We wanted to say thank you to Cleo Silvers and to everyone who came out last Saturday, as well as to the workers at Morningside Heights NYPL for being so supportive.
Cleo’s talk was incredibly inspiring, and everyone there raised crucial questions about organizing, healthcare, and what we do to move forward. We focused on a mix of discussion of strategy and tactics–such as worker inquiries, occupations, and the importance of building long term relationships that are rooted in struggle–and broader political question—such as the role of unions and non-profits in holding struggle back and managing the decline of the working class, moving beyond “identity” to think about the material class positions that we need to struggle from as workers, and the relationship. between the medical system and the rest of capitalism.
Also, in case you missed it in our newsletter, below is the text of the interview with Cleo about the Think Lincoln organizing. Enjoy and hit us up if you want to get invovled! We are currently doing the kind of surveying Cleo mentioned and it is a great experience.
Think Lincoln! And Then Occupy It: The Legacy of the Think Lincoln Committee
Florence Johnston Collective had the opportunity to interview C.S., a former member of the Think Lincoln Committee (TLC). In July of 1970, TLC occupied an abandoned Nurses Residence building at Lincoln Hospital. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Could you tells us a bit about the groups you were involved in during 1960s and 70s?
I was in the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Young Lords Organization (YLO). YLO was the Puerto Rican equivalent to the BPP whose major focus was New York City and between Puerto Rico and New York City. The goal was Puerto Rican freedom and independence, and equality and justice for people of Puerto Rican descent in the U.S. In the 1960s-70s, black people, Puerto Ricans, and people of color couldn’t get jobs that made enough money to survive on. Sometimes it was because you didn’t speak the language, or you didn’t have education, or you didn’t have equality in housing or health care. There was simply no justice. Young people saw the Civil Rights Movement’s strides in fighting for justice and equality and began to see that in order to gain equality, justice, respect, dignity, you had to fight for it. YLO was a very young group. The average age was somewhere between 16-18 years old. We were young, but committed and courageous. The Think Lincoln Committee (TLC) was a coalition of doctors, nurses, community members, hospital workers from Lincoln, and orgs like YLO and BPP. We all came together around a single issue: quality, free health care is a right. We came together because health care conditions were so horrendous we could not ignore it. Lincoln Hospital was (and still is) in South Bronx. In the South Bronx and Harlem, asthma rates were extremely high because of the environmental situation and housing conditions. Infant mortality rates in South Bronx and Harlem were (and are) higher than many third world countries. You could go to the hospital to the ER on Saturday evening and be left waiting for 72 hours. You could go into surgery and have the wrong kidney taken out, easily. We heard stories of people with surgical instruments left inside their bodies. Mental health treatment meant giving out psychotropic drugs and keep just keep people drugged up. 1/4 of the people in South Bronx and Harlem were addicted to heroine. 1/4 of the population! There was no program for drug addiction treatment. There were other environmental issues like lead poisoning and sickle cell anemia. It was an uncaring form of health care delivery; it was essentially racist. The service and treatment at Lincoln Hospital would never have been allowed in a rich community. So it just seemed to us that this was a logical thing to work around.
What did the Think Lincoln Committee do?
We set up a table in the ER to (1) take complaints, and (2) be an advocate for people who came to ER. I learned what little Spanish I know by translating for people. 3-4 people at a time would sit at the table. We were never not there. They would throw us out consistently and we would come back with our table. Throw us out, we would come back in! If we couldn’t get into the ER, we’d sit at the door! We would write down people’s complaints. It didn’t take long to prove there was a problem at Lincoln. We would carry huge stacks of complaints, written by hand, into administrative offices and said, “This is the problem you’re having!” We worked with some young doctors who would tell us what they just learned. They taught us things like lead poisoning symptoms. We would take that information, study, understand it, break it down, and share with the community. That’s how the community work started. We would get nurses, doctors and community members together and we would borrow/liberate/abstract equipment from hospitals, Department of Health offices, and doctor’s offices. TLC was known for stealing a tuberculosis truck. The City wasn’t using it, so we just took it. We took a doctor with us and we went around testing everyone. Free, preventative care was not being done at that time; we showed that it could be done. We found a lot of people who needed to be taken to the hospital to get treatment and they didn’t know it.
How did you move from tabling at Lincoln Hospital and “liberating” the TB truck to the occupation?
This was actually the second take over. A lot of people don’t know that. The first was by workers in the mental health center. I had a job as a community mental health worker, which is how I met the TLC people. My first week, the workers said they were pissed off, not treated well, had no education, and wanted to be respected in the psychological team. The union thought they were just troublemakers. So workers took over the mental health center, demanding training and upgrading. People don’t realize that TLC’s occupation was only possible because of what the mental health workers did before. What TLC did was possible because of what workers did before. The struggles before.
So this whole time, TLC was learning about the disparity inherent in how the system functioned. We spent time trying to figure out what we could do to turn this thing around. We thought we could turn it around by taking a bold action. At the same time, this was the occupation years. Everybody who was pissed off occupied the thing they were pissed off at and demanded something. It was obvious to anybody who looked at the conditions in our communities all over the country that something like this would be done. And then there was a critical event: the death of Carmen Rodriguez. She died as a result of a saline abortion at Lincoln Hospital. At that time, the U.S. Government was using Latino and African American women as guinea pigs to do research on birth control methodologies and lots of women were dying as a result. Birth control pills were tested on women in Puerto Rico without their consent. The death of Carmen Rodriguez in the OB GYN department sparked anger among community. So we planned this take over.
So you occupied the hospital. Were there people on the outside supporting you?
Lots of people. People brought food, water; everything we needed came from the community. There were older people who thought we were crazy but they didn’t want us to get beat up or starve so they brought food. Even the churches supported us. When the police came to kick us out and beat us up, it was a church who protected us! They took us to the basement to hide. No one knew where we were. Then, we came out in lab coats in small groups with 10 or 15 minutes between each group. I walked out of there right past two police cars and into the church. 100 of us walked out like nothing! The police wanted to beat us up but they had no idea where we were. We just disappeared!
Were mental health center workers involved in TLC and occupation second time?
Absolutely. Without them it wouldn’t have been possible. We had nurses, interns, residents, attendants, doctors. It was diverse and intense. We all used to meet together in the mental health center. It was kind of an evolution. And we came together.
When Florence Johnston Collective meets workers and we tell them about this occupation, some say this is not possible today because there are no leaders like the Young Lords and Black Panthers. What would you say to them?
You’re the leader. You have to do it. Someone has to step up. If you’re smart enough to see that there’s not leadership, then you’re the one.