Friday, April 2nd, 2004

A Tribute To Richie Perez


This one is for the great Richie Perez, the brilliant, kick-ass New York organizer who was an inspiration, a mentor, and an example to so many of us.

Richie was born in 1944 and raised in the Banana Kelly neighborhood of the South Bronx. His parents had immigrated from Puerto Rico. When he graduated from Morris High School, he says, “My family-they gave me a choice, you know, go to the army or go to work or go to college.”

As one of the few Puerto Rican students from the Bronx at Lehman College in the early 60s, he studied economics and business education and observed the anti-war and civil rights movements beginning to take shape.

“I wanted to stay out of Vietnam,” he told me in an interview in 2002. “I wanted to be a journalist. But they weren’t giving draft deferments for English majors. As the inner-cities got more and more race conscious, whites who taught business subjects, most of them came they came from the rural areas, didn’t want to teach these things in the city. So there was a shortage of stenography and typing teachers.”

“And I was researching! Because now I can’t get a deferment on English and I know I’m of the age. So what the fuck am I going to do? Am I going to Canada? So I researched it. I mean I even headed down to the War Resisters League and I was looking at materials, how do you stay out of the war? It wasn’t like I had deeply formulated opinions about imperialism yet.”

He became a steno and typing teacher at Monroe High School, across the street from the Bronx River Houses, and joined the teachers’ union. Frustrated by what he came to see as the insipidness of mainstream left politics, he became radicalized by the Black Panthers and the anti-war movment. At Monroe, he began to recruit students into the Black Panther Party.

In 1969, he heard that a Puerto Rican group called the Young Lords was starting up in Harlem. “I remember I was in a party with a friend of mine and we’re trying to get a rap with these two women. You know we were trying to impress them with our political shit,” he recalled. “And they said, ‘Well if you really believe that, you shouldn’t be over here, you should be down in Harlem with the Young Lords. We struck out, they put us down. But the thing was, they were telling the truth man!”

“So me and him said, ‘You know what? They’re right.’ We went home both of us, threw on our leather jackets and our jeans, and we went down to the People’s Church–the one that had been taken over by the Young Lords.”

“There were activities, people speaking, political education, there were Panthers there. There were poets, lots of poetry going on. Pedro Pietri was there. A lot of people from the Nuyorican Village, a lot of musicians. The people hooked up a bass and drum and played for five hours. And I really liked what I saw there. Aside from the fact that we met some really nice women too! So anyway, I said for me, this is it.”

It was a life-changing experience. Perez soon joined the Lords and soon became Minister of Information, and edited the Party newspaper. At 25, he was one of the oldest in the Party.

The following year, Perez opened up the Lords’ Bronx office in his old neighborhood. After a rough bout with the local gang, the Savage Skulls, the gangs joined the Lords in bringing attention to the sorry state of health care in the Bronx, first with the takeover of immunization trucks and then with a takeover of the entire Lincoln Hospital.

In 1971, the Young Lords decided to export their revolution back to Puerto Rico. At this the point, Perez believed, the Party began to decline. “(The decision) was based on an incorrect premise. And the incorrect premise was that we are one nation and that we can export revolution from New York City to Puerto Rico. We would unite the nation, and we gonna show the people in Puerto Rico how you make a revolution,” he said.

“We get to PR and it’s very clear that we are different. We all got afros, we wearing dashikis, we got combat boots and fatigues, and the fucking hottest weather and all that shit. We can’t speak Spanish for shit. And our newspaper is an English. We are looking at military solutions. Unnecessarily. We are coming out of a capitalist, technological, fast food, fast imagery culture, and we’re comfortable in that culture. We go to PR and everything is moving too slow. The Movement in Puerto Rico ostracized us. ”

The Lords eventually retreated from Puerto Rico and began what Perez called a downward spiral into centralism and dogmatism. “We became like a cult,” he said. “We became so insulated there, only listening to ourselves. We were creating our own reality and validating our own reality.”

