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.
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.