Obama To Palin: What's Wrong With Being A Community Organizer?
"Sarah Palin to Obama: What does a community organizer do?"
President Barrack Obama, started out as a community organizer in Chicago. Organizing a community is noble. It means giving people a voice, it means developing natural community leadership. Back in the 1970's and 80's I was a community organizer. I was working at Manhattan Legal Services and met a young, dynamic and charismatic lawyer whose name was Ramon Jimenez. In those days, the East Harlem Community was in total disarray, it was a community in transition. Prior to 1970 the community was still predominately a mixed Caucasian community, Italian, Irish, German and even some Jews. Growing up I got beat up a lot of times by those people. As previously stated the community was is total disarray and it was so because of a term that was coined back then, white flight, that's when all the white people leave or flee from a city community to go live in the suburbs.
In 1972 the East Harlem community had a new majority group, it was us Puerto Ricans. Here I am not accusing anyone but, when the whites left, the community was inundated with heroin. It was very bad, many people became addicted to heroin, many died of drug over does. People with money do not understand poverty and everything that comes along with it. Those people vote, and get the services they need. Impoverished communities like East Harlem, are often neglected. For example, in the summer of 1972 in New York City there was a strike by the workers of the New York City Department of sanitation. We understand strikes and are not strike breakers. However, just a few blocks away is the Community of Yorkville. This is an affluent community, it is the community where the Mayor's mansion sits. So trash was being picked as usual. The community of Yorkville had sanitation service almost as normal as before the strike. In East Harlem, the trash was not being picked up at all. The garbage cans were all filled to the rim, so much so that people started leaving there thrash bags on the floor adjacent to the thrash cans. Since this strike occurred in the summer, the trash was smelling awful. It began to attract flies and rats. A group of young, college educated Puerto Rican students banded together and formed The Young Lords. Whenever a minority group of color organizes, the media is quick to label them a gang. The same thing was happening in California within the black community. Over there it was really bad because of J. Edgar Hoover's own bias, and prejudiced the FBI infiltrated the "Black panther Party". People, rather young black men were being gunned down on the streets by the police, (nothing changes this is still going on today). Using the law, members of the Black Panthers began carrying rifles. I believe the law was that as long as the weapon was not a gun or pistol and was carried out in the open it was legal, that is barring one did not have a criminal record. It was a constant struggle. Confrontation between the Panthers and the police were daily. As stated above the media loves labeling groups. So now they were calling the Panthers "Black Militants. When in reality all they were doing was organizing the community, giving a voice to the voiceless. They ran day care and fed the hungry. They educated the community about sanitation and health. So back in East Harlem, during that sanitation strike residents of the community observed that the thrash was getting picked up in Yorkville but not in East Harlem. The Young Lords began sweeping and moving the thrash cans into the middle of the street. Of course this disrupted the flow of traffic and confrontation between the Lords and the police ensued. Soon the media was covering the story and eventually the strike was over and sanitation began again.
Puerto Rican young men were being arrested at a very disproportionate rate. To make matters worst many of these young men were ending up dead. The department of corrections claimed that they committed suicide but everyone that knew them said they were not the kind of kids that would commit suicide, they were happy and had many friends. Something was going on Rikers Island. One person turns up dead its possible that he committed suicide. But it was not one, it was many Puerto Ricans that were turning up dead.
Many people do it, I'm sure you've probably seen it yourself. When the weather outside is freezing some folks would get a metal drum or thrash can and light a bon fire to keep themselves warm. I do not know all of the facts Iwas not there, but this is what occurred to the best of my recollection. It was a cold winters day in East Harlem and a group of young [Puerto Rican] men were standing around there little bon fire when a police officer walks by and tells them to put out the fire. One of these young men, Julio Roldan, tells the officer that they are not doing anything wrong but keeping warm. The officer became belligerent and an argument ensued between he and Julio. For whatever the, I have no idea, but for the eye witnesses that were there they all said the same thing. After the arguing started the officer pulled out his gun and shot Julio dead right there on the spot. There was massive community outcry but as usual nothing happened. No investigation, no hearing, nothing. The Young Lords, the voice of the people, then decide to make a mock coffin and parading it throughout the community. Every block they walked through they'd pickup more followers. By the time they got back to their headquarters it was massive. Then it became a rally, very similar to what is going on today with the Black Lives Matter movement. A charismatic and vociferous young man, a founding member of the East Harlem Young Lords becan to speak. This guy, Felipe Luciano who was a member of the last poets, had his own radio program and whom would go on to become a televsion newsman, was eloguently articulating the community's needs.
The thing that lit the fire in the East Harlem residents was an incident that occured in church. The mass was held in the church as usual, but the Puerto Ricans had a seperate mass down in the basement. It felt like even god allowed class differances. Upper class in the "church" lower class (Puerto Ricans) dow n in the celler. Today the church where the incident occured is calleed the peoples church. When the parents of some members of the Young Lords brought the situation to light, they took action. At first they tried negotiating with the church, but when the church refused to correct the situation or to just listen to the concerns, the Lords went into action. They took over the church and held a few people hostage, or so the media would have you believe. They did occupy the church but it was to invite the community in, to give lunch to those that were hungry, They emulated the Black Panthers in many ways. They ran a free day care center for those single working moms. They'd read stories and watch movies. The church became a festive, welcoming place one that embraced the community. That was until the stand off came to an end. The church did eventually come around and became a part of the community and not just another institution that neglected those that need the most.
I could go on forever, this is called life experience, but I'd rather bring it back to the topic at hand, Community Organizing. When people do not come from an impovished neighborhood, have not suffered the humiliation of having to ask for assistence (welfare), have not lived in a building were the landlord goes to Florida for the winter and neglects to buy oil for the furance so several families have to live with no heat or hot water. Since they are blessed enough to not have had to experrtience any of this they mock community organizing efforts. But community organizing is a time honored tool, it's one of social works greatest tools. It goes way back to when social work began. When Jane Adams started the settlement movcement. When Doratia Dix organized to get mental health facilities built. Prior to Doratia's efforts the mentally ill lived in squalor, on the cold dam lower floor of hospitals. They were treated with digust and disdain. In fact, the word bedlam, that is commonly was to explain pandimonium actually comes from a hospital in England named Bedlam. This is where people would pay an admssion fee to watch the "crazy" people.
Empower the community and change happens. Its a long process, it does not happen over night. Sometimes it takes decades but as they say, the Struggle continues or as is said in Spanish "en La Lucha".
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