Interview with Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez on original Rainbow Coalition
Young Lords founder remembers
There are many 50-year anniversaries being celebrated these days, including the founding of the Young Lords on September 23, 1968, and the Rainbow Coalition in April 1969.
Fight Back! interviewed the founder of the Young Lords, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, about the original Rainbow Coalition. The powers ruling Chicago were struck with fear when the Rainbow Coalition came together. The United States government and the FBI repressed the groups of the Rainbow Coalition with the courts and violence in the form of COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program. The Rainbow Coalition inspired many activists in the late 1960s and continues to hold lessons for today.
Fight Back!: How did the Rainbow Coalition come together?
Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez: In late 1968, Chairman Fred Hampton and I, the Black Panthers and Young Lords, were already working together on building Black and Brown Unity. We were working on a Black Active and Determined (B.A.D.) conference with Danny Underwood and Marion Stamps, at the Cabrini Green housing projects and the Olivet Church. The Young Lords had recently arrived back from Puerto Rico and from a trip to Denver, Colorado where we had established contact with Corky Gonzalez and other Chicano movement leaders. It was September 1968 and we were working out of the offices of the Concerned Citizens of Lincoln Park at 2512 North Lincoln, a church organization of mostly white pastors assisting the poor and opposed to urban renewal. Reverend Bruce and Eugenia Ransier Johnson, Pat Devine and Reverend James Reed were all part of this Northside Cooperative Ministry.
Around the same time, the Young Lords were also connected with the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO). It was primarily a Puerto Rican group led by Mexican national, Obed Lopez. They were forming a Wicker Park/Humboldt Park welfare rights union. It was well supported and became connected to several West Town groups like SAAC, MIO, PACA, PSP, and the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition. Today’s Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center was also part of that grouping, centered on the Wicker Park Welfare office at North Ave. and Milwaukee.
In February of 1969 LADO asked me to bring the Young Lords to support their picket line. The Young Lords came in large numbers and we also brought along Chairman Fred Hampton and other members of the Black Panther Party.
We arrived at the picket line and were there no longer than 15 minutes when the police rounded up Chairman Fred Hampton, Obed Lopez, and I. The three of us were placed into the paddy wagon and hauled to the 13th District Police Station. We were charged with mob action. Mary Lou Porrata of the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition and a few other Latina women were also detained and later released. The same situation occurred a couple of weeks later at the same location with Chairman Fred, Obed, and I. All three of us were arrested once again and charged with mob action in the same month of February 1969. This history is well documented in the LADO, Concerned Citizens and Young Lords newspaper collections at De Paul University and at Grand Valley State University special collections: www. gvsu.edu/younglords
Two months later in April, at the street corner of Armitage and Dayton, Chairman Fred Hampton and I were talking about police repression of our groups and the then political climate of fascism. He asked me if I or the Young Lords would object to being part of a coalition of forces for all of our protection. He said that the Black Panther Party was working with a new group on the Northside called the Young Patriots whose leader was William “Preacherman” Fesperman.
I made it clear we had no issues and agreed on the spot. Puerto Ricans had lived next to the hillbilly community at the “La Clark” neighborhood in the 1950s. There was also the Oasis Restaurant hangout at Webster and Bissell, and then a hillbilly gang called “The Rebels,” whose leader was a Puerto Rican, at a diner on Lincoln and Sheffield in Lincoln Park.
Within days all three groups were visiting each other and hanging out. Since the Rainbow Coalition became a response to Mayor Daley and the possible vehicle to stop the rioting, our first task as a coalition was to promote the announcement in a series of press conferences at various media outlets and various parts of the city. That was not a problem, as everybody wanted to be on the TV.
Fight Back!: What were the times like which brought you together?
Jimenez: The year before in 1968 was the Democratic Convention and the Black West Side, South Side and pockets of the North Side of Chicago had erupted into riots over the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Now, in April of 1969, once again there were strong signs that these same neighborhoods were going to again erupt. The Uptown neighborhood was turning into a decaying area and the new skid row. Puerto Ricans in Chicago had also rioted several times, and they now were the predominant force in the North Side’s Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods. Reporters had also been bloodied while they covered the hippies being beaten, and now a militant wing of the SDS, the Weather Underground was preparing to wear plastic helmets and use baseball bats to duel it out with the Chicago Police in the Days of Rage.
Still what Mayor Daley feared most was the united front led by Chairman Fred Hampton and the Rainbow Coalition. In fact, Hampton publicly referred to the proposed dueling of the Days of Rage as suicidal and “Custeristic” naming it after General Custer’s last stand. Hampton added that it would lead to unnecessary mass arrests. Our few attorneys would be diverted from the many Young Lords and Black Panther repressive court cases, and this would set the movement back years. Fred Hampton proposed working instead for a disciplined armed revolution and a classless society.
There was democratic discussion taking place among the New Left, which was healthy, but a clear division took place in October 1969 between the downtown Days of Rage event and the already planned Young Lords demonstration to be held within the Puerto Rican Community to honor Don Pedro Albizu Campos and the movement for self-determination of Puerto Rico.
