A Young Lords Fiesta: The Threat of a Good Example
On a recent episode of our weekly radio show History is Revolting, we discussed the events of August 23, 1969, when the Young Lords attempted to hold an “open house” and street festival at the People’s Church, their headquarters in Lincoln Park, Chicago. The group wanted to celebrate the opening of a free community daycare center that they planned to operate out of the church’s basement. Instead of granting the Young Lords a permit to close off the street to hold a block party, the city responded by dispatching hundreds of police and a helicopter that circled overhead.
We present here some background information and a brief narrative about the events of that day, along with links to some interesting primary source materials. To listen to the episode, click here or scroll to the bottom of this post.
The Young Lords Organization
The Young Lords began as a street-gang in 1959 in the Puerto Rican sections of Lincoln Park, Chicago. By the end of the 1960s this street group had transformed into the Young Lords Organization (YLO), a growing national political body allied with and modeled after the Black Panther Party. Young Lords activists set about to construct a new world. Their revolutionary ideals were manifest through their rhetoric and actions. No longer committing petty crimes and fighting over turf with other street groups, Young Lords members were serving the community, calling for the independence of Puerto Rico, publishing a monthly newspaper, leading street marches, and engaging in militant direct-action protest.
The People’s Church
(Some of the text in this section is reprinted from an earlier blog post.) Faced with a declining membership and lack of operating funds, the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church had for years rented out its basement space to the city government. At this location the city operated an Urban Progress Center, a place for Lincoln Park’s poor and working-class people to obtain food stamps and other forms of public assistance. At some point (around 1967) the city government moved this center west into the Humboldt Park area. Young Lords Chairman José “Cha Cha” Jiménez later characterized this move as part of the effort to push Puerto Ricans out of Lincoln Park. “[Puerto Ricans] hadn’t moved yet,” he explained in an interview, laughing, “but [city leaders] thought they’d have to move, because Puerto Ricans would follow the food stamps.” (Jiménez interviewed by Mike, 2014)
In early 1969 the Young Lords first approached members of the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church and requested permission to use the facility’s basement space for a number of proposed community service programs. The church housed two small congregations. One group consisted largely of older progressive whites. The other was made up mostly of exiled Cubans who had fled the island in the wake of the 1959 revolution. The Young Lords had already used the church for some of its events, and its members had already gained the support of key church leaders. Yet the group faced significant resistance from members of the Cuban congregation who were opposed to these “communists” taking over the church. Unable to reach an agreement, Young Lords members grew increasingly impatient. On Wednesday, June 11, 1969, a group of Young Lords members decided to take action. Reasoning that the church’s basement space should serve the needs of poor people in the community rather than sit empty, they seized the building. This was done without consulting Jiménez, who was surprised when he learned what had transpired.
In response, Jiménez quickly held a press-conference during which he promised that the church would remain open and religious activities would be allowed to continue unimpaired. He even pledged that Young Lords members would be in attendance during the following Sunday’s worship service. Jiménez also affirmed that the Young Lords would continue to occupy the site, which would henceforth serve as the home for the group’s proposed community programs. The following day the Young Lords began registering children for a free community daycare center.
Some church members (especially among the Cubans) were against the occupation and left the church in opposition shortly afterwards. However, the Young Lords received significant support from key church leaders. Perhaps most important was the backing of the church’s young pastor, Reverend Bruce Johnson, and his wife Eugenia Johnson. Informed of the occupation shortly after it began, police officers were soon dispatched to the church. In an effort to avoid a confrontation (and over the objections of certain church members), Rev. Johnson assured the police that the Young Lords had permission to use the space.
Afterwards, Bruce and Eugenia Johnson worked to educate the congregation about the Young Lords movement. Together with a number of supportive church members, they also helped the Young Lords to develop their community service programs. Operating in the church basement, and modeled after the efforts of the Black Panthers, these “survival programs” included a free breakfast for children program, a free community daycare center, and a free community health clinic.
