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On Contact: ‘The Young Lords – A Radical History’

On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the legacy of the radical group, the Young Lords, with Professor Johanna Fernandez.

In Chicago in 1969, a former gang leader, Cha Cha Jimenez, founded the revolutionary group the Young Lords to fight police brutality, racism, and gentrification. The Young Lords, with their signature purple berets and paramilitary formations, were to Mexican and Puerto Rican youth what the Black Panthers were to radicalized blacks. The Young Lords quickly spread to New York. But in New York, the leaders, while mostly the children of poor Puerto Rican immigrants, were also often better educated. The New York chapter, bilingual and bicultural, soon gave its generation the language to understand the discrimination, displacement and structural racism that plagued their families and their communities. As children, they had to serve as interlocutors between their parents, who often did not speak English, and a callous and indifferent bureaucracy, forcing them to see their parents humiliated and often abused. The group was racially diverse – more than 25% of members were black – and celebrated the unique fusion of cultures that produced, for example, the Spanglish poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The Young Lords drew their inspiration from the liberation movements in Cuba and Vietnam. They were at the forefront of the rainbow coalition of black, Latinx, native, and white working-class radicals embodied in the organizing work of the Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was drugged and then assassinated by the Chicago police and the FBI. The Young Lords occupied churches and hospitals to protest against the lack of adequate social services and healthcare, including the severe shortage of doctors in their neighborhoods and the widespread lead poisoning that afflicted poor children. They piled up garbage in the streets and lit the piles on fire to protest over the failure by New York’s sanitation department to provide services to poor neighborhoods. They at once built community campaigns and a revolutionary party, one of the very few waves of radical socialists in the United States led by people of color. The Young Lords, part of the new left of the 1960s, fundamentally altered the relationships between people of color and the white majority. Their militancy forced city governments and wider society to acknowledge and respect their most basic civil rights.

Johanna Fernandez is a professor of history at Baruch College of the City of New York, and author of ‘The Young Lords: A Radical History’.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the legacy of the radical group, The Young Lords with professor and author, Johanna Fernandez.

JF: In the case of Puerto Ricans, they’re a super exploited class in New York City and in Chicago, 70% of Puerto Ricans work in the restaurants, in hotels, and in the manufacturing, the factories.  So they’re also new migrants, they don’t speak English.  They live in the shadows and that has an impact on how they are--they are treated.  They’re perceived as mild mannered people, but they’re also depicted as criminals, and people who are taking advantage of the system.  So there’s a contradiction in how they’re talked about in the media.  And part of what The Young Lords do, both in Chicago and New York, through their very articulate strategic public activism is that they transform the perception of Puerto Ricans as people who can be pushed around in the city through their militancy.

CH: In Chicago in 1969, a former gang leader Cha Cha Jimenez founded the revolutionary group The Young Lords to fight police brutality, racism, and gentrification.  The Young Lords, with their signature purple berets and paramilitary formations, were to Mexican and Puerto Rican youth what the Black Panthers were to radicalized Blacks.  The Young Lords quickly spread to New York City.  But in New York, the leaders while mostly the children of poor Puerto Rican immigrants, were also often better educated.  The New York chapter bilingual and bicultural soon gave their generation the language to understand the discrimination, displacement, and structural racism that plague their families and their communities.  As children, they had to serve as interlocutors between their parents who often did not speak English in a callous and indifferent bureaucracy, forcing them to see their parents humiliated and often abused.  The group was racially diverse, more than 25% of the members were Black, and celebrated the unique fusion of cultures that produced, for example, the Spanglish poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.  The Young Lords drew their inspiration from the liberation movements in Cuba and Vietnam.  They were at the forefront of the Rainbow Coalition of Black, Latinx, Native, and White working-class radicals embodied in the organizing work of the Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was drugged and then assassinated by the Chicago police and the FBI.  The Young Lords occupied churches and hospitals to protest the lack of adequate social services and healthcare, including the severe shortage of doctors in their neighborhoods, and the widespread lead poisoning that afflicted poor children.  They piled garbage up in the streets and lit the piles on fire to protest the failure by the New York Sanitation Department to provide service to poor neighborhoods.  They had once built community campaigns and a revolutionary party, one of the very few waves of radical socialists in the United States led by people of color.  The Young Lords, part of the New Left of the 1960s, fundamentally altered the relationships between people of color and the White majority.  Their militancy forced city governments and the wider society to acknowledge and respect their most basic civil rights.  Joining me to discuss the importance and legacy of The Young Lords is Johanna Fernandez, a professor of history at Baruch College of the City of New York and author of The Young Lords: A Radical History.  So I know you’ve been very outspoken about probably our America’s best known political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and I just wanted to ask before we begin, whether your activism around his incarceration inform the writing of this book?

