In 1969, a group of New York City youth known as the Young Lords demanded a change in the way America’s largest city handled sanitation. The initiative, known as the Garbage Offensive, was not the group’s original course of action, but it has proven to be very effective in exposing the needs and rights of the city’s Latinx community.
The Young Lords were a group of poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth activists who took inspiration from the Black Panthers, donned their iconic purple berets, called for Puerto Rican independence, and took to the streets in the looking for an ambitious organizational program in their home. from East Harlem. But as the president of the organization, Felipe Luciano, remembers with humor, they rather found chatter.
“So we’re on 110th Street and we actually asked people, ‘What do you think you need? Is it accommodation? Is this police brutality? Luciano said. “And they said: “Muchacho, Déjate de todo eso — LA BASURA!” “ [Listen kid, fuggedaboutit! It’s THE GARBAGE!] And I thought, my God, all this romance, all this ideology, to pick up the trash?
East Harlem neighborhoods facing neglect
A New York Daily News a special series on the scourge in East Harlem confirmed the grievances. The March 1969 report described the “horror” of tons of rotten trash in the 40-block area of the neighborhood, where uncleaned trash lingered for weeks at a time. The 160 streets surveyed were rarely swept and had only six garbage cans in a neighborhood that generated higher concentrations of household waste.
When sanitation workers finally showed up, they threw half of the garbage in the trucks and “left the other half strewn in the streets,” according to the report. New. Residents interpreted the neglect as an expression of racism held by members of the city’s ethnically exclusive and largely Italian-American sanitation workers union.
But larger social forces were at work. East Harlem was 50% more densely populated than other neighborhoods in Manhattan. It had a disproportionate share of the city’s condemned housing, including 107 abandoned buildings and 55 empty lots. These functioned as ad hoc landfills and rat-infested depots for all manner of trash, from rotting animal carcasses to washing machines, boilers, furniture and other loose trash.
The problems went beyond East Harlem. The garbage and industrial waste that sprang up across the city in the 1960s was the fallout of a society whose trash removal capacity had not kept up with the explosion of American capitalist consumption in the 1950s. In the mid-1960s, when the Daily News opened its phone lines to New Yorkers with a promise to escalate callers’ hygiene concerns to the appropriate city officials, thousands overflowed its lines. The Young Lords have answered the call.
The garbage offensive begins
Armed with brooms stolen from the sanitary depot, the Young Lords swept swathes of the neighborhood for three consecutive Sunday mornings in mid-July and August. They then piled the garbage on the sidewalks and waited. When no sanitation worker picked up the trash, the Young Lords took it and threw it in the middle of the street. For good measure, they threw away old mattresses, armchairs, sofas and sinks found in vacant lots. The sweeping of the streets had turned into an act of civil disobedience.
And it all happened on Third Avenue at 110th Street and surrounding area, one of Manhattan’s main connection points for suburban commuters. They called it “the garbage offensive” – a nod of solidarity with the Vietnamese guerrillas and their Tet offensive a year earlier, a turning point in the Vietnam War which led to a military retreat American.
The disruption of the Young Lords continued almost daily. As August wore on, bored children, angry young men and even a few frustrated grandmothers left their apartments to join in the action, while hundreds of residents watched from their windows.
The New York Times regularly captured the chaos, reporting that “residents of the area around Park Avenue and 110th Street have joined in the piling and burning of trash at several intersections. Several abandoned cars were overturned and set on fire, traffic was blocked and heavy police reinforcements were called into the area to protect the men from the sanitation.
As more and more people joined the protests, they became more and more spectacular. The inhabitants set the rubbish heaps on fire; and when someone planted the Puerto Rican flag on top of one of the rubbish heaps, the feeling of solidarity, pride and rebellion grew noticeably. The protests had become more than rubbish. It was to send a message that Puerto Ricans would not be rushed.
The Young Lords’ demands were published in a press release which, in addition to increasing services and trash cans, called on the city to “hire more Puerto Rican and black workers,” to increase the wages of workers in the sanitation; and the end of “people’s payments to garbage collectors”.
According to the young lord Pablo Guzman, the garbage wasn’t just about “the discarded coffee grounds and milk containers… Garbage is too… rats dance and junkies gush. Garbage is dumped in ghetto areas by unscrupulous private transport companies, often crowd-controlled, who sometimes drop medical waste and other hazardous industrial waste while looking for a short term.
By demanding action around the garbage problem, the Young Lords have established the building blocks of future movements against “environmental racism”. These movements argue that there is a disproportionate occurrence of environmental hazards among neighborhoods of color.
Mayor’s run helps spur response
The timing of the garbage offensive was decisive. Referring to the upcoming 1969 mayoral race between incumbent Republican Mayor John Lindsay and Democratic challenger Mario Procaccino, the New York Times reported that “dirty streets could be the third problem in this campaign …”
When Procaccino wrote a position paper on what it would take to keep the city streets clean, a defensive Lindsay launched a special counter-effort and sent his aides to meet with the Young Lords and the people of East Harlem. . The group’s activism had forced a public dialogue and a response from politicians seeking votes.
Ultimately, campaign promises and pressure from the Young Lords forced the local government to initiate a more strategic approach to garbage collection. According to government documents, the Ministry of Sanitation has decentralized repair operations, improved emptying schedules, imposed the systematic use of plastic garbage bags rather than metal bins to dispose of waste and introduced a system of alternative curbside parking to facilitate street sweeping regularity, and more.
Over the next two years, the Young Lords continued to stage their social grievances with disrespect and imagination. They occupied a church in East Harlem and pressured the city to pass legislation against lead poisoning. They also occupied Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx and, alongside doctors and nurses, drafted the first known Patient Bill of Rights.
The Young Lords’ Garbage Offensive established standards of decency in municipal service that broadened the sense of democracy and the common good for all. It also foreshadowed the first national conversation on the future of the environment on the first Earth Day in April 1970.