Virtually every segment of society was impacted by the democratic upsurge in the United States in the 1960’s and Puerto Ricans were no exception. Puerto Ricans in a number of places came together to form organizations and participate in multiracial coalitions in order to address a number of pressing problems. Among the most popular Puerto Rican organizations was the Young Lords Party, which was formed in the winter of 1968-69 and had an active chapter in Bridgeport for a number of years.
Puerto Ricans emigrated from the island in large numbers in the years after World War II as they began to experience ever more acutely the ravages of U.S. imperialism. Over a 20-year span beginning in the 1940’s, the Puerto Rican population in the U.S increased from 70,000 to one million. As with other immigrant groups, most settled in the nation’s largest cities – New York especially but Chicago, Philadelphia and several others as well – but Bridgeport was also a popular landing point. In fact, since the 1960’s, Puerto Ricans have made up a larger percentage of Bridgeport’s population than New York City’s while statewide, Puerto Ricans have for many years been a larger percentage of Connecticut’s population than any other state and remain so today.
The Founding of the Young Lords
The founders of the Young Lords (which began as the Young Lords Organization and was soon re-named the Young Lords Party) were mostly young Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York. Some in the group in Chicago were members of street gangs who got politicized around the oppressive conditions Puerto Ricans confronted on a daily basis, particularly police brutality. They became part of the original Rainbow Coalition that eventually included the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, a Chicano group called the Brown Berets, an Asian-American group called I Wor Kuen, and several groups of radical, white working class youths – the Young Patriots, White Panthers and the Patriot Party. All were inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Malcolm X and independence and revolutionary movements throughout the global South, including the rich history of resistance to outside domination in Puerto Rico itself.
It was in New York City, with its large concentration of Puerto Ricans, that the Young Lords Party had its biggest branches and most extensive campaigns. Most involved getting basic public services, either as organized by the YLP itself – a free breakfast program, free clothes and blankets during winter, mobile health clinics, a takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx – or via direct action such as through demands for better sanitation services. The group also confronted patriarchy in ways and to an extent that few of that time did, led by a corps of women who were in the forefront of virtually every struggle the YLP participated in. The Lords also published a Spanish/English newspaper Pa’lante as well as pamphlets on a variety of subjects, and hosted a weekly radio show on WBAI.
From its founding, the YLP opposed the U.S. wars of aggression that were then raging in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. In their work against the illegality of those wars, the Lords underscored their opposition to the deployment of colonial subject Puerto Ricans to fight other colonial subjects in Southeast Asia. Pablo Guzman, a YLP leader and later a long-time New York television reporter, was one of a number of Young Lords who went to prison for draft resistance and for openly encouraging others to do likewise. Pa’lante also regularly reported on other criminal activities of U.S. imperialism, such as the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile in 1973, as well as on national liberation movements around the world.
The Bridgeport YLP Branch is Formed
In 1970, a Bridgeport organization called Spanish People in Command joined with the Young Lords to form the local YLP branch, the organization’s fifth. The Lords underscored the significance of the move in Pa’lante on the occasion of its second anniversary, noting that the establishment of the Bridgeport chapter “was very important because it was the first time the Party opened in a small, working class city.”
When the branch was formed, there were approximately 15,000 Puerto Ricans living in Bridgeport, roughly ten percent of the city’s population. Bridgeport’s manufacturing-based economy was still thriving in 1970, but Puerto Ricans found good-paying jobs difficult to come by. Many encountered hiring discrimination from employers and apathy, if not hostility, from labor unions. Landlords charged exorbitant rents for apartments that were often substandard if not firetraps. Police harassment was a regular part of life and often came at the end of a nightstick or worse. Justice was in short supply in the courts and petty crimes of poverty frequently led to incarceration. It was in this context that the branch was formed and around these issues that it organized.
Free Breakfast for Children, Rent Strikes and Other Campaigns
Among its first projects, the Bridgeport branch established a Free Breakfast for Children program at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Pembroke Street. Patterned on similar programs set up around the country by the Black Panthers (who also briefly had a Bridgeport chapter), children of all races and ethnicities were provided free breakfast every weekday before school. The Lords were also instrumental in initiating a tenants association and rent strike at 381-387-393 East Main Street in December, 1970 when residents were forced to endure five consecutive freezing days and nights without heat. It was also at that site that the branch opened its local office.
Though the tenants’ demands were initially rebuffed, they persevered and secured significant improvements. In addition to the gains won, the campaign was a teaching moment for the new YLP branch, as it demonstrated to community residents that collective action could be successful and was ultimately the only way forward. With the police, the landlords, the local media and other segments of the city’s elites all arrayed against them, many residents also learned through the campaign the hostility with which entrenched power regarded their aspirations.
