In 1969, a group of New York City youth known as the Young Lords demanded change in the way the largest city in the United States handled sanitation. The initiative, known as the Garbage Offensive, wasn’t the group’s original plan of action, but it proved highly effective in calling out the needs and rights of the city’s Latinx community
The Young Lords were an activist group of poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth who modeled themselves after the Black Panthers, donned their signature purple berets, called for Puerto Rico’s independence, and hit the streets in search of a lofty organizing agenda in their home of East Harlem. But as the organization’s chairman, Felipe Luciano, humorously remembers, they found trash talk instead.
“So we’re on 110th Street and we actually asked the people, ‘What do you think you need? Is it housing? Is it police brutality?’” Luciano says. “And they said, ‘Muchacho, déjate de todo eso—LA BASURA!” [Listen kid, fuggedaboutit! It’s THE GARBAGE!] And I thought, my God, all this romance, all this ideology, to pick up the garbage?”
East Harlem Neighborhoods Faced Neglect
A New York Daily News special series on blight in East Harlem confirmed the grievances. The March 1969 report described the “horror” of tons of rotting garbage in the neighborhood’s 40-square-block zone, where uncollected trash lingered for weeks at a time. The 160 streets surveyed were rarely swept and had only six garbage receptacles in a district that yielded higher concentrations of household waste.
When sanitation workers finally showed up, they dumped half the garbage in the trucks and “left the other half strewn in the streets,” according to the News. Residents interpreted the negligence as an expression of racism held by members of the city’s ethnically exclusive, largely Italian American sanitation workers’ union.
But larger social forces were at work. East Harlem was 50 percent more densely populated than other neighborhoods in Manhattan. It had a disproportionate share of the city’s condemned housing units, including 107 abandoned buildings and 55 empty lots. These functioned as ad hoc dumping grounds and rat-infested repositories for all manner of refuse from rotting animal carcasses to washing machines, boilers, furniture, and other discarded bulk.
The problems went beyond East Harlem. The refuse and industrial waste popping up across the city during the 1960s was the fallout of a society whose capacity for garbage removal had not kept up with the explosion of American capitalist consumption in the 1950s. In the mid-1960s, when the Daily News opened up its phone lines to New Yorkers with the promise of forwarding callers’ sanitation concerns to the proper city officers, thousands overwhelmed its lines. The Young Lords heeded the call.
The Garbage Offensive Begins
Armed with brooms pilfered from the sanitation depot, the Young Lords swept sections of the neighborhood during three consecutive Sunday mornings in mid-July and August. They then piled the refuse on sidewalks—and waited. When no sanitation workers picked up the garbage, the Young Lords took it and dumped it in the middle of the street. For good measure they threw in old mattresses, armchairs, sofas, and sinks found in empty lots. Street sweeping had turned into an act of civil disobedience.
And it all happened on Third Avenue at 110th Street and surrounding areas—one of Manhattan’s major connecting points for suburban commuters. They called it “the Garbage Offensive”— a nod of solidarity to the Vietnamese guerrillas and their Tet Offensive of a year earlier, a turning point in the Vietnam War that led to a U.S. military retreat.
The Young Lords’ disruption continued almost daily. As August wore on, bored kids, angry young men and even a few frustrated grandmas left their apartments to join the action, while hundreds of residents watched from their windows.
The New York Times regularly captured the mayhem, reporting that “residents of the area around Park Avenue and 110th Street joined in the heaping and burning of garbage at several intersections. Several abandoned cars were overturned and burned, traffic was blocked and heavy police reinforcements were called to the area to protect sanitation men.”
As more people joined the protests, they grew more spectacular. Residents set the refuse heaps aflame; and when someone planted the Puerto Rican flag atop one of the garbage heaps, the sense of solidarity, pride, and rebellion grew appreciably. The demonstrations had become about much more than garbage. They were about sending a message that Puerto Ricans would not be pushed around.
The Young Lords’ demands were published in a press release, which in addition to increased services and garbage receptacles, called on the city to “hire more Puerto Rican and black workers,” increase sanitation workers’ wages; and an end “payoffs from the people to the garbagemen.”
According to leading Young Lord, Pablo Guzman, garbage was not simply about “coffee grounds and discarded milk containers…Garbage is also…the squalor that surrounds burned out buildings and rubblestone lots, which kids play in because the playgrounds have gone to seed, while rats dance and junkies shoot up. Garbage is refuse dumped into ghetto areas by unscrupulous, often mob-controlled private carting companies who sometimes drop hazardous medical and other industrial wastes while looking for a short end run.”
By demanding action around the garbage problem, the Young Lords established building blocks of future movements against “environmental racism.” These movements argue there is a disproportionate occurrence of environmental hazards among neighborhoods of color.
Mayoral Race Helps Spur Response
The timing of the Garbage Offensive was key. Referring to the upcoming mayoral race of 1969 between incumbent Republican Mayor John Lindsay and Democratic challenger Mario Procaccino, the New York Times reported that “dirty streets may be the third issue in this campaign…”
When Procaccino wrote a position paper on what it would take to keep the city streets clean, a defensive Lindsay launched a special counter effort and sent his aids to meet with the Young Lords and the people of East Harlem. The group’s activism had forced a dialogue in the public square and a response from politicians looking for votes.
In the end, campaign promises and the Young Lords’ pressure compelled local government to launch a more strategic approach to garbage collection. According to government documents, the Department of Sanitation decentralized repair operations, improved dumping schedules, mandated the systematic use of plastic garbage bags rather than metal cans to dispose trash and introduced an alternate-side-of-the-street parking system meant to facilitate regular street sweeping, and more.
Over the next two years, the Young Lords continued to stage their social grievances with irreverence and imagination. They occupied an East Harlem Church and pressured the city to pass anti-lead poisoning legislation. They also occupied Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, and alongside doctors and nurses, drafted the first known Patient Bill of Rights.
The Young Lords’ Garbage Offensive established standards of decency in city services that expanded the meaning of democracy and the common good for all. It also presaged the first national conversation on the future of the environment during the inaugural Earth Day in April 1970.