Chairman Fred Hampton asked me if the Young Lords could accommodate the SDS revolutionary marchers from out of town as part of our Puerto Rico demonstration. Of course, I agreed since a contingent of our East Coast Young Lords were also coming and would be among them. This would also expand the march, having greater impact in the neighborhood. It became a counter event to the Days of Rage downtown, but the press focused more on the dueling between the police and the SDS and Weather Underground. During this same period, was when Chairman Fred Hampton took to the airways and expounded on the need to organize the people for a people’s revolution. Eventually we all were reunited but it showed the power of the FBI’s COINTELPRO infiltration and the U.S. government’s re-direction of the movement’s goals, along with “divide and conquer” tactics. It was not just COINTELPRO that helped to destroy the movement, it was members of our movement themselves, those who spread rumors, and put their personal opportunist interests above the people’s interests.
Fight Back!: What were the demands?
Jimenez: One of the questions, which Chairman Fred Hampton repeated and demanded that mother country radicals ask themselves, was, “How can you go all the way to Vietnam without first going through the West Side of Chicago?” Mother country radicals sought to become internationalists without doing the day-to-day work needed to win victory in our local ghettos and barrios. It is impossible to make revolutionary change without the people. Yet the New Left wanted instant gratification instead of canvassing door to door, or a step-by-step process. The New Left wanted to make change for the people, when self-determination meant making change together, with them.
Chairman Fred Hampton also said that our work was not like a theater. White activists must not just be entertained, by Black, Puerto Rican and other oppressed nationalities, but must also organize within their own communities to fight against racism. They must attack white chauvinism and stop promoting patronizing individualism. Black people should organize within the African American communities. Red, Yellow and Brown people should also organize in their own respective communities. It is not just about being inclusive and respecting each other’s diversity, but it is about making revolutionary change. This is also because each struggle is in its own point or process of development. There is no even template. We must take a look first at, “Time, place and conditions within each community” to determine how we can come together. That is why we tolerated the Young Patriots using the symbol of the Confederate flag.
Fight Back!: How did the Rainbow Coalition view Mayor Daley of Chicago? How about the U.S. President, Johnson?
Jimenez: He was the enemy. A revolution has friends and enemies, and Chairman Fred clarified this. How else can you battle and either lose or win if there are not two clear opposing sides: the red and the blue; the people and the enemy. The Rainbow Coalition officially began in April of 1969 and within 30 days, in May of 1969 Mayor Richard J. Daley, alongside his protégé States Attorney Edward Hanrahan, organized the Mayor’s political cabinet into a special committee to declare a “War on Gangs.”
President Johnson, the FBI’s COINTELPRO and Mayor Richard J. Daley were all clear on, “Who were their friends and who were their enemies?” Who were their opposing targets. To make it appear authentic, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Edward Hanrahan immediately attacked the street youth leaders of the Disciples, Black Stone Rangers and Vice Lords; arresting them and racking up multiple charges. Jeff Fort had about 19 pending felony cases. I had 18, Obed Lopez had nine, and Chairman Fred Hampton also had nine. There were others as well. This was an effort to criminalize without legal cause; to bankrupt our finances, harass us and put us away for life.
Today we know that the clear intended targets were not these street organizations but the political groups whom the political machine feared and whom Daley and Hanrahan labeled terrorist gangs: the Rainbow Coalition. It is true that by September the street youth leaders like Vice Lord Gore was behind bars, but it was also true that on September 29, 1969 UMC Pastor Bruce and Eugenia Ransier Johnson were discovered murdered, each stabbed multiple times at their parsonage home. It is true that two months later, on December 4, 1969, State’s Attorney Hanrahan took a personal police task force to assassinate Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their home. The patronage machine and Mayor Richard J. Daley was the clear Father of Gentrification in Chicago which displaced thousands of poor from the city. Police brutality became part of the fabric of Chicago and the Rainbow Coalition was organized to build a People’s Army to fight against it.
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said that the basis of all revolutions is land. The Young Lords studied the modern-day land question and began to comprehend today’s city hall plan to privatize public housing and to force the poor away from downtown and the lakefront. These were prime real estate areas where all our barrios were built. So, we were not poor by choice. We were robbed.
The Rainbow Coalition was more than just a gang of activists or folks trying to gain one or two small victories. Demands are for battles. What we wanted was revolutionary change. Each of our groups were already small revolutionary armies connected to the people’s struggle and trying to create a People’s Army to win the battle. We were lumpen proletariat, peasants from the countryside, or urban and factory industrial workers. It is why Chairman Fred Hampton’s quote stands out, “I am so proletarian intoxicated that I cannot be astronomically intimidated.” Ours was never a middle class liberal revolution, but a true grassroots people’s revolution.
If you can comprehend this, you can visualize the type of loose yet disciplined alliance that dignified and respected the empowerment of each community and their cultures. Our goals were clear, simple and known to all.
Ho Chi Minh once said that the revolution was just a job like washing dishes. The survival programs were not reformist, but structures created to provide services while constructing the new world. They were not candy to be donated or given away but part of a planned attack to bring awareness and heightened contradictions. We were exposing the city for not providing food, health and other social services. We are never a non-for profit but revolutionaries.
Fight Back!: What are the big lessons from the Rainbow Coalition?
Jimenez: We must start from within and fight racism.
We must be clear on who are our enemies and who are our friends so that we can unite with the many to defeat the few.
Ours is not about individuals but a people’s struggle led by the common folk.
Ours is a protracted struggle that will take years and we must prepare ourselves for the long run via structured community programs specific to the revolution.
We stand for Puerto Rico, all Latin American nations and oppressed nations of the world, against colonialisms and for self-determination and neighborhood empowerment.
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