brief History of the Young Lords Party

Forty-five years ago, news headlines focused on a group of Puerto Rican youth in New York City who used daring and unusual forms of protest against racist oppression. These defiant and militant youths called themselves the Young Lords.

Their examples, and the mass movement from which they arose, continue to inspire young people, especially today as we see greater proof that the only solution to oppression is organization and struggle.

The Young Lords developed in Chicago during the 1950s. They were composed of unemployed students and working-class youth, who were among many street-youth organizations targeted by police and demonized as “gangs” by the capitalist-owned mass media.These youths came from families compelled to leave Puerto Rico between the 1940s and 1950s as a result of the economic hardships caused by U.S. colonialism.

These immigrants continued to experience oppression but under new circumstances. They became victims of extreme exploitation at their jobs in factories, hotels and restaurants; they encountered greedy slumlords and the violence of police and white racist gangs.

The Puerto Rican migration occurred during the same years the Civil Rights movement arose. The struggles of the African American people impacted the newly arrived immigrants who also experienced the vile nature of racism. In many instances, Puerto Ricans identified with the demand for Black Power.

In 1966, the Black Panther Party was formed. Panther leader Fred Hampton of Chicago sought to politicize the street organizations, particularly the Puerto Rican youths. The BPP’s efforts were successful when, in 1968, the Young Lords became a revolutionary political entity; they then became part of a fraternal alliance known as the Rainbow Coalition (unrelated to Jessie Jackson’s later Rainbow/PUSH Coalition), which also included the Brown Berets, I Wor Kuen, Young Patriots, and the Black Panthers.

In 1969, the Young Lords opened a chapter in New York City. For many years, Black and Latino people complained about the Sanitation Department’s double standards in trash pick up. White affluent areas were serviced properly with regular garbage pick-ups, while Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were left in unhealthy conditions.

In the summer of 1969, the Young Lords began sweeping the streets and amassing large piles of garbage that were a nuisance to the community. Many people wondered about what the young, seemingly “good Samaritans” were up to. But the mystery did not last long.

In August 1969, the Young Lords used the garbage they had collected as the means to execute a political offensive with military tactics. Tons of trash were dumped and set ablaze across the main arteries of Manhattan to disrupt traffic, including on the affluent 5th Avenue. The Lords demanded an end to New York City’s racist municipal policies on sanitation. In neighborhoods where the “garbage offensive” was launched, the Lords galvanized community support; many joined the organization.

The mass media’s attacks on the Lords only worked in their favor. Within months, YLP chapters appeared in Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Jersey City, Boston and Milwaukee—cities with large concentrations of Puerto Ricans. While mainly composed of Puerto Ricans, the organization also allowed members of other oppressed nationalities to join them.

The YLP had a military-type structure with a process for recruitment and rules of discipline that were strictly enforced. At the height of the YLP’s development, women comprised nearly half the number of its rank-and-file.

In the years following the Garbage Offensive, the Young Lords engaged in numerous campaigns that involved bold actions and drew widespread attention. One example was the physical takeover of the First Spanish Methodist Church on 111th Street. The Lords repeatedly pleaded with parishioners for space in order to feed hungry children, but to no avail. This church was closed throughout the week and only opened for a few hours for worshipping by a congregation that mostly lived out of town. Backed by community sentiment, the Young Lords entered the church during a Sunday mass and expelled the congregation. Using the church as a base, the Young Lords operated a free childcare service, breakfast program, and legal clinic. Medical services were also provided.

Since disease and poor health care have long been an issue in the Puerto Rican community, other actions taken by the YLP included the seizure of an unused tuberculosis testing truck, equipped with X-ray technology. After the truck was seized, the city was compelled to provide technicians to run the machine. The truck was then taken to East Harlem, where many people were tested for the lung ailment.

The Lords demanded that Lincoln Hospital, which served the people of the South Bronx, expand its services. Because this facility originated in the mid-1800s, when it treated escaped enslaved peoples from the South, its facilities were outdated and did not meet the current needs of residents. An infestation of rats and roaches in the hospital further exacerbated the deplorable conditions.

In the early morning hours of July 17, 1970, about 100 members of the Young Lords boldly seized control of Lincoln Hospital. For 24 hours, the Young Lords and progressive medical professionals in the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement provided free medical services to community people. Today’s modern Lincoln Hospital—with its new facilities—is the result of a community struggle of which the Young Lords were in the leadership.

The YLP drew up a 13-Point Program that outlined the group’s political objectives. It included independence for Puerto Rico, as well as liberation for all Latinos and other oppressed peoples. The Young Lords upheld the struggle against women’s oppression and openly denounced the capitalist system, calling for a socialist society. The Young Lords eventually voiced support for the rights of LGBT people. By all definition, the YLP gravitated towards communism.

These young revolutionaries believed that the power of the people would eventually overwhelm the power of the oppressors. In that spirit, the YLP believed in the right of armed self-defense. This became evident in actions they took while patrolling the streets in areas they organized. Whenever the Young Lords witnessed the police arresting community residents, they would intervene to confront the racist cops and often liberated the arrestees.

In late 1970, YLP member Julio Roldán, who had been arrested at a demonstration in the Bronx and was pending arraignment, was found hung to death in his cell at the “Tombs” prison facility in lower Manhattan. During this era, many prisoners were found mysteriously dead in their cells, but prison officials always labeled them “suicides.”

The Young Lords responded to Roldán’s death with militancy, accusing the state of murder. Following a procession with Roldán’s coffin through East Harlem, the YLP returned to the First Spanish Methodist Church, which they had seized a year earlier—but this time, they came armed with shotguns and automatic weapons. They demanded an investigation into Roldán’s death. Deeply entrenched community support for the Young Lords prevented a gun battle, as government officials knew there would be an enormous political fallout if they initiated a police onslaught. The Young Lords held the church for three months.

There are many examples of heroism among these young revolutionaries—not only in New York or Chicago, but also in other cities where the Puerto Rican people were in struggle.

Shamefully, because that people’s movement no longer exists, non-revolutionary interpretations of that period persist, which dismiss the relevance of the Young Lords’ history for the struggle for socialism today. Regardless of what may be argued, the Young Lords openly called for the destruction of capitalism and establishment of socialism in the United States. This is made indisputably clear in the YLP’s 13-Point Program.

The Young Lords, like the Black Panther Party, attempted to build a highly disciplined organization. They understood that without the organizational sophistication of a vanguard party, revolution is impossible. It is precisely this lesson that revolutionaries today should embrace and emulate in order to realize the future victory of socialism.

The unveiling of "Young Lords Way" in El Barrio, July 26, 2014.

The unveiling of “Young Lords Way” in El Barrio, July 26, 2014.

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Carlito Rovira joined the Young Lords at the age of 15. He was among the founders of the New York chapter and remained until the very end in 1976 when the organization had already changed its name to the “Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization.” Being that the Young Lords were a socialist youth organization, today Carlito continues to be a socialist. After the Young Lords he involved himself in activism against the KKK during its re-emergence in the South. Today he continues to work on the freedom of political prisoners.

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The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by La Respuesta magazine. We encourage dialogue, debate, and learning in order to forge stronger, healthier Boricua communities and to strengthen alliances across social difference. 

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