An inside look at the Young Lords, the radical Puerto Rican activist group of the 1960s, from one of its founding members.
In 1968 Miguel "Mickey" Melendez was a college student, developing pride in his unique cultural identity as Cuban and Puerto Rican, while growing increasingly aware of the lack of quality health care, education, and housing—not to mention respect—his people endured for the sake of the American Dream. He was not alone. Bringing together other like-minded Latino student activists, like Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, David Perez, and Pablo "Yoruba" Guzman, Melendez helped to form the central committee of what would become the New York branch of the Young Lords.
Over the course of the next three years, the Young Lords were a force to be reckoned with. From their storefront offices in East Harlem, they defiantly took back the streets of El Barrio. In addition to running clothing drives, day-care centers, and free breakfast and health programs, the Young Lords became known for their bold radical actions, like the takeovers of the First People's Church and Lincoln Hospital. Front-page news, they forced the city to take notice of their demands for social and political justice and make drastic policy changes.
Melendez was part of it all, and describes the idealism, anger, and vitality of the Lords with the unsparing eye of an insider. For the first time, he reveals the extent of the clandestine military branch of the organization and his role coordinating and arming the underground.
Although they were active for only a brief period of time, the legacy of the Young Lords—their urban guerrilla, media-savvy tactics, as well as their message of popular power and liberation, civil rights, and ethnic equity—is lasting. We Took the Streets is one man's passionate and inspiring story of the Puerto Rican struggle for equality, civil rights, and independence.
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About the Author
Miguel "Mickey" Melendez has a master's degree in public administration and has held executive positions in the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation, Housing Authority, and Department of Education. Melendez has also taught in the Hispanic Studies Department at Baruch College. He remains a committed activist for Puerto Rican rights, most recently against the resumption of bombing on Vieques. He lives in Bronxville, New York.
Jose Torres has been a journalist since the 1950s. He was the first Hispanic to write a regular column for the New York Post, and his work has appeared in New York magazine, Details, Parade, The New York Times, and Playboy, among many others. Currently, he's a Spanish-language boxing columnist for ESPN and a political columnist for El Diario/La Prensa in New York. Since winning the 1956 Olympic Silver Medal in Melbourne, and the World's Light-Heavyweight Crown in 1965, Torres has stayed active first as president and then member of the World's Boxing Organization's Board of Directors. He was also chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission for five years. His books include Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson and Sting Like a Bee: The Story of Muhammad Ali.
Miguel “Mickey” Melendez, author of We Took the Streets, has a master's degree in public administration and has held executive positions in the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation, Housing Authority, and Department of Education. Melendez has also taught in the Hispanic Studies Department at Baruch College. He remains a committed activist for Puerto Rican rights, most recently against the resumption of bombing on Vieques. He lives in Bronxville, New York.
Read an Excerpt
AFTER THIRTY YEARS
RAGE. IT TORE AT THE MUSCLES in my shoulders like fire. My limbs tensed and my throat dried out. My eyes struggled to focus. My whole body was consumed with anger so intense, it quickly turned to a burning desire for vengeance. What was I capable of? One thing was certain — I could no longer be passive. I would have to get involved. This fury had not visited me in years, but I remembered it well and knew what it meant: I would have to fight again.
It was April 21, 1999. I don't remember what New York City newspaper I was reading when I saw the short article about a civilian guard who had been killed by a bomb in Vieques, the island off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. According to the newspaper, something had gone wrong during a United States Navy target practice, and two 500-pound bombs exploded near the observation post, wounding several people and killing civilian David Sanes-Rodriguez. The incident took place on April 19, at around six o'clock, but it was not until hours later that the people in the nearby town learned about it. The story reached the mainland two days later.
The official report issued by the Navy called it an accident. Like many others, I was unconvinced.
When I returned home, my compadre Vicente Alba, telephoned me. He was also very upset about the events on Vieques and skeptical of the Navy's report. Alba, nicknamed "Panamá" after his country of origin, wanted to talk about how we should respond. The conversation was not short. There was too much to say, to think, to share. For us, and for a large and increasing number of Puerto Ricans, the death of David Sanes-Rodriguez was the latest in a long list of atrocities committed by the United States Government against our homeland.