“We began to convince ourselves that we were the greatest threat to American imperialism. We were down to about 40 people. ”

By 1977, the party had split into two armed factions and violence became its own end. Perez and his wife were kidnapped by the opposing faction and tortured. They broke free and went underground. Perez would carry the physical pain for the rest of his life, walking with a limp and a cane. He mourned the ending of the Lords, a tragic end very similar to the Panthers, brought on by ego and COINTELPRO.

“When it ends with kidnappings and shit there’s no reconciliation. Because now we have blood debts,” he recalled. “That’s what happened to the Panthers. At the first point that someone is killed and a sequence of revenge back and forth, the possibility of reconciling becomes more and more remote. And that’s what we were involved in too.”

In time, Perez returned to teaching Puerto Rican studies at Brooklyn College, and became central to the creation of the National Congress For Puerto Rican Rights. Forced out of the College by right-wing extremists, he returned to the Bronx to organize, and came into contact with the emerging hip-hop culture just as it was exploding into its block party era.

In hip-hop, he felt the same excitement he had with the rise of salsa, a music movement he saw as tied to the surging political consciousness of the late 60s and early 70s. And he heard the same potential black-brown unity that he had heard in the bugalu music of the mid 60s.

Perez’s growing interest in cultural representation proved far-seeing. In 1980, he helped galvanize a national campaign to boycott the film Fort Apache: The Bronx”, the first shot in what would become a national movement for representation and multiculturalism.

“We used the Fort Apache struggle to mainstream ourselves,” he said. “And we built the broadest united front I have ever been in. There were more church people more middle-class elements and more forces that I normally would not have worked with. But it was good for us because it taught us a lot of how to do that.”

During the 1980s, this anti-racist movement would result in boycotts against Hollywood films like “Charlie Chan” and “Year of The Dragon”, calls for inclusive curriculum on college campuses and public education, and much more, eventually setting the stage for the breakthrough crossovers of black independent film and hip-hop culture in the late 80s.

Perez’s work turned next to the issue of police brutality. A number of high-profile killings in New York City–Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffiths and Yusuf Hawkins–brought the issue to the media spotlight. But as always, Perez was not concerned with being in the limelight but with organizing the community.

“We needed to go beyond ‘racist pig cop’, which is what we used to chant at them. We’ve got to get our people to understand that it is institutional and systemic question because we need a systemic change. Because if you want people to move to a revolution and the changing of structures they’ve got to see the structures that they are up against,” he said.

“So we began to talk about the need to take the community through a process of fighting around the case and that in that process they would learn all of these things and come to the conclusion that it was the system they had to fight, not an individual racist cop.”

“The families had to be empowered in that process as well, because standing on the outside screaming at the system is important, someone’s gotta do it and, but it carries much more moral weight if you are and the family is raising those questions.

“And it’s a different kind of organizing. It is much less rhetorical, much longer process. It was less of us vs. the State, it was more of the families vs. the State and we are back-up. We were their troops. But they are gonna fight the government.”

By the late 90s, with the Giuliani administration implementing the Broken Windows theory in zero-tolerance policing, police brutality surged to the fore again with the killings of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Anthony Baez, Yong Xin Huang, Gidone Busch, and many more. Perez helped organize some of the biggest demonstrations against police brutality in decades, protests which eventually resulted in the scaling back of zero-tolerance policy.

During his lifetime, Perez was always deeply interested in the Hip-Hop Generation’s political development, and he personally mentored hundreds of us.

In 2002, he sat me down for a day-long discussion in his office. We spoke about his life and work, and what he wanted to pass on to the Hip-Hop Generation. His words have become something of a credo to me. In memorial to an Elder, whose fighting spirit lives on in all of us, here are those words:

“The arc of history is that every generation has to fight the liberation struggle. Every generation. It doesn’t matter what the generation before you did or didn’t do. You’re going to have to deal with it.”

“It helps if there is a connection between the previous generation and the new generation. It helps, it doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes. Every generation will make their own mistakes, will create its own organizations, will create its own cultural forms, its own expression everything. And every generation will have its own rhythm.”

“See that’s what I want to be for this generation. At this point , I figure that’s what my role is. I mean I’m a great organizer and I’m an activist and I still like to kick ass, but how I can make my greatest contribution is I got to be part of that transmission of history. Because the time that you’re on the historical stage is short, man.”

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