The Young Lords: Building Power through Direct Action

PUBLISHED

Johanna Fernández (@JFernandez693) is associate professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York and author of The Young Lords: A Radical History.

PUBLISHED

Johanna Fernández (@JFernandez693) is associate professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York and author of The Young Lords: A Radical History.

They had simply been looking for a space to feed breakfast to poor children before school. The First Spanish United Methodist Church (FSUMC) seemed an ideal place. Conveniently situated in the center of East Harlem, the spacious building was closed except for a couple of hours on Sunday. But its priest, an exile of Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, denied the use of the church. In late December 1969, two months after their initial request was denied, the militant activists known as the Young Lords nailed the doors of the FSUMC shut after Sunday service and barricaded themselves inside.

Although this Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party is today largely unknown, those seeking to build a more just world have much to learn from their tenacity and intrepid organizing skills. Beginning in 1969, this unexpected cohort of New York radicals unleashed a series of riveting urban guerrilla campaigns against the city’s racist policies and contempt for the poor.

As Barry Gottehrer, advisor to then NYC Mayor John Lindsay, told me in an interview, the Young Lords “couldn’t be placated with anti-poverty money, and you couldn’t mess with them either. They took over a church and a hospital and made out like bandits on the evening news.” In Chicago, they occupied a police precinct. In so doing, the Young Lords identified and targeted the embodiments of power at the local level—institutions of influence and authority in the everyday lives of urban dwellers. They weren’t simply fly-by-night activists; they were grassroots organizers who launched strategy-driven campaigns. They built a highly disciplined revolutionary organization with an analysis of the root causes of structural problems, a theory of change, and a vision for a new society, one organized around human need rather than profit.  

As Pablo Guzmán, one of the founders of the Young Lords, summarized the political divisions between the Young Lords and the board of the church: “Their idea is that Puerto Rican people dig being poor, and that they made it [through hard work], so why can’t everybody else. . . . They think that Puerto Rican women on welfare spend their money on beer, play the numbers, and dig the gutter.” The board presumed that the poor brought poverty onto themselves through their irresponsible behavior and lack of values, personal drive, and work ethic. The reasoning implied that the poor did not deserve sympathy; help would only enable shiftlessness and deepen dependence—all of which justified the board’s refusal to allow use of the church to feed poor children.

In the 1960s, amid a new wave of displacement occasioned by postwar economic and demographic changes, these deep-seated ideas about poverty gained widespread political currency when social scientists developed a theory of culture to explain poverty. Drawing on anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s 1959 study of Mexicans, they posited that low-income people were trapped in a self-perpetuating “culture of poverty,” a web of pathological behaviors that, when passed down to their children, reproduced intergenerational cycles of poverty and hindered economic advancement.

For their part, the Young Lords argued that displacement, post war deindustrialization, automation, and colonization drove want among Puerto Ricans. Their battle with the FSUMC is one of many examples of how people of color used protest and direct action to force their way into public debate and challenge the logic of such arguments.

Church Occupation

In the wake of increasing state violence against activists, the decision to turn the Lord’s house into a protest site was a brilliant tactical move. It created a sanctuary protected from violent reprisals. A year earlier, in April 1968, after hundreds of Columbia University students occupied major campus buildings protesting the Vietnam War and the university’s gentrification of Harlem, students were dragged from occupied buildings by police wielding billy clubs.

At the East Harlem church, such violence was politically untenable. With media buzzing around, news of another bloody scene with protesters and police in a house of worship would travel around the world. It would damage the image of the mayor’s liberal administration and his aspirations to higher office.

Aware of potential backlash in a churchgoing neighborhood of recent migrants, the Young Lords made their case to the community. Led by Guzmán, later that afternoon—and every morning thereafter for the occupation’s 11 days—the Young Lords held a press conference in the main chapel. The occupation’s success depended on a sophisticated deconstruction of church ideology. At the press conference, Juan Gonzalez mentioned his 10 years of alter-boy service to elevate their message. Citing scripture, he argued that the East Harlem church had forgotten the teachings of the historic Jesus:

It’s amazing to us how people can talk about Jesus, who walked among the poor, the poorest, the most oppressed, the prostitutes, the drug addicts of his time; that these people who claim to be Christian have forgotten that it was Jesus who said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

From the Young Lords’ perspective, nailing the church doors inverted the public crucifixion of Jesus, the political prisoner who led a movement of the poor that challenged the power of the Roman Empire, its colonial rule of historic Palestine, and the corruption and power of local elites. Under Young Lords’ leadership, the church would be open to grassroots communion, led by the oppressed, and driven by a commitment to the material and spiritual well-being of the surrounding community. Before long, local grandmothers began delivering pots of food to the Puerto Rican radicals through church windows.

In their determination to stoke revolution among Puerto Ricans and other poor communities of color, these radicals transformed the occupied building into a staging ground for their vision of a just society. They rechristened FSUMC as The People’s Church and called on New Yorkers to participate in a daily medley of activities at the church. Midway through the occupation, an in-depth radio segment produced by KPFA in Berkeley, California reported that the Young Lords had provided hundreds of free breakfast meals to children. In the afternoon they ran a medical clinic and a lead and anemia testing drive staffed by approximately two dozen progressive doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and interns and residents they recruited from nearby Metropolitan Hospital. The church soon became a headquarter for redress of community grievances and needs, ranging from assistance with housing evictions to English translation at parent-teacher meetings. Even critical accounts of the occupation lauded the discipline of the group’s daily routine. The New York Post reported that the Young Lords “held the church like a fort.” By day, the church had the feel of a well-run school and hospital. At night they hosted avante garde cultural events where they curated spurned African and Indigenous elements of Puerto Rican culture and music. They were an antidote to the erasure of Puerto Rican culture and history that accompanied both the Spanish and U.S. colonial projects in Puerto Rico.