JF: I met Mumia Abu-Jamal personally, over 15 years ago when I was teaching at Carnegie Mellon, and I started visiting him on death row.  As you know, Mumia is a veteran Black Panther and he was in fact, deployed to Lincoln Hospital, one of the hospitals that The Young Lords in New York occupied at around the time of that occupation.  So, definitely having a connection with the Black Panther as proximate as the one I had and have with him was transformational, I think for writing this book, but also, I’m integral to the movement to save Mumia’s life and to free him and other political prisoners.  Political prisoners and someone like Mumia is constantly under attack by the Fraternal Order of Police.  So we’re on the ground, and being on the ground as an organizer today, really put me on the ground to imagine what The Young Lords had to contend with, day in and day out in the streets.  The human element of this work is also kept alive when you have a relationship with someone who faces the most unfree conditions in society behind the walls.  So absolutely, this work is richer for my relationship with Mumia, but also my relationship with the movement.

CH: As I said before we went on the air, it’s really a remarkable work, not just in terms of your research and the writing, but just the reportorial digging that you did.  You open the book with Cha Cha Jimenez.  I didn’t know this story about Chicago.  This is a gang leader.  He’s in and out of prison.  At one point, they send him back to Puerto Rico rather than a prison term, he’s reading of all people, Thomas Merton, of course, Malcolm X and others, but it comes out of the gang culture.  But one of the points you make in the book is that the gang culture itself is not devoid of a political orientation.  That’s--his story is almost a book in and of itself, but perhaps you can just lay out a little bit about the origins of The Young Lords.

JF: So first of all, I want to preface this by saying that Cha Cha Jimenez is my favorite Young Lord.  He’s an extraordinary human being.  And this transformation of The Young Lords from street organization to political group, revolutionary group is herculean.  And part of what I argue in the book is that for youth of color who are migrating into the cities in large numbers during and after World War II to cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, part of what they encounter is a preexisting gang culture.  Gangs are populated by White youth, and youth of color, Black Americans and Puerto Ricans are forced to create gangs of their own, to protect themselves against the racism and predations of White gangs against them.  So for youth of color, joining a gang was a political act of self-defense and self-determination.  So the origins of that politicization were there from the beginning, they matured with The Young Lords, in part because of the existence and intervention of the Black Panther Party in Chicago and the leadership of Fred Hampton.

CH: Yeah.  And Fred Hampton was an amazing figure because he built that Rainbow Coalition, including White working-class, which is, of course, why they assassinated him.  But the movement really takes off in New York and I found it fascinating that the difference between Chicago and New York, as I mentioned in the introduction, is that many of the leadership were highly educated, Juan Gonzalez, who’s now on Democracy Now!, was a leader, had gone to Colombia, been involved in SDS, but others had done college education, and so that was important.  And the other point that you make that I thought was really important, was that they had grown up because their parents didn’t speak English, essentially, having to serve as buffers between a callous and racist bureaucracy, and you talk a lot about the healthcare system, but as children, they were caught.  I mean, this trauma was something that informed their radicalism.

JF: So displacement is at the core of what radicalizes youth of color in the 1960s.  We associate the radicalization of White youth in the ‘60s to the sterility of suburban life.  Well, for young people of color who grew up in the cities, displacement, which is structural and massive in this period, is core to an early organic politicization.  In fact, in Chicago, this mass displacement of Puerto Ricans from their homes to the periphery of White neighborhoods is part of what radicalizes someone like Cha Cha Jimenez and others in the--in the gang and the conflict that exist between White residents who don’t want Black Americans and Puerto Ricans in their--in their neighborhoods.  Part of what I argue is that The Young Lords were the foot soldiers of this epic migration of Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico to the US mainland after 1947.  In 1947, the United States establishes Operation Bootstrap, which is an industrialization project of the island of Puerto Rico, which displaces a third of the people of the island that are not able to find employment.  And so Operation Bootstrap has an escape valve and an escape mechanism for that pressure, social pressure of displacement that it produces on the island and that’s migration.  So The Young Lords are forced because of their proximity to the new society, because they speak English, they’re forced to be the interlocutors and translators for their parents at the police department, in the schools, in hospitals.  And part of what I argue is that they developed at an early age, a visceral sense of how they’re perceived by society, as children of a lesser god, versus how they--their families and communities perceive them without prejudice and discrimination.  And they’re forced, as you’ve mentioned, to witness the indignity with which these bureaucracies treat their parents.  And hospitals, for example, are treating more and more people of color for the first time in American history, in part because of access to health care offered by Medicaid, which emerges in the 1960s.  So medical discrimination is something that they come to understand as a concept politically as adults, but they’ve already experienced that organically and viscerally as children with their parents.

