Garbage Fires for Freedom: When Puerto Rican Activists Took Over New York’s Streets

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A report by Daniel José Older for The New York Times.

Fifty years ago, the Young Lords evolved from a street gang to a political force.

Hiram Maristany laughs when I call to ask him about the famous Garbage Offensive. “Like so many things with the Young Lords, you got to go backward to go forward,” he says as the sounds of East Harlem rise around him: kids yelling, the cackling bochinche of old ladies, the heavy sighs and squealing brakes of the M103 bus.

Mr. Maristany is talking about the summer of 1969, when he was a teenager taking photos of his friends and neighbors, black-and-white images that captured joy amid the challenges of life in Spanish Harlem, and would one day, many years later, grace the walls of the Smithsonian.


His pictures of proud, angry, exuberant young Puerto Ricans taking over Third Avenue as flames rose from a barricade made of trash became emblematic of a global outcry from young people who were finding a voice for their rage as the ’60s drew to a close. I saw the photos decades later, and for me and so many others working in the nonprofit world in the early 2000s, those images spoke of a movement that refused to ask permission or wait for grant money, one truly invested in its own freedom.

During the so-called Garbage Offensive, the streets of Spanish Harlem were blocked with trash cans, some of which were set on fire. Circa July 1969.

Like Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers leader who would be killed by the police later that year at age 21, Mr. Maristany and his fellow activists were young. He taught a photo workshop on 117th Street, and at 18 he was considered one of the elders in his cohort. Inspired by the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, the youth of East Harlem were starting to think of themselves in terms of revolutionary political movements.

“It was a real awakening to find someone was standing up, because we were getting our asses kicked,” Mr. Maristany tells me. “We became very aware that we were colonized.”

But it was another radical group of Puerto Ricans who finally gave them a sense of how to organize themselves. In Chicago, a former street gang called the Young Lords had recast itself in the mold of the Panthers, with tactics both militant and community-based. The Lords set up a dental clinic and a day care center; their outlook was both global and local. They demanded independence for Puerto Rico and an end to the Vietnam War, and fought for equity in resource allocation, demonstrating at urban renewal meetings.

Outside Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, members of the Young Lords protesting the neglect of the health care needs of the Latino and African-American communities. Sept. 3, 1970.

When they heard of what the Lords were up to in Chicago, Mr. Maristany and a few others got in the car, drove to the Midwest, secured permission to start a New York chapter and turned immediately back around to begin organizing.

The first thing they did was hit the streets to ask their neighbors what was needed. Expecting lofty talk of revolution and systemic change, the Lords instead found that the community’s needs were very straightforward. “This place is filthy, man. It stinks. There’s garbage all over,” was the complaint Mr. Maristany heard. Sanitation pickups were irregular, and piles of trash accumulated on street corners, fouling the air and presenting a significant health risk. Waste bins were nowhere to be found.

A small contingent of Young Lords went to the local Department of Sanitation office to ask for better service. “We were naïve,” Mr. Maristany says. “It’s not a mistake, the way they operate. They provide service to the powerful, the people with political clout, not to us!” They asked for brooms and trash bags so they could do the cleanup themselves. “They threw us out!”

In a 1995 article in The Village Voice, Pablo Guzmán, a founding member of the New York Young Lords, recalled the tenor of the situation. “All we had been trying to do after sweeping up the streets on previous Sundays was talk with Sanitation about once-a-week pickups and nonexistent trash cans, and about how to decently treat people asking for help instead of blowing them off,” he wrote.

As Mr. Maristany tells it, the group eventually returned to the sanitation depot and took the cleanup equipment.

“We thought Sanitation would come take the trash away once we’d bagged it all up for them,” he says. “We had bags and bags and bags of trash. We said, ‘You going to come clean this trash up now or what?’ They refused.”

The Young Lords and a handful of community members began dragging rusted refrigerators, old cars, mattresses and busted furniture off the corners and strewing them across Third Avenuenear 110th Street. The Garbage Offensive had begun.

A police officer talking with residents of East Harlem — a neighborhood often referred to as El Barrio — during the Garbage Offensive. July 1969.

“We were using the instrument of our protest, which was garbage, to protest even more,” Mr. Maristany says. “Meanwhile, the traffic is backing up. Now, it’s O.K. to inconvenience Puerto Ricans and people with no power, but you start to inconvenience people with power.”

He adds, chuckling, “All the rich white folks were trying to get out of town. It created so much hell!”

As city departments hot-potatoed the problem back and forth, the Lords escalated. “Then we set it ablaze, man,” Mr. Maristany tells me, still laughing.

“I was helping to flip a junked car into the blockade when I saw the gasoline being poured,” Mr. Guzmán wrote. “It was ignited and more gasoline was poured as the flames shot up.”

Acutely aware of the tide of history welling up around them, Mr. Maristany began snapping pictures. “When I documented, I was not doing it from the outside in, but from the inside out,” he says. “I knew if I don’t take these images, we’re going to leave it to someone who doesn’t know the first goddamn thing about us, and they’re going to define everything there is to know about us.”

The police swarmed the area, and came out of their cars swinging, according to Mr. Guzmán. The Lords retreated and regrouped. Soon, the city cleaned up the trash at the first intersection, so they barricaded another. “They realized we could keep doing this and they would never catch up to us,” Mr. Maristany says. “So the mayor says, ‘O.K., we heard you. We’ll start cleaning the streets.’” Eventually, the Young Lords gathered the brooms and marched back to the Sanitation Department, in full view of the neighborhood, to return them. “We aren’t thieves!” Mr. Maristany says. “We don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to us. And that also endeared the community to us.”

A woman raised her fist in solidarity at a march to free the Panther 21, a group of Black Panthers indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit a series of bombings in New York. The group was eventually acquitted. Circa 1969.
Hiram Maristany

It was a turning point in the newly minted organization’s presence in Spanish Harlem. “The point is that we said we were going to do something and we did it,” Mr. Maristany says. While the Lords would become renowned for their savvy use of the media, and Mr. Maristany’s images of the Garbage Offensive would help galvanize the activist world for generations, the true importance of that moment for the Lords was in gaining the respect of the people they represented. “If we didn’t have the support of the community, we couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of months,” Mr. Maristany says. “They really protected us.”

The group went on to help revitalize Lincoln Hospital, push for more accountability in the prison system and rally thousands of people to march for Puerto Rican independence, before dissolving in the mid-1970s, troubled by infighting and Cointelpro, an F.B.I. program that surveilled and undermined activist organizations.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the New York Young Lords’ founding. Mr. Maristany’s photos, which he calls “a reflection of a love affair that I’ve had with my community,” show smiling faces among the tenements of East Harlem and pulse with the rhythms of the city.

Young Lords marching in the Puerto Rican Day parade. June 7, 1970.

“When we put these pictures up in the street,” Mr. Maristany says, “people say, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ That’s 50 years ago I took these, and you have no idea how great that makes me feel, that I documented something that still resonates in our community. It feels incredible.”

You do indeed have to go backward to go forward, I think, as the old activist and storyteller pauses our conversation once again to find somewhere quiet amid the excited yells of kids getting out of school. “I am standing right now as I’m talking to you on the corner of 102nd and Lexington Avenue,” he says, and you can hear the smile on his face loud and clear, “looking down this hill, very much a part of this community, and I’m happy here, not a stranger here, and I just want you to know, when you look at those images, I tried to just show them as raw as I can, so that that story, which is bigger than me, comes forward.”

Daniel José Older’s next novel, “The Book of Lost Saints,” comes out in November.

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