Once a street gang, then a political collective, the Young Lords celebrate 50 years with a symposium at DePaul | Feature | Chicago Reader

Once a street gang, then a political collective, the Young Lords celebrate 50 years with a symposium at DePaul 

"We're not from Humboldt Park or Lincoln Park, we're Puerto Ricans."

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click to enlarge A march to the 18th District police station - SUN-TIMES NEGATIVE COLLECTION
  • A march to the 18th District police station
  • Sun-Times Negative Collection

Students Confront DePaul," reads the headline from a news brief in the first issue of Y.L.O., the official newsletter of the Young Lords, the Chicago-based Puerto Rican political organization. The item, from March 1969, describes a forum held at DePaul University to discuss the school's role in gentrifying the neighborhood. As the Y.L.O. put it, DePaul was "depriving the poor people of the area of housing and driving them out" of Lincoln Park.

The university has played a sizable role in the changing landscape of Lincoln Park, dating at least from Mayor Richard J. Daley's 1950s-era plan to reshape the city into segregated neighborhoods primed for development. This September, DePaul is once again facilitating a dialogue about the gentrification of Lincoln Park by hosting the Young Lords 50th Anniversary Symposium. The three-day event, held September 21 through 23, will commemorate the organization's founding in 1968 through panel discussions, workshops, and, on September 23, a cultural celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of El Grito de Lares (aka the Lares Rebellion), the Puerto Ricans' first major revolt against Spanish colonial rule. It was on this holiday 50 years ago that the Young Lords chose to announce their transformation from a street gang to a political organization focused on self-determination for Puerto Rico and empowerment for the people of the neighborhood.

The transformation was spearheaded by José "Cha-Cha" Jiménez, an original member of the Lincoln Park gang. Like many of Chicago's gang-affiliated youth at the time, Jiménez was in and out of jail, often for drug-related offenses. It was during one stint in solitary confinement, at what was then known as the Chicago House of Corrections (it's now part of Cook County Jail), during the summer of 1968 that Jiménez became politicized, thanks to a black Muslim man who was the prison librarian. Jiménez began learning about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. Their quest for social justice—and the Panthers in particular—sparked his interest.

click to enlarge José "Cha-Cha" Jiménez - SUN-TIMES NEGATIVE COLLECTION
  • José "Cha-Cha" Jiménez
  • Sun-Times Negative Collection

"When I got out, I wanted to change my life," Jiménez says. "I wanted to build a movement. At first I thought of leaving the Young Lords, but then I decided: No, it's better just to stay with the Young Lords and try to work and teach some of them. That's how we became political."

Jiménez admits that the reorganization wasn't easy. There was much infighting about the group's future, but in the end, after he educated his fellow members about housing issues in the neighborhood, they agreed to refocus their mission on fighting Mayor Daley's racist campaign to push them from their community.

Over the next several years, the Young Lords made important inroads in their effort to empower the barrios. In May 1969, the Lords made headlines when they commandeered the McCormick Theological Seminary administration building on Fullerton (which was later acquired by DePaul). Along with local Latino community members, the Lords demanded that the seminary invest in low-income housing and provide a free health clinic and a people's law office. These demands were met, at least for a time.

"The Young Lords took that building over as a statement, obviously, to the institutions of this neighborhood," says Jacqueline Lazú, a DePaul professor of Spanish and the chair of the upcoming symposium. "They targeted institutions like McCormick and DePaul and even the hospital at the time, as institutions that they felt really had a moral and ethical obligation to address the issues that affected the community that surrounded them. I think they felt that these institutions that were bound by a mission statement that included caring for the poor—that they were trying to hold them accountable for their role in either stopping or reinforcing the systems that were displacing these communities."

That June they led a march of 10,000 people along Division Street in the city's annual Puerto Rican parade, carrying signs commemorating Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the pro-independence leader of Puerto Rico's Nationalist Party, who had died in 1965. This was one of Chicago's first marches for self-determination for Puerto Rico, and it was a turning point for the city's sizable Puerto Rican population, which at the time numbered about 79,000 residents in a city of 3.3 million. As the Young Lords website puts it, the population—much of which had already been displaced from "La Clark" and "La Madison" to make way for Carl Sandburg Village and UIC—was "census undocumented and politically powerless."