Long before the advent of Critical Race Theory, the group also taught black American history and the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement in their Liberation School. It was the Young Lords’ most controversial undertaking, arguably for rendering analyses of history at odds with canonical interpretations and dominant ideology and for flouting academic conventions regulating the instruction and production of knowledge.

Methodist Church leaders deemed its communist-inflected instructions irreconcilable with Christianity. They also deemed it one of the clearest expressions of the occupation’s violations of the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom. The Black American clergyman Robert Chapman denounced the church’s narrow legal interpretation as “self-interested.” He lambasted its underlying assumption—that “the church and politics exist on separate planets”—as a “crushing of humanity.”

By merging militant actions with projects that prefigured a new socialist society in the present, the Young Lords, like the Black Panthers, expanded the vision and work of the revolutionary Left in the United States.

As the Young Lords fortified their programs at the church, hundreds of supporters and spectators gathered for the daily press conferences. Members of nearby BPP branches were among the approximately 150 activists who permanently rotated in and out of the church. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member H. Rap Brown visited and spoke at the church, as did national BPP leader Kathleen Cleaver. Huey P. Newton’s solidarity greeting “thrilled the packed chapel with clenched fists raised in spread-armed salute.” Acting independently of the Young Lords, students from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary staged a twenty-four-hour sit-in at Methodist Church headquarters demanding that the Puerto Rican radicals be granted space. A long list of celebrities made appearances, among them film director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, boxer Jose Torres, actor Jane Fonda, writer Gloria Steinem, and rising salsa stars Joe Cuba, Joe Batan, and Ray Barretto.

Meanwhile, a phalanx of National Lawyers Guild attorneys did everything they could to stall courtroom procedures, allowing the Young Lords to remain 11 days. On December 30, the church obtained a court order requiring a next-day appearance by the Young Lords’ attorney before the New York Supreme Court to “show cause why [the Young Lords] should not be ousted from the church.”

In court, the Young Lords’ attorneys, Richard Asch and Daniel Meyers, argued that the Young Lords were upholding a major tenet of the Methodist Church, service to the community, which the FSUMC had renounced in East Harlem. The deposition also argued that the Young Lords had been scapegoated by the church’s lead minister and members of the board. It asserted that “the Young Lords represent a serious threat to their conscience” and a challenge to the church to observe the Methodist Church’s fundamental principle that “service to the people of the community is an important religious function, not to be ignored.”

In the streets, the Young Lords charged that the church’s benign indifference to the social and economic suffering of the people of East Harlem—one the city’s poorest districts—enabled social violence. Their attorneys quoted from the Methodist Social Creed found in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church: “We believe the inner city to be a mission field crying out for bold new creative ways of witness. Here is emerging a pagan generation committed to values that run counter to those of Christ. Therefore, we call our urban congregations to a deeper involvement in neighborhood life.”

They also challenged charges of private property violation. Again citing the Book of Discipline, they suggested that for failing to use private property in line with church doctrine, the church, not the Young Lords, should be held accountable for such a violation: “We believe God is the owner of all things and that the individual holding of property is lawful and a sacred trust under God. Private property is to be used for the manifestation of Christian love and liberality, and to support the Church’s mission in the world. All forms of property, whether private, corporate, or public, are to be held in solemn trust and used responsibly for human good under the sovereignty of God.”

***

The Young Lords were naturals in pulling together creative and deep-reaching protests in northern urban centers. They did so at the same moment that the effectiveness of protest strategy was being debated—likely without the Young Lords knowledge—in the broader movement. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. grappled with the matter, as he explained in 1967:

[Marches are] unsound for big cities because they are absorbed in the rapid pace of urban life . . . to have effect we will have to develop mass disciplined forces that can remain excited and determined without dramatic conflagrations. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot, because it can be longer lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. . . . We reject both armed insurrection, either for shock value or conquest, along with weak pleas to insensitive government. Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. White decision makers may care little about saving Negroes, but they must care about saving their cities.

At the church, the Young Lords’ combination of urban guerrilla protest with sharp political messaging pressured politicians to respond. On the same night that the Young Lords abandoned the church, Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller proposed during his State of the State address to launch a breakfast program for 35,000 poor children in the city. In response, Harlem’s Democratic state senator Basil Paterson told the media, “I think the Black Panthers and the Young Lords have influenced the governor,” whom he also condemned for not having any original proposals of his own. Even the judge who forced the church’s evacuation, after declaring the Young Lords in contempt of a court order, seemed to equivocate in his condemnation of the Puerto Rican radicals. Reporting for Pacifica Radio, journalist Jeff Kamen explained, “The judge was impressed by what the Young Lords had done for the people, so he released them on their own recognizance, without bail.”

Creative and strategic militancies change history. They interrupt the normal functioning of society, shift the terms of debate in public discourse, establish standards of decency, and expand the definition of the common good.


Article image: A pinback button for the People’s Church / Iglesia De La Gente, from Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of T. Rasul Murray.

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