Reviewed in the United States on June 9, 2020
It's a rare occurrence to read a book at exactly the right moment -- not just "personally;" I'm talking about the right historical moment, as well. Fernandez's book, which chronicles the rise, growth, and ultimate dissolution of the Young Lords -- from alienated street gang, surviving in 1960s urban poverty, seeing the inequities and injustices firsthand while serving as interpreters of language and culture for their migrant parents, to internationally-known agents of change -- is a handbook for today's youth who are trying to make an impact on today's troubled society.
As I write this review, there are an unprecedented number of protest actions happening in all fifty states of this country, as well as internationally, in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man whose death at the hands of police officers was caught on video, and is only the most recent in a long line of such killings of unarmed black men. People have broken their Covid 19 quarantines by the thousands to come out and be counted, and there seems to be an overwhelming sentiment of "Enough is enough."
We're now at that crucial moment, where the talking heads have made their arguments on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the rest. We've gone out to be counted at our local protest, unapologetically calling out for justice in the streets. Some have expressed their anger and heartbreak in more violent forms, others have seized an opportunity to create mayhem and to steal.
And now comes the aforementioned crucial moment-- the "lull," as it were, that all too often ends in the placative "normalcy" that some folks yearn for -- that "Great" America that was never great for some. Complacency replaces upheaval, the status quo fills the vacuum left once the protestors put away their picket signs.
This is where Fernandez's book comes in. Instead of falling prey to the overwhelming tendency toward political inertia, instead of giving in to the "pendulum theory" of American politics (that which swings too far to the right will swing back to the left again), look at the example of the Young Lords and other revolutionaries like them that Fernandez writes about. Be inspired by their victories. (I did not know, for example, that those vivid PSAs I grew up watching as a New York-area kid in the 70's warning us about lead poisoning -- a baby, about to ingest a paint chip, next to a rusted radiator -- were a direct result of the door-to-door, grassroots efforts of the Young Lords.) Similarly, their actions at the Bronx's Lincoln Hospital led to the creation of a Patient Bill of Rights.
We need to be reminded in this important historical moment that political action can and will lead to change. Fernandez gives us this reminder, in an extremely well-written, readable narrative, that is exhaustively researched. She gives us not only the "victories" I've mentioned, but also provides a cautionary tale of what happens when movements lose their way, sometimes by falling prey to the very ills they're speaking up against, creating hierarchies based on ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
When, like so many other well-meaning white liberals, I posted, on Facebook, pictures of myself at our local Black Lives Matter protest, a distant cousin who lives in the UK commented "Dan, is there any hope for your country?"
I responded by saying "There's something about this current movement that feels different and gives me hope."
And I do believe that. I'm also concerned about the "lull" and the very real possibility of falling back into the status quo that leaves so many of my black and brown brothers and sisters on the outside, looking in, and wondering how much their lives really do "matter." As Fernandez says in her Afterword, titled "Coda: Beware of Movements:"
"Social movements and their organizations are not measured temporally but in terms of impact and the extent to which they shift consciousness, public debate, what's accepted, and how we live."
Not only do I encourage all the young leaders emerging in this current struggle to read "The Young Lords: A Radical History," but I do so for any member of the human race who believes we can reach a better, more just and more loving version of our ourselves.