Today’s opinion piece by Matthew Hennessey, titled “Today’s New York, Saluting 60s Radicals,” is yet another embarrassing and unfair editorialization of the Puerto Rican community. You would think that the Daily News had learned its lesson after its admittedly deceitful coverage of the 2015 Puerto Rican Day Parade garnered widespread condemnation; but apparently, you have learned nothing.
I want to focus my attention on the last line of the piece, which calls the Young Lords “bullies who weren’t above using terror and intimidation to advance their radical left-wing agenda.” Yes the Young Lords were an unapologetically leftist organization; but “bullies” who used “terror”? This is journalistic sensationalism at its very worst. It’s one thing to have a perspective (even one that’s politically opposed to the revolutionary politics of the Young Lords); but it’s another thing entirely to engage in lazy, faux journalism rooted in fear mongering more than integrity.
As the author of The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, I can tell you that such editorializing is false and ignores history. The Young Lords didn’t terrorize or bully. Their first direct action campaign revolved around cleaning up the streets of East Harlem. They followed that by doing door-to-door tuberculosis and lead poisoning testing programs. Yes, they took over a church in El Barrio; but that was because it was the only church not serving the community; and the takeover happened only after a prolonged period of petition and protest.
Contrary to to what Hennessey wants us to believe, it was the Puerto Rican community who was terrorized by New York City and its police force. They are the ones who brutalized Young Lords members and other Black and Brown people with shocking regularity (and as anyone with a pulse knows, continue to do so today). It was the people of El Barrio, the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, and elsewhere who were terrorized by slumlords, Poverty Pimps, and allegedly helpful social services — places like Lincoln Hospital, which had been condemned by the City but continued hacking up poor African Americans and Puerto Ricans. It was direct action by the Young Lords that helped to change some of those conditions and provide the people of the community with the resources — intellectual, political, and material — to fight injustice.
The Young Lords rose in response to such everyday acts of terror, bullying, and structural violence. They gave their communities hope that they could do something about the conditions that haunted their lives. Through their community education programs, they challenged colonialist misinformation about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. They directly confronted racism in their local communities and within the Puerto Rican community itself. They provided health, clothing, and food services to the communities in which they were active. And they helped to spread and inspire joy and celebration about Puerto Rican culture — all of which are things that the current multi-site exhibition titled ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York (at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio, and the Loisaida, Inc. Center) seeks to address.
Neither bullies nor terrorists, the Young Lords helped people take back their communities and institutions and take a stand against oppression in its many different forms. They worked hard to decolonize their communities through education, direct action, service, protest, art, and more. And for those reasons, we oughtn’t fear their legacy, but celebrate it and find ways to learn from them today.
A shorter version of this blog post was sent to the NY Daily News editors on 7/27/15 at 11:00 a.m.
UPDATE: Part of the letter made it into print. Click here for the full update.