Like the national organization, the Bridgeport chapter throughout its history did solidarity work with Puerto Rico and educational work about U.S. domination of the island. When the YLP organized actions around the country on March 21, 1971 to mark the 34th anniversary of the 1937 Ponce Massacre in which 22 island nationalists were shot and killed by colonial forces, the Bridgeport chapter held a demonstration in Washington Park. Bridgeport members and supporters also participated in a number of national YLP actions such as a 10,000-strong demonstration at the United Nations in New York on October 30, 1971 demanding independence for Puerto Rico.
East Main Street Rebellion
On May 20, 1971 tensions that had been growing between the Lords and the people they were organizing, on the one hand, and slumlords and police on the other, boiled over. With the East Main Street rent strike still ongoing, the owners of the property attempted to evict the Young Lords from their office. Local YLP leader Willie Matos was arrested for trespassing, the office was trashed and furniture illegally removed, all in the presence of Bridgeport police officers. An enraged group of several hundred supporters soon took to the streets and began throwing rocks at the police and the agents of the landlord.
More people were arrested when protesters blockaded a section of East Main. The police, meanwhile, patrolled the area with police dogs and officers armed with shotguns. Articles in the Bridgeport Post and Bridgeport Telegram were full of references to “rioters,” “violence” and other code words. Excluded from their stories (though it was included in the extensive coverage in Pa’lante) was the fact that the landlords involved were the same ones who owned a nearby property on Arctic Street where a catastrophic fire on Easter Sunday in 1969 killed eleven people.
“This is the beginning of community power,” Matos said after being released and returning to the site of the conflict. “We are sick and tired of police brutality.”
New Projects in Bridgeport
In 1972, the Bridgeport branch held its Ponce Massacre commemorative march in Hartford with supporters in that city as a way to formalize a second Connecticut branch. A short time later, a branch was also established in New Haven. The Bridgeport branch, meanwhile, relocated to Crescent Place where its new office also included a bookstore.
Substandard housing remained one of the Bridgeport branch’s main concerns. When another fire at one of the properties on East Main Street where the rent strike had occurred resulted in the death of a six-year old girl, the YLP and its supporters began weekly picketing at the Lafayette Shopping Center in downtown. The purpose was to pressure business and political elites to deal with tenants’ demands by boycotting stores in the recently opened mall. Five people including several Lords were arrested on May 6, 1972.
The Bridgeport branch also worked with other city organizations to address the problem of layoffs and unemployment, which by 1972 were at crisis levels. One venue was the Committee of Unemployed Workers, established in August of that year. Also that summer, the Bridgeport branch initiated a conference to establish a statewide organization of Puerto Rican migrant workers held at the Disciples of Christ Church on East Washington Avenue.
Harassment, Repression and Decline
Throughout its history, the YLP was closely monitored by the FBI and other police agencies. A Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security chaired by the notorious white supremacist James Eastland (and which included among its members Strom Thurmond, another white supremacist) investigated the Young Lords and its successor group, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO). Among those mentioned in the 48-page report is Willie Matos.
In addition, a number of Lords were indicted and imprisoned for refusing to register for the military draft, including some of the organization’s national leaders, and several members around the country were killed by police. The state repression and harassment, along with internal problems, eventually took a toll and the organization went into decline in the mid-1970’s. The Bridgeport branch was one of four remaining when the group ceased to exist in 1976.
Former Young Lords Carry On
In the years since, many who had been members of the Young Lords have carried on its radical and revolutionary work. Some, including Denise Oliver-Perez, Mickey Melendez and Richie Perez, a long-time activist in New York until his untimely death in 2004 at age 59, went into academia. Juan Gonzalez is an award-winning journalist who for many years was a columnist for the New York Daily News and co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio show Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. Pablo Guzman, Felipe Luciano and Geraldo Rivera, among others, have also had long, distinguished careers as journalists, a fact that prompted the late long-time New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin to say that the Young Lords produced more great journalists than Columbia University’s journalism school. Other Lords have worked, and continue to work, as union organizers and for a variety of social justice organizations.
Locally, Willie Matos worked for many years for the Connecticut Human Rights Commission and was instrumental, along with other former Lords, in founding the Spanish American Coalition, a long-time activist group in Bridgeport. Matos and others were also active in the Bridgeport chapter of the Vieques Support Committee, a national group formed in 1980 to oppose the use by the U.S. Navy of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing practice.
The appearance of a number of recent books, documentary films and several photo exhibits has stimulated renewed interest in the Young Lords, especially among young people. This is only fitting, as the issues the group grappled with – national and racial oppression, substandard housing, police brutality, imperialist war, the vast gulf between the Super Rich and the rest of us – are with us more than ever.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose novel In Motion was recently published by Sunshine Publishing. He can be reached at andypiascik(at)yahoo(dot)com.
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