The Young Lords’ Fight for Environmental Justice in NYC
In the summer of 1969, a group of activists launched a campaign to clean up their neighborhood in East Harlem. Presaging the national conversation about environmental issues that swept the nation in the wake of the first Earth Day, the Young Lords launched what they called a Garbage Offensive, which built on similar organizing efforts in the Lower East Side. A group of radical activists, primarily Puerto Rican, the Young Lords were revolutionaries looking to connect their politics to desperately needed reforms. Drawing their inspiration from a combination of the Vietnamese liberation struggle (the Garbage Offensive referencing the Tet Offensive of 1968) and the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords modeled their direct action organizing, community engagement, and their appearance on both. But in the heat of a Harlem summer, the Young Lords brought these sensibilities to bear on the environmental and health crises that were reaching a boiling point across the country.
While histories of the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s often focus on oil-stained beaches, birds falling silent in suburban backyards, and toxins in small-town drinking water, this only tells part of the story. With her book The Young Lords: A Radical History, Johanna Fernández offers glimpses of the environmental justice movement over a decade before it would be named as such. While the environmental concerns that gripped predominantly white, middle-class America are the ones associated with the rise of the environmental movement, the detritus, toxins, and diseases of postwar America became the target of marginalized, often Black, activists in urban centers.
As Fernández notes, the civil rights movement “set in motion an awakening of social consciousness wherein virtually no social issue escaped public scrutiny.” So while the civil rights and environmental movements are generally not united in mainstream academic understanding until the 1980s, if we look to the broader struggle against racism in the 1960s, we begin to see environmental issues embedded in civil rights struggles all over the country. The Young Lords give us one clear example.
Trash and Labor
While grappling with the problem of linking short-term goals with long-term change, the Young Lords encountered the crisis of garbage. Detritus-strewn streets—littered with trash, medical waste, abandoned cars, and appliances—were the main concern the residents of East Harlem expressed during door-to-door surveys conducted by the Young Lords. Neighbors worried about the lack of green space and the trash piled up in abandoned lots and quasi parks, which then forced kids into the streets and sidewalks to find a place to play. As Fernández notes, the neighborhoods they occupied were densely populated but filled with abandoned buildings and lots.
Looking at the history of the Young Lords as an example of environmental justice organizing helps us to see some otherwise hidden realities. First, while union support for Earth Day was widespread, members of the mostly white Sanitation Department, a unionized sector of New York City municipal services, were hostile to the neighborhoods’ demands for good sanitation and often exhibited racist attitudes and behavior towards the Latinx community there. The garbage collectors ignored the demands of the community put forward by members of the Young Lords, until the Lords responded with escalating action.
Gathering garbage, including larger abandoned items like cars and refrigerators, the Young Lords created barricades in busy intersections out of the trash they were forced to live with. When the police arrived, the Young Lords and those gathering the garbage melted away into the larger crowd, adopting a lesson from the Vietnamese liberation fighters who carried out attacks then blended in with the larger population. As with blockades and lawsuits that kicked off struggles against toxic dumping in the 1980s, this is another set of tactics to examine and understand as central to environmental justice struggles.
The Young Lords were persistent, working all summer to continue drawing attention to what they now dubbed the “Department of Garbage” for abandoning them, dumping on them, and showing how the city government, and the broader system, had abandoned Puerto Rican and Black communities in East Harlem. The Lords escalated the confrontation by setting fires to the garbage, reminding the local authorities of previous uprisings in Harlem and those rocking the nation over the previous two years. While Fernández notes that these protests were about much more than garbage, there was not yet a language to name what would become known as the environmental racism that these groups experienced. Instead, they talked about the abandonment and garbage being a particularly visible aspect of their experience of degradation by a racist system, thereby linking social and environmental struggles.
In a press release issued during the summer of 1969 following repeated actions, the Young Lords reminded the city that “the average life expectancy of Blacks and Puerto Ricans is seven years less than for white . . . [and] twenty-five percent of all housing in El Barrio is listed as deteriorated or dilapidated.” They used the attention their provocative actions drew to show the poor health of the community and the money and resources that existed but were never made available to them.
Through direct action, the Young Lords won real reforms and built their organization and reputation. They fought for concrete changes that led to a cleaner neighborhood, improvements in public health, and the confidence to continue the struggle and bring it to other related concerns. They included demands that built bridges to labor issues, smashing the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment, an issue that much of the environmental movement continues to struggle to articulate. Beyond the basics of demanding daily garbage pick-up, street cleaning, and public trash cans throughout the neighborhood, they demanded the hiring of Puerto Rican and Black workers and salary increases for garbage collectors. Facing racism from these same garbagemen (the profession was all men at the time), the Lords saw a way to build solidarity and move past the racism that was embedded in the union and among many union members. Beyond achieving many of the demands, the protests shifted the mayoral election, forcing a conversation on the issues of garbage collection and dumping in poor neighborhoods, especially those with large populations of people of color. The mayoral candidates outdid each other in calling for increased numbers of sanitation workers and programs to clean up neighborhoods.