At some point during the summer of 1969, a Chicana artist named Felícitas Nuñez led a group of artists in painting a number of murals throughout the exterior and interior of the People’s Church. A large image of the island of Puerto Rico, overlaid with a raised rifle clasped in an outstretched hand, carrying the words “Tengo Puerto Rico En Mi Corazón” (Puerto Rico Is In My Heart), stood brightly above one of the church’s entrances. Other murals included a pantheon of revolutionary heroes from throughout Latin America and around the world, such as the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Puerto Rican nationalist heroes such as Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón, and Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, among others.
A new symbol—a cross bursting the chains of bondage—was soon displayed inside the church, and a new creed appeared at the church door. It read: “We have a dream. This Church, led by the community, confronting the powers which limit our destiny, keeping rulers responsible, assisting man to claim his destiny and celebrating in worship the birth of that power is our dream of a People’s Church. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that each man is of worth as a special creation of God. And Christ’s resurrection means that there is no power or establishment which can control a man who claims his own dignity. This is your faith & your Church. Claim them both and join us in this dream.”
Tragically, in late September 1969, Reverend Bruce Johnson and Eugenia Johnson were brutally stabbed to death inside of their home in front of their two young children. While the police never solved these crimes, Young Lords leaders suspected that the murders were politically motivated—retribution for support the couple had given to their movement—writing in the Young Lords newspaper shortly afterwards: “these murders show to what vicious lengths the ruling class will go to prevent the growth of our just struggle.”
The Young Lords Free Community Daycare Center
The Young Lords Organization (YLO) had planned to host a street festival and open house on August 23, 1969, as a way to celebrate the launching of their proposed free community daycare center. A city building inspectors visited the People’s Church shortly before this date, however, and he told the group that the free daycare center would not yet be allowed to open.
The Young Lords printed an account of this visit in the pages of its newspaper:
“[The building inspector] told the YLO and the church’s minister, Bruce Johnson, that if they tried to open the center there would be trouble…The city said that the center was in violation of the city building code. Three broken floor tiles were a violation. The ceiling was a violation because it was too high. The rooms were violations because they were partially below street level…In short, everything was a violation. The city forced Bruce Johnson into court because of these violations. As one YLO member said, ‘We were violations to the system the day we were born. The idea of poor people running and benefiting by their own day care center is a violation of city purpose and policy.’”
Johnson and the Young Lords were determined to open the free community daycare center, despite threats that the city would fine the church up to two hundred dollars a day for the violations. Fighting these charges required Johnson to make numerous visits to court. The daycare center did eventually open, although it did so surreptitiously in order to avoid invoking fines. The YLO newspaper later proclaimed that Bruce Johnson and his wife Eugenia Johnson were, “friends and partners in the struggle to open up the day care center at the People’s Church…[who] stood up for what was right…in the face of pressure and threats…and continued to defend us from attacks from the police, the alderman and other politicians.”
The Young Lords Street Festival
While the city was not yet going to allow the Young Lords to open their free daycare center to open, the Young Lords continued with the plan to host an “open house” in its honor. While the group had made some effort to secure a permit, the event was met with resistance from the city. On the day of the festival hundreds of police officers amassed in front of the church, as well as three blocks away in the parking lot of Waller High School. A police helicopter flew overhead. As the YLO later wrote in their newspaper, “Thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money was wasted to keep Latins and others in the community from having a day of fun.”
While the Young Lords had originally asked 43rd Ward Alderman George Barr McCutcheon to help them obtain a permit for the festival, the permit application was later withdrawn by McCutcheon’s office.
Acclaimed radio journalist Studs Terkel arrived at the scene in front of the church with his microphone and tape recorder in hand. Terkel interviewed several Young Lords members as well as Alderman MCutcheon, who was standing across the street from the church. These interviews later became part of an audio documentary titled “Fiesta: A Chicago Happening.”
The documentary begins with an animated Cha Cha Jimenez describing the situation to Terkel:
“First they told us that we couldn’t have the picnic at all, and I told them, you know, ‘go to hell.’ So then they came back and one of the guys tells me we could have the picnic if we kept the people on the sidewalk…and I told him, ‘go to hell,’ two times. We’re going to have the picnic on the sidewalk, on the street, wherever we want it.”
