This is a report back from the 40 Years of Struggle event held on Sept 21, 2008 at the San Lucas UCC in Humboldt Park. The event was intended to be a look back at the legacy and work of the Young Lords, as well as a reunion of former Black Panther, Young Lords and Rising Up Angry members who participated in the original Rainbow Coalition.
“… Defending their right to play the congas on Armitage street. Defending their parents who lived on steel mill wages and welfare bureaucratic nightmares. Defending their right to live the new Rican revolutionary blood. Dreams of glory and comunidad. But it was stripped away by rattailed developers while Boricua children ate the government cheese in the lunch program. Crucified by Daley machine Red Squad thugs because urban renewal meetings were interrupted. Crucified by Daley machine Red Squad thugs because they took over gentrifying institutions. Crucified by Daley machine Red Squad thugs because they were breaking down individuals. But their struggle, we inherit. From Lincoln Park, to Humboldt Park, to the world.”—From Young Lords, written and performed by Primitivo Cruz
In September of 1968, a group of 60 youth descended upon a meeting of the Community Conservation Council of Lincoln Park, an organization that served as a front for the “urban renewal” of the neighborhood. They quickly disrupted the meeting, and insisted that there would be no more meetings within Lincoln Park “until there was Black, Brown, Latino and poor White representation.”
During the next several months, Young Lords joined members of the Black Panther Party and the Latin American Defense Organization to demand a union for welfare caseworkers and dignified service for welfare recipients, shutting down the Wicker Park welfare office twice. They took over the administrative offices of McCormick Theological Seminary demanding funding for affordable housing and community programs. They seized the United Methodist Church at the corner of Armitage and Dayton and negotiated its transition into The People’s Church, a center for community and political activity.
The Young Lords waged an aggressive struggle against the displacement of the Puerto Rican community from Lincoln Park, for equitable access to city services, and for the liberation of Puerto Rico. They became one of the founding members of the Rainbow Coalition, an alliance between the Black Panther Party, the Young Patriots, and the Young Lords which later included Students for a Democratic Society, Rising Up Angry, the American Indian Movement, and others.
Their practical and cross-community organizing made them high-priority targets of Daley’s Red Squad. Many of the founding members of the Rainbow Coalition were killed, incarcerated, blacklisted, or forced underground.
On Sunday, September 21st, 2008, at San Lucas United Church of Christ in Humboldt Park, members of the Young Lords, the Black Panther Party, and Rising Up Angry gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of the transition of the Young Lords from a street gang into a human rights organization, and to discuss the founding of the Rainbow Coalition Council of Elders.
Chicago Young Lords spoke at length on the 50-year history of displacement of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and the connection between community and resistance.
Introducing the event, Jose “Cha-Cha” Jimenez, founding member of the Young Lords, said, “We’re trying to show people that we’re still in the struggle… And the reason we’re having it here in Humboldt Park is because this neighborhood is still being gentrified, nothing has changed, in the same style that happened in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park…The City of Chicago and Mayor Daley cannot hide from the fact that that administration has been the only administration for the last fifty years and has displaced Puerto Ricans from La Clark, La Madison, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, West Town, Wicker Park, and now Humboldt Park.”
Young Lord Carlos Flores described life in Lincoln Park. “It was a place of home, it was a spirit of unity. Armitage Avenue, which was part of a strip that a lot of us would live in, you would see that there would be restaurants like Arroyos, there was a record shop, grocery stores, Martinez Barber Shop, it was a whole neighborhood that was lively, that was vibrant. Sometimes, you would take out the conga drums if you lived there. I grew up in that neighborhood from the early 1960s until my dad sold his building in the late 1980s. Little by little the neighborhood became gentrified. And what happened in Lincoln Park is what’s happening today in Wicker Park.”
Chicago Young Lord Rory Guerra added, “It became a vibrant Latino community where people knew each other, where people could go door to door and have coffee between people…It was a good neighborhood, we were all tight-knit. We had the best hot dog stand in the whole city, George’s, anybody who’s from there knows George’s. It was just a wonderful area. When we found out about the Chicago 21 Plan and Cha-Cha brought it to the forefront, there were so many people who had our back.”
Discussing the founding of the Rainbow Coalition Council of Elders, Kathleen Cleaver, former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, said, “I think it’s really significant that all of us that came to make the Rainbow Coalition initially, and coming into the Council of Elders of the Rainbow Coalition, are part of a community. We came out of community resistance and community revolution…particularly here in Chicago, this is so significant. Chicago probably has a reputation of being an extremely racist town, but in this town of racism and division and hostility, here you have, coming together in solidarity, in principled solidarity, in collaboration, working on similar projects in similar communities with similar needs, Panthers, Lords, and Young Patriots.”
Speaking of the relevance of the Council of Elders to today’s struggles, Cleaver argued that, “we see it creeping back in, this gentrification, which is either a prelude or postlude to their practices of genocide, fratricide, imprisonment, economic disinvestment and massive, massive violence. So we stand together, our Rainbow Coalition Council of Elders.”
Cha-Cha Jimenez echoed a similar sentiment: “It’s a continuation, we look at our struggle as a protracted struggle. We’re not disconnected from the struggle…We didn’t begin the movement and we’re not going to end it. We’re going to contribute to it. It’s a people’s struggle.”
He sees direct connections between the urban renewal of Lincoln Park and the continuing gentrification of Humboldt Park. “It’s part of a fifty year plan to renovate the downtown area, to basically displace the poor…It’s like they did to the indigenous people, buying off the land real cheap, its the same thing that they’re doing. And people are like ‘So what? You can’t do anything about it.’ But we’re saying that we can. One thing that we can do is to archive the community, to not let people forget that hey, there was a community right here.”
Jimenez said that Young Lords are collaborating with researchers and communities to document and archive their struggle, and are planning future events that bring together the Rainbow Coalition Council of Elders. ◊
3. For more on the Young Lords, see The Center for Latino Research at DePaul, Young Lords Collection, Special Collections and Archives, http://condor.depaul.edu/~dialogo/pdf/young_lords.pdf; Erika Rodriguez, “The Young Lords and Early Puerto Rican Gangs: Interview with Historian Mervin Mendez,” http://www.gangresearch.net/ChicagoGangs/
4. For more on the Rainbow Coalition, see James Tracy, “The (Original) Rainbow Coalition,”