Health and Community Care
Fernández goes beyond the Garbage Offensive and quotes Young Lord member Juan González connecting the issue of garbage with other public health concerns and to the larger struggle to change the whole economic and political system. González says, “The Garbage Offensive was critical in making it clear to us that we had to be involved in concrete issues that affected people’s daily lives; that you couldn’t just proselytize [about] revolution without having some kind of impact on the day-to-day lives of people. [That lesson was] carried over to the lead poisoning, tuberculosis, and our work in the hospitals.” Fernández explains that the Young Lords adopted the term “diseases of poverty” from the Cubans to refer to issues like lead poisoning and tuberculosis—both of which are also linked to environmental concerns. This connection between public health, poverty, and the environment offers a clear precursor to the environmental justice movements of the 1980s. Raising the specter of these “diseases of poverty” allowed the Young Lords to attack a concrete symptom of the much larger system of inequality that they aimed to change.
As Fernández demonstrates, the Young Lords show us “how racism exacerbated the crisis of sanitation and medical care in East Harlem; in calling attention to environmental racism and medical discrimination, they had linked civil rights to public health in New York.” The Young Lords developed a Ten-Point Health Program, another document inspired by the Black Panthers, which should be a central document for consideration by environmental historians as an early example of environmental justice demands. The Ten-Point Health Program calls for community control of the local hospital, its budget, and its operations, all with a focus on serving the poor. Broadening demands to include publicly funded healthcare, the Lords also included a call for community-based care, with teams that went neighborhood by neighborhood to deal with public health concerns and illness prevention.
Holding a forum to decide on the ten points, a low-paid medical worker noted the importance of listening to the needs of underpaid staff at the area hospitals. Quickly adopting this point, the Lords made common cause with the broader community, whose interests all intersected. Once again the Young Lords united the divides between environmental issues, labor concerns, and fighting racism. Through calls for environmental justice, they linked the needs of the oppressed and the worker together, which were often, of course, one and the same. This brought different groups of people together organically to discuss demands and make their needs understood in order to build a stronger coalition to win change.
To achieve these demands, the Young Lords occupied offices at hospitals, a tactic well understood in today’s post–Occupy Wall Street world. Their door-to-door lead poisoning surveys stood in for a city that refused to act in a clear epidemic. We see this lack of government action most visibly today in Flint, but the problem of lead poisoning and water contamination is much more widespread, and present-day activists could benefit from reviewing the Young Lords’ tactics. The Young Lords made public health political. They didn’t just bring the lead and TB tests to people’s doors—they also came bearing an ambitious political project for change.
The Young Lords forced the city to act. The data collected from the door-to-door lead testing was damning. The city had to either do their own study to try to disprove the Young Lords’ findings or propose a program to address the crisis. The “Lead Offensive,” as it was called, got the goods. As Fernández notes, although they were “not the only group that tried to bring attention to the issue of lead poisoning in the city, [the Young Lords’] bold and determined approach to the problem . . . attracted media attention and . . . exposed and shamed local government into action.” They won new legislation requiring landlords to remove the lead, and in 1974 the American Journal of Public Health recognized the activism of the Young Lords as central to achieving these reforms in New York.
There are more lessons here, especially in health organizing. The group hijacked a mobile TB unit and, with the assistance of its operators, tested hundreds of East Harlem residents in a single day. Through this action, they won the right to operate the mobile unit all day, all week, at the expense of the city. This kind of bold action and organizing should be part of the basic understanding of the early days of environmental justice activism. We need to highlight this work, especially because it is not often named as environmental organizing. Fernández convincingly argues that we have to look beyond “racial discrimination and exclusion, narrowly defined” in the civil rights era so we can see “the myriad of social and economic issues that animated activists of color in cities across the nation, especially those outside the South.”
The Environmental Aspect of the Civil Rights Struggle
There is a desperate need to consider the environmental aspect—which is social, economic, and political—of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. As Fernández shows, “The Young Lords’ efforts and those of the larger health rights movement challenged common conceptions of what organizers of color stood and fought for and won in the age of black power and civil rights.” While Fernández’s book is a much larger history of the Young Lords, and these environmental questions only take up a small portion of the book, it is crucial that environmental historians read and engage with this and similar work done by other scholars in order to expand our understanding of the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Young Lords’ work on issues of public health and access to a clean environment should be seen as central to the environmental movement and a building block for the struggles that would follow.
Featured image: The Young Lords march to the U.N. in 1970 carrying the flag of Puerto Rico. Photo by Jesse Steve Rose, 1970. From the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Erik Wallenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation examines the portrayal of environmental crises, politics, and science in activist theater in the US across the twentieth century. He has a BS in environmental studies and an MA in history, both from the University of Vermont. He is acquisitions editor at Science for the People. Contact.