Terkel then asked McCutcheon to explain why the permit had not been issued. McCutcheon replied that the YLO had engendered the ire of its Lincoln Park neighbors and had not secured the necessary signatures and sponsors. He also suggested that the YLO should simply hold their festival elsewhere. Referring to the People’s Park, a vacant urban renewal site located just a block away that YLO and other activists had recently taken over, McCutcheon said: “They have the park right over here, which they have created for themselves…they don’t have to have [the festival] right here.”
Throughout the afternoon, police officials insisted that the street remain open for traffic, and they enforced this order with two long phalanxes of police officers lining each side of the street. After a brief but intense showdown, the YLO and the police reached a guarded detente.
Listen to Studs Terkel’s audio documentary titled “Fiesta: A Chicago Happening” (below) to hear interviews with Cha Cha Jimenez, Ald. McCutcheon, and others. Click here for both audio and a full written transcript:
Tempers Flare and Cooler Heads Prevail
The Young Lords and their guests mostly kept to the sidewalks throughout the afternoon. However tensions flared later in the afternoon after police officers arrested Young Lords member Cosmoe Torres, who was carrying a canister of gasoline and was on his way to refill the gas powered electric generators that were powering the festival. As the crowd began to confront the police, more officers in riot gear suddenly appeared. Several more arrests were made after some people began throwing bottles at the police, and this only further agitated the crowd.
Further conflict was averted however because of the intervention of the Young Lords, as well as the conciliatory actions of Deputy Superintendent Wilbur Parker, who had just arrived on the scene to assume command of the police operation. Wanting both to avoid violence and to rescue those in police custody, Young Lords Field Marshall David Rivera told Parker that if he were to release Torres and the others in police custody, the Young Lords would keep the crowd under control. Parker surprised everyone by not only agreeing to these terms, but by offering a generous counter proposal. If the Young Lords agreed to end the party at 11pm and clean up the street afterwards, Parker said the police would allow the group to hold its festival in the middle of the street as originally planned. (Rivera interviewed by Mike, 2016)
Alderman McCutcheon begrudgingly accepted these terms, reportedly remarking that at least “the point had been made that you just can’t take over a street without a permit.” At about 7:15 pm the YLO and its supporters took over the street, staying out until slightly after the agreed upon curfew. The YLO newspaper reported: “The celebration was tremendous. People stayed on the street dancing until nearly midnight. Then they completely cleaned the area.”
The Threat of a Good Example
In our on-air discussion of these events we tried to understand the resistance from city and community leaders (e.g. Ald. McCutcheon, developers, members of the Lincoln Park Conservation Society, etc.) to allowing the Young Lords to hold this event. Joe postulated that perhaps their resistance can best be understood in relation to what they saw as “the threat of a good example.”
Joe: “There is this phrase, the threat of a good example…It is similar to what happens now or has happened many times over the last couple of years where activists who for instance like hand out free food to homeless folks or houseless folks are harassed, denied permits, etc. etc., basically, and you could speculate for why, but my thinking is, you know, is this just a phenomena where the state, or perhaps more accurate to say just ‘the establishment,’ those with power, they don’t want the threat of a good example. They don’t want this grassroots, as Cha Cha said, revolutionary Puerto Rican organization, to be able to simply function publicly and hold these mass public events. And it is the threat of a good example. They don’t want the community to be organizing itself, and to be empowering itself, because once it does then the government and the rich are revealed for being just in the way, and not really playing this important function that they sort of think that they are playing. So that’s kind of the lens through which I interpret this. I mean obviously there is straight up hostility, but…they are not hostile to this event because they think the Young Lords are, you know maybe what they would publicly say is ‘oh these are these dangerous radicals,’ but I don’t think they think that these guys are actually dangerous in the sense of like being violent or something. Its more just as I said the threat of a good example, the threat of a public, fun, functional, educational, cultural gathering…They are coming in with cops imposing this spectacle on it, and yeah its the same thing they did to the Panthers…”