After more than thirty years away from direct political action, I was about to rediscover my true vocation as an activist for social justice and for the independence of Puerto Rico. I wanted to hit the streets again. The death — or, more accurately, the killing — of David Sanes-Rodriguez at the hands of the U.S. Navy, was the spark plug that reignited my "activist" engine. His slaughter could not go unnoticed.
Panamá and I talked for hours that day, recalling similar previous tragedies. There was the Ponce Massacre in 1937 and the death of Don Pedro Albizu Campos in 1965. Don Pedro, who died after a long illness, was basically systematically killed by the long jail terms he had been forced to endure that severely damaged his health. He died for the "crime" of seeking for our Puerto Rican nation the same thing George Washington wanted for the American colonies: independence.
Don Pedro was born in Ponce, on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, in 1891. He was a brilliant student from the beginning; and even though his family was from the lower middle class, he was able to earn his degree from Harvard Law School. After serving as an officer in the then–racially segregated United States Army during World War One, Don Pedro turned to politics and became president of the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico. In that position he influenced the independence movement, bringing in ideas he had learned from the nationalist revolutionary struggle in Ireland. He understood the Northern Irish battle for freedom from the colonial claws of Great Britain, and supported the Irish Republican Army's Sinn Fein Party ("Ourselves Alone"), a radical group of freedom fighters. In them, Don Pedro found inspiration as well as insight into successful political resistance tactics.
His intelligence and vision, as well as his stoic commitment to Puerto Rico's independence, attracted many followers, and the fact that he was nonwhite made him popular, particularly among the working class and the sugarcane workers who saw him as uncorrupted by the predominantly Caucasian elite. He quickly became a champion of the workingman and was called to represent the sugarcane workers during a general strike in 1934, one of the largest working-class demonstrations ever seen in Puerto Rico.
From then on, Don Pedro fell victim to the repressive forces of the United States' colonial government. A series of bloody encounters between security forces and the Nationalists followed. In 1937, Don Pedro was charged with conspiring to overthrow by force the U.S. Government in Puerto Rico. He was sent to federal prison in Atlanta, with many other Nationalist Party leaders; thus began his ordeal as an inmate for most of the rest of his life. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1947 — but in 1950, when members of the Nationalist Party attacked the governor's mansion in Puerto Rico and Blair House in Washington, D.C., simultaneously, Don Pedro was charged with inciting murder and again imprisoned. He was pardoned in 1953 due to his failing health, but the pardon was revoked the following year when he was implicated in the armed attack on the United States House of Representatives on March 1, 1954. Sentenced to life in prison, Don Pedro's health deteriorated quickly, and he suffered a stroke in 1956. Death was imminent in 1964, and his sentence was commuted. When his body was examined after his death, it showed signs of torture by radiation, confirming Don Pedro's constant assertion that the U.S. was experimenting with radiation in prisons throughout the country.
Shortly after Don Pedro was first sent to federal prison in 1937, the Colonial Police — under the control of Governor Blanton Winship, a retired U.S. Army general who had been appointed governor of Puerto Rico by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — opened fire on participants of a Nationalist Party rally in Ponce. The brutal police action, resulting in more than one hundred civilians wounded, twenty-one dead, including two policemen, and more than two hundred arrests, is remembered as "the Ponce Massacre" in Puerto Rican history books. According to the U.S. Government, it never happened. Washington has never issued a formal apology to the people of Puerto Rico.
For some, these events are history — that is, they belong only to the past, to the realm of memory. As history, they may inspire resentment, but not much more. However, for me and for many others, these past crimes are very much a part of the present. The truth of this became clear as I read about David Sanes-Rodriguez, only the most recent in a long line of victims.
Therefore, this book is not about resentment or revenge, but about setting the historical record straight.
In November 1999, Panamá telephoned me again. He recalled our previous conversation and told me that there was going to be a meeting of organizations and individuals willing to do something concrete to protest the U.S. Navy's presence in Vieques. In the wake of Sanes-Rodriguez's death, the decades-long struggle of the people of Vieques to end the U.S. Navy's use of the island for liveammunition maneuvers had reached a new, higher pitch. For the first time, all political parties, churches, civic groups, and other community-based organizations spoke with a single voice: "Stop the Bombing Now! U.S. Navy Out of Vieques!" For the first time it seemed that six million Puerto Ricans (four million living on the main islands, and two million abroad) could present a solid and united resistance against the Navy.
