40 years ago in Chicago
Puerto Ricans rebelled against police violence
Published Jul 3, 2006 2:24 PM
June 12 marked the 40th
anniversary of what is commonly referred to as the “Division Street
Riots.” The “riot” was actually an uprising of the nationally
oppressed Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park/West Town.
up in response to intolerable conditions in the barrio, particularly the brutal
treatment of Puerto Rican youth at the hands of the notoriously racist Chicago
Police Department (CPD).
The uprising was the beginning of a national
consciousness in the Puerto Rican community in Chicago in Humboldt Park/West
Town in particular. With the threat of the displacement of the Puerto Rican
community from yet another neighborhood by wealthy white professionals and their
ugly $500,000 condos, the remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the uprising
could not be more timely.
The Puerto Rican Cultural Center, under the
leadership of its executive director Jose Lopez, and other community
organizations have led a drive to stop gentrification in Humboldt Park, and to
keep the community Puerto Rican.
The Puerto Rican community in Chicago has
a history that stretches back more than 70 years. The first Puerto Rican
migration in the 1930s to Chicago was not from the island but from New York
City. Only a small number of people joined this migration. The first large wave
of migration to Chicago came in the late 1940s.
Starting in 1946, many
people were recruited by Castle Barton Associates as low-wage non-union foundry
workers and domestic workers. As soon as they were established in Chicago, many
were joined by their spouses and families.
By the 1960s, the Puerto Rican
community was centered in West Town and Humboldt Park on the Northwest Side and
in Lincoln Park on the North Side. There were also many Puerto Ricans in
Lawndale on the city’s West Side. Gentrification in Lincoln Park in the
late 1960s displaced the community, forcing people to move to the
The events of June 12 through 14, 1966, constituted the first major
Puerto Rican urban rebellion. The uprising happened at precisely the point when
the CPD began taking “precautionary measures” to head off potential
rebellions of the type that had already occurred in Harlem, Watts and
Philadelphia by the Black masses.
Roots of the uprising
uprising began on June 12, the day after the very first downtown Día de
San Juan parade ever. A cop named Thomas Munyon was chasing 20-year-old Arcelis
Cruz and his friend through an alley near Damen and Division. Munyon drew his
weapon and fired, hitting Cruz in the leg. This was witnessed by a group of
people at the corner who attempted to come to Cruz’ aid. When the rest of
Munyon’s cop squad showed up, they beat the crowd with their nightsticks
and even let attack dogs loose on the people. This savage attack by the cops
enraged the growing crowd, which began to fight back.
against police brutality lasted three days and three nights. White-owned
businesses in the Puerto Rican community were targeted as symbols of racism and
Battles were fought between Puerto Rican youth and
the cops, with the youth armed only with bricks, rocks and bottles. Roberto
Medina, who was 18 at the time and secretary- treasurer of the Puerto Rican
Congress organization, said, “Some people thought that it was a bunch of
yahoos within the community, criminals that started this whole thing. That
wasn’t true. It had to do with ... the frustrations that we as a community
were experiencing.” Medina is now a labor activist in Chicago.
rebellion was centered on Division Street, between Hoyne and Damen Avenues. A
crowd gathered there on the second night of the uprising to air their grievances
against the cops.
Rev. James Bevell, who was on Dr. Martin Luther
King’s staff, sent a team of observers from the Southern Christian
Leadership Council on the first night of the rebellion. On the second night,
they were present at Division and Hoyne and were witness to people telling of
how the cops were targeting young people for beatings and arrests.
talked about how the cops were actually breaking into their homes and assaulting
them. Felix M. Padilla, who wrote a study of the rebellion for the University of
Notre Dame in 1987, commented, “For many Puerto Ricans, the police had
come to represent more than enforcement of [the] law; they were viewed as
members of an ‘occupying army’ and as an oppressive force acting on
behalf of those who ruled their environment.”
The cops actually
sent agent provocateurs into the crowd to attempt to incite violence in order to
justify their own reactionary violence.
