some friends and i are looking for films to screen at our next organizing event and i just finished watching “Palante Siempre Palante” a documentary by Iris Morales on the rise and fall of the Young Lords.  the Young Lords Organization was mainly a Puerto Rican group in the late 60s/early 70s that spread like a wild fire across the east coast.  they were a part of that generation of people of color who took a militant and international approach to fighting white supremacy and US Empire.

it’s a great documentary that touches on key political questions of the era.  a definite recommendation.  it’s a kind of rare and hard to find, though.  i hope the film makers work on making it more widely available.

black 'n' brown in revolt

black 'n' brown in revolt

the relevance of the Young Lords Organization to the discussion on this blog can be found in the origins and organizing methods of the New York chapter.

the YLO began in Chicago under the leadership of Cha Cha Jimenez, and alongside discussions with the Black Panther Party.  after media coverage of a church occupation, a group of young Puerto Ricans in New York went to Chicago to meet Cha Cha, and when they returned they established the New York chapter of the organization.  before going to Chicago, though, these young organizers were asking themselves all of the burning questions of the time:  why are our neighborhoods neglected by the city?  why do people of color get the least pay and the hardest jobs?  how does the struggle of our people — in this case that of Puerto Ricans —  relate to other struggles around the world, and within the US?

but, before the original members founded the New York chapter of the YLO, these organizers took their first stab at organizing in their neighborhood.  this campaign was known as the Garbage Offensive.  they started polling the folks in their neighborhoods in order to find out what the hot issues to organize around might be.  they were thinking it was going to be housing, but the response was, “La basura” — trash.  the streets of the Puerto Rican neighborhood in Harlem were littered due to neglect by the city sanitation department.

initially the future-YLO members cleaned the streets on their own for a few weeks, but after that they were joined by other folks in the neighborhood, and soon found themselves out of brooms.  a group of them went down to the city sanitation depot to demand brooms, but were denied.  Felipe Luciano, a future YLO leader, declared that they were going to take the brooms anyway, and he pushed past the city employee taking the supplies they needed.

this had an important effect for many who were there.  it gave confidence to some of the regular neighborhood folks, and further radicalized the future YLO organizers, whom were not big on confrontations at the time.

after this episode city service did not improve, so the organizers decided to move all the trash to 3rd St and block a main bus line.  after the trash was piled up, it was set on fire, and the neighborhood began getting better garbage disposal services.

the ecological content to this campaign may seem obvious, but the potential for ecological struggles within other movements often are not.  it’s worth noting that the organizers did not present an explicitly “green” program.  it was a demand very much embedded in the tradition and language of Brown Power.  the only criticism i have is that the ecological aspect of the program was not extended far enough, although it’s doubtful that ecological principles were at front of the organizers mind.  this campaign could have been expanded to include other communities in New York demanding permanent community control over city planning and utilities through a sustainable development plan.  in addition, they would have needed to include a movement by sanitation workers for control over their work sites.

there are also other important lessons for eco-activists today.  most immediately, many in the environmental movement ask the question: why is the movement overwhelmingly white?  while this issue is not limited to the ecology movement — it’s actually a problem in the broader Left — it raises the issues of the social and strategic isolation of eco-organizations from communities of color.  by social isolation i mean the ethos and language used by people of color to talk about our issues.  this was one of the importance traits of Black and Brown Power.  being around the white Left, is many times, alienating for us.

by strategic isolation i mean the inability of the Left to craft campaigns and organizations that organically emerge in our communities.  as one women at an event i helped organize a few weeks ago put it, as she was chastising the Left, “just because you say people of color should care about an issue doesn’t mean it’s the first thing on our minds!”

but both of these — strategy and ethos — are related.  how can the Left or the ecology/climate movement craft these campaigns and organizations if they are socially disconnected form the community?  the lesson from the film is not that garbage collection or some other issue will always be the key link to organize around —  sometimes figuring what these are is trial and error — but the ways in which the Garbage Offensive was initiated (by talking to people), how the experience was socialized and radicalized, and what it represented.

the strategy the group became most famous for was occupation and appropriation.  the YLO occupied hospitals and churches, and put them to use for breakfast programs and other community initiatives.  and like in the Garbage Offensive they took city supplies when they needed it, including a mobile TB testing unit, technicians included — don’t worry the technicians went willingly 😉

i’ll be thinking more on the importance of these events.  but for now, i’m thinking about how it relates to the organizing strategies that are prevalent in the ecology movement today.  a week or so ago there was a clash at the Ratcliffe power plant between several hundred eco-activists and the police in the UK.  the ‘insurrectionists’ were aiming to shut down the coal power plant.  but how was this action aimed at socializing the experience, and putting community and public infrastructure, and the decision of whether or not to use coal power in the hands of everyday people in the UK?

while the possibilities for militant and radical confrontation grow with the size of the movement i’m curious how many there were part of the local community?  what constitutes a critical mass for this?  what relationship did they have to the workers both at the plant and in the coal mines?  i raise this because so many times only the same radicals show up to these events.

that last question is particularly important because the right in the Senate are attacking the climate legislation on the grounds that it will destroy jobs and therefore families in coal producing states.  there have been a number of responses to this by the climate/ecology movement ranging from the demand for “green” jobs to neo-Malthusian perspectives that see the working class and regular people as either bought off, brainwashed or part of the problem.  this strategy allows the right to build popular ruling class legitimacy and divide possible movements from below.  related to this, is how parts of the Left trail Obama and the ostensible eco-friendly Democratic party despite their track record on climate legislation so far.

however unrealistic the assault at Ratcliffe many have been, if these sorts of offensives aren’t coupled with movements inside the workplace that include demands for control by and better health standards for workers, this trend will continue to inhibit autonomous movements from below, and leave discussions about concrete measures for solving climate change in the arena of the ruling class, while those from below squabble with each other.

a similar discussion is occurring around the global climate talks.  many are demanding climate reparations for the Third World, while others are defending their rights to economic prosperity.  the conclusions of these perspectives as they stand are problematic; either the planet continues to be environmentally devastated and working people continue to be abused & exploited, or working people will be abused and exploited except within the framework of eco-friendly technology.

more could be written on this…