Success seemed possible, and, reinvigorated, I agreed to accompany Panamá to this meeting, held at the Local Union 1199 headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
That labor union lives up to the motto —"Stronger Together"— inscribed in the lobby of its headquarters. It was the preferred union of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It has always been sympathetic to social issues. Many of the health-care workers of the city's hospital system belong to it, as well as other service employees. More than a hundred of the victims of the September 11, 2001, tragedy were members of 1199. African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos comprise the majority of the membership.
Union president Dennis Rivera is a Puerto Rican who has distinguished himself by becoming a very powerful political strategist. Rivera's personal commitment in support of Vieques has been well documented since 1980, when he was still a young long-haired and bearded union activist and an advocate for Puerto Rican independence. Dennis was able to persuade environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. and Edward James Olmos to join in the struggle over Vieques, and the three of them endured a one-month jail term in federal prison in Puerto Rico for participating in a demonstration of civil disobedience during U.S. Navy maneuvers.
The night of that November 1999 meeting was chilly. Almost everyone there was either Puerto Rican or had some strong relationship with the Puerto Rican community in New York. It should have been a joyful occasion for me, but it wasn't. Much to my disappointment, present were the same old radicals of thirty years ago, with the same old gusto for endless theoretical discussions and emotional speeches, but who never gather enough willpower and determination to actually do something. Certainly, their thorough assessment of the Vieques problem was not without value. But we knew the history. We needed a plan of action, not endless rhetoric.
After nearly one hour of listening to The Left, I attracted Panamá's attention with a discreet signal, and we quietly moved to the back of the ample room. I don't have much tolerance for what I was listening to. It's as bad as right-wing bullshit.
"This is too frustrating for me," I complained to my compadre. I told him the moment was right to create a media event through direct political action. My old comrade-in-arms had always been open to finding creative ways to make a point. What we needed to do was not that complex: engage in a civil disobedience, get arrested, and hit the news media. No need to talk much about this simple, yet highly effective type of 1–2–3 action.
By the end of the meeting, the group had reached the only obvious conclusion — to continue the discussion at another meeting. Panamá and I decided to do the same, but our meeting the next day had a very different agenda. As soon as the meeting started, we began compiling a list of names of people we thought would be willing to work with us on a direct action. Once we had come up with twenty names, we decided to think of a name for the group. Without question it would be called a "brigade." It seemed appropriate for the type of attack we were preparing, and it is historically resonant of earlier revolutionary groups, like the Venceremos Brigade, which for over three decades has brought together people from several nations in a mission to help Cuba. The members of the Venceremos Brigade travel to Cuba, dwell there, and work along with the Cubans, thus giving a practical meaning to the word "solidarity."
The use of the term "brigade" served another useful purpose. Neither Panamá nor myself is a pacifist, and the military designation "brigade" would make that clear. We wanted peace for Vieques, but we weren't necessarily going to obtain it through peaceful means. I respect true pacifists, but they are few, and I've found the ranks of "pacifists" teeming with far too many hypocrites for my liking. Rather than Mahatma Gandhi, my role models are people who have risked their lives and possessions in their quest for freedom: Simón Bolívar, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Don Pedro.
Taking all of this into consideration, we finally christened ourselves La Brigada David Sanes-Rodriguez — the David Sanes-Rodriguez Brigade — in order to honor Sanes' memory and to place him in a historical context. Our actions would be conducted in the name of a Puerto Rican killed by U.S. bombs on his own patio. This way it wouldn't be an anonymous struggle for a civil cause. No — we considered that since the whole idea was to educate the American public on the issue, portraying the fate of a specific human being would help people realize the real-life consequences of the military abuse of Vieques, Puerto Rico, with more than nine thousand souls living there.