CH: What’s interesting is the juxtaposition between the way their parents operate in society.  In many ways the same way undocumented people now within our society exist.  They’re considered passive, pliable, and the radicalism of their children, which was something by the way I saw among the Palestinian communities during the First Intifada.  But sometimes perhaps we forget historically how that first generation was viewed and really abused because they were seen as passive and politically weak.

JF: Right. And on--in the case of Puerto Ricans, they’re a super exploited class in New York City and in Chicago, 70% of Puerto Ricans work in the restaurants, in hotels, and in the manufacturing, the factories.  So they’re also new migrants, they don’t speak English.  They live in the shadows.  And that has an impact on how they are--they are treated.  They’re perceived as mild mannered people, but they’re also depicted as criminals, and people who are taking advantage of the system.  So there’s a contradiction in how they’re talked about in the media.  And part of what The Young Lords do, both in Chicago and New York, through their very articulate strategic public activism is that they transformed the perception of Puerto Ricans, as people who can be pushed around in the city through their militancy.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the importance and legacy of The Young Lords with Professor Johanna Fernandez.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the importance and legacy of The Young Lords with Professor Johanna Fernandez.  So let’s talk about their tactics, which were kind of out of Saul Alinsky in a way not--perhaps not coincidental, Alinsky was based in Chicago.  But let’s begin with like their garbage action, which was pretty amazing, and then their occupation of a church that was run by an anti-Castro minister.  So talk a little bit about what they did in--especially in New York.

JF: So, I think it’s important to take a step back and remember that the post-World War II period is a period of wars and revolutions against European colonial rule, a moment when colonized nations are using guerrilla warfare to fight technologically--a more technologically advanced military force.  And so everyone who’s an organizer in this ‘50s and ‘60s is really taking a lead from what’s going on in the so-called Third World and places like Algeria, South Africa, and Vietnam, guerrilla warfare Cuba.  Guerrilla warfare is the new strategy deployed by poor colonized nations to defeat their more technologically advanced European military colonizers.  And so part of what the Young Lords and the Black Panthers to an extent do is that they embody the style, the language, the politics of guerrilla warfare, and they identify in the United States, the class that they believe is more capable of defeating capitalism, which they call the lumpenproletariat.  So here in the United States in the urban setting, this new class of permanently unemployed people, which is new to the city, is replacing the peasantry of the Third World as a class that can fight in the streets.  And part of what they develop is a strategy of guerrilla warfare for the urban context.  They want to demobilize, destabilize city life, to call attention to the problems in their communities, and get the city to respond.  So part of what The Young Lords did because they were really concerned about their communities and the grassroots was that they asked the community, “What’s the problem that is most affecting you?”  And they discovered that the big problem in East Harlem was the garbage.  Sanitation, in many ways, had fallen behind its capacity to dispose garbage in an increasingly consumer society, right?  American capitalism in the 1950s is organized around consumption and the sanitation apparatus doesn’t catch up.  And that’s part of what we’re seeing in East Harlem, of course, because of racism, that contradiction is experienced deeper in poor neighborhoods of color like East Harlem and Harlem.  So what they do is that they pick up the garbage, and garbage is of a mass scale, we’re talking about furniture, and discarded bulk garbage, abandoned buildings, it’s structural dilapidation, carcasses of animals, and so forth.  And also East Harlem had become a dumping ground for unscrupulous garbage companies that literally got rid of the garbage in this neighborhood.  So they picked up the garbage over the course of several days.  They organized it so that it could be picked up by the sanitation department and it wasn’t over the course of several days.  The next time they came around, they decided to put the garbage in the middle of the street and block traffic with it.  East Harlem is a major artery in the city that allows commuters to get out of the city.  So eventually the community gets involved, the garbage is burned, the cops and the firemen are called to placate this crisis, and it must have looked like a riot.  But in fact, this was a very thoroughly thought through strategic campaign on the part of The Young Lords to get the city to pay attention.  The New York Times ends up writing a series of articles about the garbage.  And what they do through this militancy and interruption of traffic, and business as usual, is that they help change the terms of debate in the city around garbage.  And they argue that this is a form of environmental racism, and that the city doesn’t respect Puerto Ricans as they should, so they’re treating them and their community like garbage.  And they’re also impugning the sanitation department, which is composed mostly of Italian-American workers with an unknown racist proclivity, who’ve excluded people of color from their union.