The Young Lords seized control of another local institution that June, the United Methodist Church on Armitage Avenue. The members had been in negotiations with the church to rent unused space for social programs. But those negotiations broke down due to the discomfort some Cuban exiles in the congregation had with working with a radical political organization that viewed Che Guevara as an inspiration. After the takeover, some of these congregants alerted the police, who quickly came to the scene. Jiménez credits the church's minister, Reverend Bruce Johnson, with preventing a "bloodbath" that day. Johnson, who was sympathetic toward the Lords, told the police the group had permission to be there. (Johnson and his wife, Eugenia Ransier Johnson , were mysteriously found slain in their home that September, a case that has never been solved.) The Young Lords renamed the building the People's Church, and by the following day had set up a day care, a health clinic, and a free breakfast program. Working together with the church, they operated out of the building rent-free for about a year. Eventually, between near-constant arrests of Jiménez and requests by the city to bring the day care and clinic up to code, the Young Lords closed the office.

One of the group's greatest legacies is arguably its participation in the original Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial working-class liberation movement. The coalition was started in 1968 by Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He invited the Young Lords and the Young Patriots—a white, working-class organizing group based in Uptown—to join forces in fighting the Daley machine. Jiménez was already well acquainted with Hampton, as the two would often attend the same political actions. He recalls being arrested alongside Hampton during an action to support unionization of the staff at the Wicker Park Welfare Office.

"I would go with Fred Hampton to speaking engagements," Jiménez says. "That had an influence on me, because he's studying and at the same time he's running the movement. He was going to classes, and in between classes he was doing speeches. So I was watching him, how he spoke. He had a plan and he was confident in what he was doing. That impacted me a lot."

Lazú stresses the historical significance of the Rainbow Coalition (not to be confused with Jesse Jackson's group of the same name, which wasn't founded until 1984). "They became a very powerful gesture of solidarity, arguably one of the most important coalitions of people of color and poor people coming together across racial lines here in Chicago, which of course is a highly segregated city," she says. "That was a moment in time when that was challenged in a very important way."

Establishing alliances across ideological differences is no small feat. But the coalition is all the more notable for succeeding despite the efforts of the FBI to hinder its progress. The militant organizations involved in the coalition were the targets of COINTELPRO, a covert FBI initiative that sought to infiltrate and destroy radical political groups, which were considered a threat to national security. Jiménez recalls being arrested 18 times over a six-week period in 1969, resulting in constant court appearances.

Bobby Lee, the BPP's north-side field marshal, said in a 2017 interview that it seemed like the government's repression of the Panthers began in earnest when they started forming coalitions across racial lines. "Once the party departed from the 'hate whitey' trip and got serious about building real politics, we were a threat—plain and simple," Lee said. "The FBI were always watching us. But the Rainbow Coalition was their worst nightmare. It was Daley's worst nightmare too."

COINTELPRO had dire effects on the political struggles of the 1960s and '70s, and not just on an organizational level. In December 1969, FBI officers raided Hampton's Chicago apartment and killed Hampton and fellow BPP member Mark Clark. When the police failed to secure the crime scene, the Young Lords provided security for the Panthers, who opened the apartment for public viewing.

The BPP's legacy will also be honored at the DePaul symposium, with a discussion on the Rainbow Coalition led by Elaine Brown, the former minister of information and chairwoman of the Black Panther Party.

click to enlarge A march to the 18th District police station - SUN-TIMES NEGATIVE COLLECTION
  • A march to the 18th District police station
  • Sun-Times Negative Collection

Although the Young Lords are no longer in the spotlight, Jiménez insists that the movement is still alive. He describes it as a skeleton crew that remains committed to the cause. "Some of them say they're former Young Lords," he says. "What I tell them is, 'Every organization has a mission, and our mission has not been achieved yet, so you can't call yourself a former Young Lord when you haven't freed Puerto Rico, or you haven't empowered the people in the barrios.'"

