What Can Radicals Learn from the Young Lords Party, 40 Years Later?

On Sunday leading former members of the Young Lords Party, a militant Puerto Rican community organization active from 1969 to 1971, gathered at the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem for a forum to reflect on the impact of the group. The New York Young Lords took over the church the first time in 1969 in an attempt to use it as a base for community food and health programs. Months later they occupied it again, this time brandishing weapons, in protest of the hanging of Julio Roldan, a Young Lords member who was found dead in his cell after a police raid.

It’s unfortunate that the Young Lords are not as well known among the broader public as the Black Panthers. The group was arguably more progressive for its time. Patriarchy and other oppression within the Young Lords started to break down quickly when members challenged those hierarchies inherited from society. The Lords had deep roots in and support from the “El Barrio” community.

Which makes the New York Lords’ sudden and swift decline all the more puzzling. Why did the group fall apart after just two years of success? What can radicals learn from the Young Lords?

I cannot find any audio or video from Sunday’s forum online, oddly, to help answer those questions. You can hear Democracy Now co-host and Lords co-founder Juan Gonzalez speak on his experience in this interview.

I attempted to answer the question posed above myself last year in a paper for a ‘Radical Social Movements’ class. I’m posting it online now, to share it with y’all and Google’s indexer. It’s entitled “The Young Lords: Examining Its Deficit of Democracy and Decline. Read it here.

An opening summary paragraph is below .

The New York Young Lords broke under the weight of unrelenting police harassment and infiltration, compounded by a series of tactical missteps that ignored the main source of their strength – their support from the Puerto Rican urban poor. These communities were oppressed and ignored, rather than represented, by social institutions. The Young Lords stepped into that vacuum and restored a sense of pride and togetherness to “El Barrio” in East Harlem. But the leadership of the organization subsequently turned its focus away from the direct action campaigns that inspired unprecedented solidarity in the ghetto. The group’s paramilitary structure was over-dependent on the charisma and cooperation of a few leaders and failed to recognize the voices of the Young Lords’ rank and file members. An attempt to open a revolutionary front on the island of Puerto Rico proved to be a fatal mistake, spreading the organization too thin, diverting resources from community programs, and initiating an acrimonious factionalism in the leadership from which the Lords would not recover. With much of the original leadership resigned or exiled, a hardline Marxist clique took over the Lords and it disintegrated.

Also see Vivirlatino’s reflection on the Young Lords Party and Democracy Now’s coverage.

What are the lessons of the Young Lords’ history in your opinion? Critiques of the paper? Hit me up in the comments.

7 thoughts on “What Can Radicals Learn from the Young Lords Party, 40 Years Later?”

  1. the quality of this piece is evidenced by the lack of any questions or challenges i can come up with. solid.
    the parallels to today and to stories like common ground or the quick disintegration of pre-march 19, 2003 anti-war masses are plentiful and totally disheartening. how many times in the last 6 years have you worked with activists who refuse to work with this or that other person “ever again?”
    my one offering is that perhaps we should build sunset mechanisms into our organizing rather than chasing “sustainability.” nature is born, lives, and inevitably dies. maybe we should expect the same for good ideas.
    re: korean factory occupation. labor is not sexy. democracy now wants to be sexy.

  2. also, I can see your point about the movement’s collapse, but when you look at some of the organizing in Chicago, in particular their organizing with welfare recipients and occupation of welfare offices, I think there are a lot of positive lessons to take out about how movements can be accountable to the immediate needs of the communities that they are working in.

    1. Hey Frank, I’m absolutely interested in hearing the audio. Part of the reason I limited the focus of my paper to the New York YL chapter was the relative dearth of historical material available to me on the Chicago Lords. And I think I identified some of the positive lessons, including the one you mention about community accountability, in the paper.

  3. here’s some video from the NYC anniversary, courtesy of Cha-Cha. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJfGqZo0wUI
    I’ll upload the (very very rough) audio files from the Chicago event last year in a sec and post up a link once it’s done.

    and you definitely noted the community-centered organizing model that made the organization relevant and effective. i’m sorry i didn’t note that more closely. from everything i’ve heard and read, your paper cuts to the heart of what worked so well about what they did, but also what internal and external forces brought them down.

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