by Andy Piascik
As Puerto Rico began to more acutely experience the economic ravages of colonialism in the years after the Second World War, more and more people from the island began migrating en el norte. Though most settled in the nation’s largest cities, Bridgeport was also a popular landing point. In fact, since the 1960’s, Puerto Ricans have made up a larger percentage of Bridgeport’s population than New York City’s. Statewide, Puerto Ricans have for many years been a larger percentage of Connecticut’s population than any other state and remain so today.
The founders of the Young Lords Party, which began as the Young Lords Organization in the winter of 1968-69, were young Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York. Some in Chicago were members of street gangs who got politicized around the oppressive conditions their people confronted, particularly police brutality. They became part of the original Rainbow Coalition that included the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, a Chicano group called the Brown Berets, a group of Asian-Americans called I Wor Kuen and several groups of radical, white working class youths.
In 1970, a Bridgeport organization called Spanish People in Command joined with the Young Lords to form the local YLP branch, the group’s fifth. There were approximately 15,000 Puerto Ricans in Bridgeport at the time, roughly ten percent of the city’s population. The YLP underscored the significance of the move in its bilingual newspaper Pa’lante, noting that the establishment of the Bridgeport branch “was very important because it was the first time the Party opened in a small, working class city.”
One of the Bridgeport branch’s first projects was the establishment of a Free Breakfast for Children program at St. Mary’s Church on Pembroke Street. Patterned on similar efforts by the Black Panthers (who also had a chapter in Bridgeport), children were provided free breakfast before school. In addition, the Lords helped launch a tenants association and rent strike at 381-387-393 East Main Street in December, 1970 when tenants were forced to endure five consecutive freezing days and nights without heat. It was also at that site that the branch opened its local office.
Throughout its history, the Bridgeport chapter did international solidarity work including in opposition to the war in Vietnam and U.S. imperial domination of Puerto Rico. When the YLP organized actions around the country on March 21, 1971 to mark the 34th anniversary of the Ponce Massacre in which 22 island nationalists were killed by colonial forces, the Bridgeport branch held a demonstration in Washington Park. Bridgeport members and supporters also participated in a number of national actions such as a 10,000-strong demonstration at the United Nations in New York on October 30, 1971 demanding independence for Puerto Rico.
On May 20, 1971 tensions that had been growing between the Lords and the people they were organizing on the one hand, and slumlords and Bridgeport police on the other, boiled over. With the East Main Street rent strike still ongoing, the owners of the property attempted to evict the YLP from its office. Local leader Willie Matos was arrested for trespassing, the office was trashed and furniture was illegally removed in the presence of Bridgeport police officers. An enraged group of several hundred supporters took to the streets and began throwing rocks at the police and the agents of the landlord.
Protesters blockaded a block of East Main and more people were arrested. Police patrolled the area with police dogs and officers armed with shotguns perched atop patrol cars. The events were covered extensively in Pa’lante as well as in the Bridgeport Post and Bridgeport Telegram. Upon being released from prison after his arrest, Matos said, “This is the beginning of community power. We are sick and tired of police brutality.”
When a fire at one of the properties on East Main Street where the rent strike had occurred resulted in the death of a six-year old girl in early 1972, the YLP and its supporters began weekly picketing at the Lafayette Shopping Center in downtown. The purpose was to pressure business and political elites to deal with tenants’ demands by boycotting stores in the recently opened mall. Five people including several Lords were arrested at the mall on May 6, 1972.
The Bridgeport branch also worked with other city organizations to address the problem of layoffs and unemployment, which by 1972 had reached crisis levels. One venue was the Committee of Unemployed Workers, established in August, 1972. Earlier that summer, the branch initiated a conference to establish a statewide organization of Puerto Rican migrant workers held at the Disciples of Christ Church on East Washington Avenue. The branch also opened a bookstore when it moved its office to a space on Crescent Place.
Throughout its history, the YLP and its successor group, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, were closely monitored by the FBI. It was also investigated by the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, which was chaired by the notorious white supremacist James Eastland. In addition, a number of members were indicted and imprisoned for refusing to register for the military draft and several members around the country were killed by police. In part because of this harassment, the organization went into decline. The Bridgeport branch was one of four remaining when the group ceased to exist in 1976.
Many who had been members of the Young Lords have carried on its work, including Matos, who for many years worked for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and in activist groups in Bridgeport such as the Spanish American Coalition and Vieques Support Committee. Some went into academia while Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, Pablo Guzman and Geraldo Rivera, among others, have carved out distinguished careers in journalism, prompting long-time New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin to say that the Young Lords produced more great journalists than Columbia University’s journalism school.
The appearance of a number of recent books, documentary films and several photo exhibits has stimulated renewed interest in the Young Lords. This is only fitting, as the issues the Lords grappled with – substandard housing, racial oppression and inequality, police brutality, widespread poverty amidst great wealth – are with us more than ever.