The members are still in touch, and many continue to do community-oriented work. Jiménez points to Luis Tony Báez, who now serves on the Milwaukee Public Schools board, and Juan González, who is a cohost of Democracy Now! Jiménez himself has had a varied career since the Young Lords' heyday. In 1973 he ran for alderman in the 46th Ward, eventually garnering 39 percent of the vote. He later worked as a youth counselor, based on his previous success transforming a gang into a political movement. In 2013, Jiménez earned his bachelor's degree at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where he now lives. While a student, he put together an impressive archive of the Young Lords and Lincoln Park, conducting more than 110 interviews. He sees all this work as connected to the Young Lords' mission, and to his own personal goal of keeping the memory alive.

"That's why we have this event coming up," he says. Although for Jiménez, collaborating with DePaul is a mixed blessing. "It's not easy," he says. "DePaul is still a gentrifier. But Latino faculty are there, and a lot of progressive people. DePaul decided to support us, and we're very grateful for that."

The Young Lords' relationship with the university started in the mid-1990s, when they approached DePaul's library and Center for Latino Research to discuss archiving the movement's history. Young Lords print materials and other ephemera are now housed in the library's special collections department. Several items, such as historical photographs and copies of the Y.L.O. newsletter, will be on display at the symposium.

Since then, the relationship has continued. DePaul previously hosted a commemoration of the Young Lords' 40th anniversary. With the 50th anniversary coming up, it made sense for the Young Lords to coordinate with the school once again.

One event that Jiménez looks forward to is a walking tour of Lincoln Park that Young Lords members will lead on Saturday morning. "People are trying to cover up this history, and they shouldn't do that," he says, noting that there's now a Walgreens where the People's Church used to be. "That's the worst mistake. There's a lot of lessons to be learned. You know, gentrification is still occuring today. 'Gentrification' is a sweet term, that's a natural process. This is not a natural process. This was segregation, this was planned by City Hall."

Looking around Lincoln Park today, it's easily apparent that Daley's vision has been fulfilled. His Chicago 21 plan sought to expand downtown and stave off middle-class white flight. In practice, this meant pushing the neighborhood's Latino families west toward Humboldt Park. "Although Lincoln Park never became majority-minority, it developed closely knit Latino fabrics of self-help and struggle," University of Illinois professor John Betancur wrote in 2011 in the journal Urban Studies. Residents of gentrified Chicago neighborhoods said they "had the same values and aspirations as the middle class" but lacked the resources and, more importantly, the public investment. "They spoke of the deleterious impacts gentrification had on racial/ethnic groups as it evinced their fabrics via displacement, harassment, institutional encroachment or (racist/classist) electoral politics," Betancur wrote, "forcing them into locations without the social infrastructures their conditions require."

Jiménez mourns all that was lost in Lincoln Park. "It used to be diverse," he says. "The Latinos and African-Americans and people like that are just workers. They don't live there anymore. The policies of the city were racist, were segregationist.

"Lincoln Park is a very good example of segregation," he continues. "It's a beautiful place. We love beauty too, but it's not for us. We're for that, for the people that are going to own houses and stuff like that, but we had a community there. A community that was completely displaced. The first large Puerto Rican community in the history of Chicago. That history was in Lincoln Park.

"But you know, we're not from Humboldt Park or Lincoln Park, we're Puerto Ricans," he says, gaining steam. "People need to realize that. Just like people say the New York Young Lords and the Chicago Young Lords—no, we're Puerto Ricans. We're fighting for Puerto Rico. We're fighting for our people and our community. So this event is about all that. It's not just about Puerto Ricans. It's about Latinos, it's about oppressed people, it's about progressive people, it's about Black Lives Matter today, it's about everything that's going on. It's a connection. It's a protracted struggle. It's called unite the many to defeat the few—that's how we're gonna win."

He stops himself. "But anyway, I'm on my soapbox. I don't want to do that."   v

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