CH: I just have about five minutes left.  So I want to run quickly through two other actions they did.  They occupy, I believe it’s a Methodist Church for about 11 days, they start a breakfast program.  What I found fascinating in your book is that they’re quite theologically literate.  They know how to speak in a kind of religious language to shame the institutional church.  Just speak very briefly about that.  And I do want to mention Lincoln Hospital because I thought that was important moment.  And then I want to talk about because they only lasted three years, what happened at the end.  But just touch briefly on those two occupations.

JF: So the Puerto Ricans and Latinos are at least cultural Catholics, they grow up in the church, and part of what The Young Lords did, someone like Juan Gonzalez was to quote scripture to impugn the church and the fact that it’s forgotten that it was Jesus who said that it’s easier for a needle to pass through the eye of a camel, I don’t remember the quote, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  And their objective was really to take over the community and to pressure institutions in the community to address structural issues of poverty and racism.  But also, this church occupation which they occupied because the church refused to allow them to use the church to set up a breakfast program, they used the church to really give the Puerto Rican community a coming out party but also to amplify the quiet colonial project of the United States in Puerto Rico.  So they used this moment to educate the New Left about US imperialism close to home, on the island of Puerto Rico.

CH: They also were--I’m just going to summarize it quickly.  They occupied Lincoln Hospital, but many children in East Harlem have lead poisoning.  And it’s fascinating because they recognize the importance of inadequate health services and of course, again, they were going to the hospitals as translators, interlocutors with their parents and saw the poor care and they were quite effective actually in creating a patient’s bill of rights and in putting in codes to prevent lead poisoning.  We just have two minutes left.  They disintegrated.  Obviously, a lot of pressure with infiltrators COINTELPRO.  You quote, I think his name is Wright, a figure who turns out to be an infiltrator, but assumes a leadership role to break it all up.  In their second occupation of a church, they bring weapons.  Just in the last two minutes we have, what went wrong?  What are the--what are the lessons for activists to draw from that final denouement of The Young Lords?

JF: Well, first and foremost, I think it’s important to note that the Black Panther Party was identified as the country’s major national security threat, in part because of this Rainbow Coalition that you mentioned previously.  A coalition that developed among the Black Panthers, black Americans, Young Lords, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, but poor whites from Appalachia, a coalition based on shared class interests.  At the height of the Vietnam War, that is a blow to American capitalism and empire, a potential threat to its power, that very powerful working class coalition across racial lines.  That movement was dismembered by COINTELPRO government repression.  But The Young Lords decided that they were going to abandon their organizing work here and go to Puerto Rico to fight for Puerto Rican independence on the island.  They disconnected themselves from the grassroots, from what they knew, from the people.  And in a moment of retreat and economic recession that happens in 1973, the organization really loses touch with reality, becomes a reading group and quite cultish.  And that combined with government repression leads to a pretty violent and nasty demise, again, fueled by COINTELPRO repression.  But The Young Lords one reforms, they are known for drafting the first patient bill of rights.  They argued for free healthcare on demand.  They’re credited with the passage of lead poisoning, anti-lead poisoning legislation in New York.  And they are part of this movement we know as the New Left, that as you mentioned earlier, transformed the relationship between people of color and white people in America, made sexism and heteronormativity unacceptable, and made critiques of US foreign policy popular in the era of the Cold War.  Among many other victories…

CH: Right.  We’re going to have to stop it there.  It’s a great book.  That was Professor Johanna Fernandez on her new book, The Young Lords: A Radical History.

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