A date for the action was also selected. The offensive was to begin December 7, 1999 — the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The date was not selected out of disrespect for the many heroes in the struggle against fascism; too many people, including soldiers in the Puerto Rican Sixty-fifth Infantry Regiment, died fighting to end World War Two. But the cold and impersonal way David Sanes-Rodriguez's killing in Vieques was originally ignored by the Navy's top brass suggested that, to them, the Puerto Rican man was less than human. His slaughter represented a "Day of Infamy" for us. Our purpose on that day was to let America know that, "You didn't like getting bombed, neither do we —'U.S. Navy out of Vieques.'" Someone had to remind the United States and the world that the struggle against such abuses was far from over in Puerto Rico. Someone had to tell the American public that while many sacrifices by our people were justifiably required during World War Two, the continuation of the live-ammunition naval maneuvers on a populated island, more than fifty years after the end of the war, is criminal.
After our short meeting, I went back home and immediately began calling the twenty names on our list. We were on the move.
* * *
Recruiting the members of the brigade was not difficult. Many people were more than ready to be arrested. Still, of the twenty names Panamá and I gathered, ten came forward: Luis Garden Acosta, Jose "Chegüí" Torres, Gladys Peña, Reverend Luis Barrios, Juan Figueroa, Samuel Sánchez, Rosa Cruz, Lissette Nieves, William Gerena, and me. Panamá would not get arrested and he would handle the press. We knew from experience that the number of participants in an action mattered less than their level of commitment. A small, dedicated group could be just as effective, even more so, than a large army. After all, you don't need many matches to start a fire.
Early in the morning on December 7, 1999, the eleven-member brigade assembled in front of the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue. As I approached the building, it was clear to me that police intelligence agents were present in the area. After thirty years of activism you can smell them anywhere. I wasn't surprised. We'd leaked information of the protest to the police — with one critical red herring. The police thought our target was the USS Intrepid, the World War Two aircraft carrier anchored in the Hudson River, now a museum. It certainly would be a great target for a demonstration, but we had our sights set elsewhere. Until that morning, only Panamá and I knew where we were really headed. The others in La Brigada David Sanes-Rodriguez trusted us enough to put themselves in our hands until the very last moment, and had agreed in advance to be arrested for civil disobedience. After everyone arrived, we began marching west on 42nd Street toward the Hudson River, but then we crossed north, and turned east toward the United Nations building, our real target.
The move, unexpected by the police, gave us the time we needed to chain ourselves to the gate in front of the employee entrance to the building. I had arranged for two former Young Lords, Juan González and Pablo Guzmán, to meet us there. Both are now distinguished journalists. Juan is an award-winning columnist for the New York Daily News, and Pablo is a reporter for CBS-TV. Joining them was José Rosario, the award-winning photographer for El Diario/la prensa, one of the largest Spanish-language newspapers in the country. The presence of both print and broadcast press was crucial. By the time the NYPD recovered from their surprise — thinking about it still makes me laugh — and figured out where we were, we were already positioned in an area where it was unclear who would have the legal authority to make arrests: the U.N. guards or the New York City Police.
Now we were blocking one of the entrances to the U.N. While the two groups of security officers conferred on the issue of jurisdiction, Rubén Blades, the Panamanian-born singer, actor, and international human-rights advocate, agreed to read a statement to the press expressing solidarity with the grievances of the Puerto Rican people regarding Vieques. Reverend Luis Barrios of San Romero de las Americas Church read from the Bible and presided over prayers for our brothers and sisters in Vieques. Both elements — Latin American solidarity and the Church's benediction — are very important for Puerto Ricans. Our communities remain isolated from mainstream America and very little is really known about Puerto Rico. What is Puerto Rico? Where is it? Who cares?
Excerpted from "We Took the Streets"
Copyright © 2003 Miguel "Mickey" Melendez.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Jose Torres,
1. After Thirty Years,
3. Opening My Eyes,
4. Nobody Likes Garbage,
5. The First People's Church,
6. The Underground,
7. The Hijack,
8. "The Butcher Shop" — Lincoln Hospital,
9. The Second People's Church,
10. The Rise and Fall of the Young Lords Party,
11. The Seizure of the Statue of Liberty,
12. Sleeping with My Eyes Open,
Rules of Discipline of the Young Lords Party,
The Young Lords Party: 13-Point Program and Platform (October 1969),
The Young Lords Party: 13-Point Program and Platform (revised May 1970),