Radical Healthcare Pt4: The Young Lords: Health Activism and Militancy

The Young Lords Party (YLP) were a Latino political and social action movement which existed in 1969-72 in the United States. Jose ( Cha-Cha) Jimenez was one of the founders of the Young Lords Organisation -a street gang- which later turned into the YLP, a community organisation . A frequenter of jails, Jimenez’s encounters with members of the Black Panther Party members in such insitutions inspired an organisational shift. He became determined to replicate the self-defense tactics of the BPP for Puerto-Rican and Latino communities in the shift to the Young Lords Party, and move away from gang warfare and drugs. A key feature of this self defense was the reclamation of community healthcare facilities and initiatives

Their first chapter was located in Chicago, later spreading to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I will be focusing on chapter in New York in this post. The New York chapter’s top priority was sanitation and quality of health. There were major problems facing the largely Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx: lead paint in buildings, streets piled with garbage, pest infestations and the ‘butcher shop’ of Lincoln hospital which served the area.

The fight for the health of their community, as also viewed by the BPP, was pitched by the Young Lords as the forefront of the battle for social change. However, what set the Young Lords apart were their militant tactics to draw public attention to the plight of Latino communities, and their success in enacting change through such endeavours- indicative of their origins as a street gang.

The Young Lord’s Ten Point Health Program

The Garbage Offensive

One of the first initiatives of the YLP was the garbage offensive. Mounds of garbage lining the streets of East Harlem were set fire to in an attempt to dramatise and publisise the lac of sanitation services in East Harlem. This is a typical example of their tactics, with the intent to raise public awarenes and place pressure on city officials to insigate the changes they were demanding. Other community groups in New York also began their own garbage initiatives giving the Young Lords credibility.

The Lincoln Offensive

Lincoln Hospital, known locally as the butcher house, was run by Albert Einstein Medical school, was a teaching and training site alongside the primary care giving insitution available to the communtiy of East Harlem. The poor were used as guinea pigs; the case of Carmen Rodriguez a Puerto Rican woman, whose death as a result of medical negligence occured shortly after the Lincoln Offensive, highlighted the substandard level of care provided by the hospital and how the medical-industrial complex of which it was part of did not serve the community. Furthermore, funding cuts, poor infrastructural upkeep and high lead content in the wards of the paediatric and nursery walls meant influenced the direct action the Young Lords undertook to bring attention to struggles being waged by organistaions such as Think Lincoln.

‘the difference between capitalist medicine and socialist medicine, between medicine which oppresses the people and medicine which serves the people’

From the newspaper Young Lords Organisation, January 1970, volume 1, number 5

In a move for community control, on July 14th 1970 150-200 militant led by the Young Lords, wearing white coats to avoid suspicion, occupied the Nurses Residence of Lincoln Hospital. They occupied the hospital for the whole day, setting up screening clinics for anaemia, lead poisoning, and tubercolosis, a day care centre and a classroom for political and health education.

Plans for building a new hospital were begun and a new Lincoln Hospital was opened in 1976. However the goal of establishing community boards for health institutions was never met.

The Lead Offensive

Furthermore, lead poisoning was a major issue in such communities with African and Latino children having 8 times higher lead levels than their White counterparts at the time. The dangers lead have been known for a long time, records trace as far back as the Roman times- it’s neglect affecting Puerto Rican’s was purposeful and the YLP termed a tactic of the American states ‘genocide’ of their people. Lead poisioning leads to long term neurological, behavioural and psychological problems.

The YLP targeted neglectful landlords, put measures in place for surveilance and detection of lead poisioning in children. The also organised a sit in from which they obtained 200 urinary lead detection tests to enable them to conduct door to door screening campaign- teaming up with radical doctors to get trainign for such an intitive. This comprehensive approach to the problem of lead poisoning was both a service to their community and to their publicity goals, the latter of which leading to the obtainment of further provision for their work.

Tuberculosis Initiative

Tubercolosis is known as the ‘disease of oppression’. Individuals are more likely to be infected if they have poor nutrition, poor venitlation in their homes, or travel/have contact with people who have traveled from countries with high TB rates. With adequate screening and treatment, the impact of the disease could be lessened. These measures were being neglected by the City’s administration as levels of TB were high in the South Bronx Community.

The New York City Department of Health had leased a moblie truck to come to high risk communities ro proived X rays. However the hours which it arrived, on alternate weekdays from 12pm-6pm, excluded the working members of the community from being able access it.

The Lords hijacked the truck on June 17th 1970. Within several hours of the seizure they were given permision to operate the truck for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The YLP gained respect from health officials and community members. Progressive physicians aided them in obtaining testing materials and training members of the party how to use them in order to provide community care.

Concluding Thoughts

Militancy is often equivocated with terrorism in our society. However the adage ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ holds true in the case of the Young Lords. An organisation which began as a street gang, utilised their militant tactics to gain public attention to mobilise social change. When a system is constructed to oppress you, why should you adhere to it to change things? It doesn’t make sense. To instigate radical change, pulling away from conventional power structures with an organisational goal for social justice as the perpetual target can reap benefits. The situation has changed since the 1970s, with the further entrenchment of the Medical-Industrial Complex (stay tuned for a post on that) in the American health system, yet the barriers felt by Puerto Ricans due to racial prejudice and poverty, which kept them from obtaining basic necessities such met healthcare needs, still abound albeit in new garments. Is there still a case for a new iteration of militant medical advocacy in a system whose interest in profit increasingly surpasses that for the preservation of health for the most marginalised groups in society?



Click to access culctr_events_healthcare0310_%20horvath_paper.pdf



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