In one incident recalled by
Donald Headly, a Catholic priest and former head of the Cardinal’s
Committee for the Spanish Speaking, “... people were ready to burn [the
police car]. And I was just pointing out to them the fact that I knew this was a
plot. There is something going on here because the two guys that are telling you
to burn this car are cops. I knew them from the Monroe Street district, I had
been at St. Patrick’s for five years and I knew that they were policemen.
... when they finally decided to burn it, out of the gangways, police poured
out. They were everywhere, they had dogs, they had helmets and they were beating
the hell out of everybody on the street.”
As is usually the case,
when the bourgeois press talk about a “riot”, the only ones who are
actually rioting are the cops. By June 15, 16 people were hospitalized after
being brutally beaten by the cops and 49 were arrested.
Simon Gomez wrote
a song in the Jibaro style about the uprising called, “Los Motines de
Chicago,” which was enormously popular. It was banned from being aired and
sold in Chicago. The FBI actually removed it from record stores and threatened
radio stations that intended to play it. Gomez actually lived in Puerto Rico at
the time of the rebellion, which shows that the effect of the uprising was felt
far beyond Humboldt Park and West Town.
Felix Masud-Piloto of the DePaul
University Center for Latino Research said, “The Division Street Riot, as
it came to be known, alerted the United States and the world to the police
brutality, political repression, and economic exploitation Puerto Ricans in
Chicago were subjected to during a period of intense social mobilization in
favor of equality and justice.”
Oscar Lopez Rivera, a current
political prisoner in the U.S. who has stood steadfast for the independence of
Puerto Rico and has been unjustly jailed since 1981, commented on the new mood
after the uprising: “Something I could feel immediately was the radical
change that had occurred in the community. It was no longer the silent and
invisible community I had left behind when I left for the army. Even in the way
that Boricuas walked, you could see the positive impact the riot had in our
community. But it was in the youth that I saw the biggest change. They were
becoming organized and radicalized. And it was these youth who gave the driving
force and energy to the struggles that emerged after the riot.”
Latin American Boys Club on N. Washtenaw was a center for organizing during the
rebellion. Forums informing the community of the changing situation were held
during the uprising. Even after the rebellion was put down, it remained a center
A march against police brutality in solidarity with the
49 who were arrested was held on June 28, 1966. It was attended by over 200
people who marched five miles to City Hall in the Loop downtown. An arrestee
solidarity organization called the Coordinating Commission of Puerto Rican
Affairs was formed to pack the courts in support of those who were brutalized by
Legacy of resistance lives on
The rebellion led to
the creation of many organizations that would grow to play an important role in
the future of the community. The first organizations to come out of this
experience were the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago and the Latin American
Defense Organization. The early 1970s saw the creation of the ASPIRA Association
and the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. The uprising was the spark that, in 1969,
would ignite the transformation of a Puerto Rican street organization in Lincoln
Park into the revolutionary Young Lords Party. Under the leadership of Jose
“Cha Cha” Jimenez, the Young Lords Party looked to the example set
by Illinois State Chairman Fred Hampton and the rest of the Black Panther Party
of how to serve the people and make revolution.
While the uprising did
lead to the creation of many institutions dedicated to serving the people and
maintaining the Puerto Rican identity of Humboldt Park, the cops continued to
play the same oppressive role in the community as they did before.
results were as tragic as they were predictable. On June 4, 1977, a second
rebellion on Division erupted after the cops murdered two youths, Rafael Cruz
and Julio Osorio.
Eighty-five people were injured by police violence and
120 were arrested for their resistance. The Puerto Rican People’s Parade,
which was first held in 1978, was created in response to these police murders,
as well as taking up the issue of self-determination for Puerto Rico.
number of white yuppies in Humboldt Park has climbed steadily by one-third since
1990 to around 37,000 today, while the Puerto Rican population has declined by
one-third to about 26,000 during the same period. The Puerto Rican identity of
Humboldt Park is threatened by the rising tide of gentrification by big real
The Puerto Rican people have been driven from every
area of the city except for Humboldt Park. Puerto Ricans have lived in Humboldt
Park for 50 years. In a speech he gave at the dedication of the new mural on
Paseo Boricua depicting the 1966 uprising, Jose Lopez said, “We have laid
claim to Humboldt Park, and we will be here for a long time to come!”
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