The Young Lords — A radical history
By Johanna Fernández
University of North Carolina Press, 2022
480 pp., $38.50
The Young Lords, a radical 1960's movement of Puerto Rican youth in the United States, spectacularly arose out of the miserable living conditions into which Puerto Rican immigrants were trapped by US society.
As explained in the opening chapters of Johanna Fernández’s inspiring history, the US government encouraged Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland in the 1950s, mostly to New York and Chicago, as a method of quietening the island’s radical independence struggle.
US officialdom paid for flights and organised employment contracts. But the contracts set no limits on working hours and deductions were taken from wages for accommodation and airfares.
Once in the metropolis, the new arrivals were sent to the meanest slums and left to fester. The indifference from municipal government meant that conditions were miserable.
The only jobs available were low paid. Women usually cleaned hotels while men survived doing whatever racist America would allow.
The New York municipal government simply did not collect rubbish from East Harlem, meaning that garbage piled up for years, attracting all sorts of rodents. Tenements were lined with lead-based paint so that Puerto Rican children had elevated lead levels in their blood.
Puerto Rican children had to act as translators for their parents as they navigated their way through bureaucratic mazes and indifferent hospitals. They learned the hard way about racism and oppression.
These children radicalised as young adults and formed one of the most significant 1960's US revolutionary movements. But they radicalised in a particular fashion that created their colourful style of operating.
Fernández covers the Young Lords' beginnings in Chicago but concentrates on its New York manifestation.
In 1959, eleven-year-old Cha Cha Jiménez formed the Young Lords gang for self-defence in the mean streets of Chicago. He was its leader and spent many years in and out of prison. It was in gaol that he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other tracts, which turned his life around.
Fernández says that it took a bit of convincing for Jiménez’s hard-bitten followers to choose social action over self-protection and crime. The street gang element remained part of the movement’s charisma throughout and affected its political outlook.
Lumpen proletarian youth, basically those excluded from employment, surviving by their wits on the street, were identified as the key component of the revolution. These were disheartened young people left jobless as industries left the inner-cities for the suburbs.
Jiménez teamed up with Fred Hampton, the legendary Chicago leader of the Black Panther Party (BPP), adopted the BPP structure and began organising against urban renewal programs that were designed to drive out Puerto Ricans.
Pretty soon the Young Lords Organization (YLO) was making a mark in Chicago and beyond. Puerto Rican youth responded in New York by forming a branch. Eventually, a political divide produced a split and the New York YLO became the Young Lords Party (YLP).
While the Young Lords advocated armed revolution like the Panthers, they did not arm themselves, which staved off the sort of murderous police repression that ravaged the BPP. It organised at the community level a series of “offensives” to force New York authorities to deliver human services to Puerto Ricans.
It also battled anti-Black racism among Puerto Ricans, along with sexism and homophobia.
Typical of the Young Lords’ campaigning was the 1969 Garbage Offensive. Having conducted door-to-door surveys asking residents what their needs were, the Young Lords seized brooms and garbage bags from a municipal sanitation depot and began sweeping streets clean on Sunday mornings.
An immediate effect was that residents began talking politics with the militants. Another effect was that the militants saw the limitations of piling up garbage that the authorities simply ignored.
So, the next step was to stage lightning-fast, daily “guerrilla” actions from July to September 1969, blockading main thoroughfares with garbage. Thousands of residents joined in the mayhem-inducing civil disobedience.
As the New York Times reported of one event: “Angry residents of a six-block area of East Harlem staged a two-hour garbage throwing melee … Three abandoned cars were overturned, blocking intersections and mounds of burning garbage were heaped up at corners.”
When police arrived, the Young Lords took off their distinctive purple berets and melted into the crowd. Eventually, the City capitulated and agreed to the residents’ demands.
The next Offensive was to combat lead poisoning from the peeling paint in the ghetto’s dilapidated tenements. Through a series of sit-ins, the Young Lords forced authorities to provide lead testing kits.
In conjunction with radicalised resident doctors from the local Lincoln Hospital, the Young Lords went door-to-door collecting results that shamed authorities into finally combating lead poisoning in the community. Eventually, the Young Lords occupied Lincoln Hospital itself and ran it under workers’ control.
They also occupied a conservative Baptist church that refused to allow its facilities to be used for community purposes. Utilising arguments drawn from Christian liberation theology, The Young Lords used the building for health care, daycare, lunch programs and a children’s breakfast program. It also became a focus for Puerto Rican culture, fostering a cultural revolution.
The Young Lords grew rapidly and collapsed quickly as well. Using extensive oral testimonies and reams of police intelligence documents obtained through court battles, Fernández traces the factors in the decline.
The Young Lords were subject to the same FBI repression program, called COINTELPRO, that tore the BPP to pieces. Provocateurs infiltrated the Party and set militants at each other’s throats.
Unforced political errors also contributed as the youthful revolutionaries had to learn the hard way the lessons of Marxism and Leninist theory. Following the ultra-left ideas of Maoism did not help.
But also unhelpful was the fact that the largest US left organisations, the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, eschewed the Young Lords as being hopelessly ultra-left. Those parties should have conveyed their experience and wisdom to the young radicals.
Similarly to the BPP, the YLP turned fratricidally inward, developing an authoritarian internal culture that sapped morale. By the early 1970s, the YLP renamed itself as the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Worker’s Organisation, but became disconnected from real social movements.
Fernández says the Young Lords “foretold the end of the American Dream, which had always been an elusive prospect for the most racialized groups, but which also began to unravel for the working- and middle-class white Americans with the long-term economic decline that began with the recession and oil crisis of 1973”.