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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.

People rose 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 west.

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

The 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.

This uprising against police brutality lasted three days and three nights. White-owned businesses in the Puerto Rican community were targeted as symbols of racism and national oppression.

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.

The 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.

People 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.”

The 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 for organizing.

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 the cops.

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.

The 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.

The 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 estate interests.

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!”