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Remembering Juan Ramos, Puerto Rican Activist & Leader of Philadelphia Young Lords

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Democracy Now! co-host Juan González remembers his longtime friend and comrade, Juan Ramos, a founder and leader of the Young Lords chapter in Philadelphia in the early 1970s who recently died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. “It’s really not possible to overestimate the influence that Juan Ramos had on the social and political and liberation struggles of the Puerto Rican, Latino community, but also all communities, in Philadelphia,” shares González. Ramos was a lifelong activist and became a founder and first president of the Puerto Rican Alliance, which led numerous battles to defend bilingual education, oppose police brutality, and which spearheaded a large squatters’ movement in abandoned HUD-owned houses that eventually won titles to those homes for more than 150 Puerto Rican families. He also helped found the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights in the 1980s, served in the administration of Mayor John Street and was himself elected to the Philadelphia City Council for one term, and became a union organizer and a deacon of a Catholic Church in his parish in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Juan González in Chicago, as we turn now to remember one of Juan’s close, longtime comrades, Juan Ramos, a former Philadelphia city councilmember, founder and leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Young Lords. Juan Ramos died last month at the age of 71 after a battle with Alzheimer’s.

He was just 2 when his family moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, became active in civil rights in high school, spoke out against racism, police brutality, as well as poverty and housing issues in communities of color. He later helped lead efforts in the Puerto Rican community to defeat Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo’s attempts to eliminate term limits. Juan Ramos went on to found and lead the Puerto Rican Alliance, which fought for bilingual education, against police brutality, spearheaded a large squatters’ movement in abandoned government-owned houses, leading to over 150 Puerto Rican families eventually winning titles to those homes. He also served as a Philadelphia city councilmember, union organizer and church deacon.

Juan González, first of all, our condolences on the loss of your friend. Can you share more about Juan Ramos’s life?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, I think that it’s really not possible to overestimate the influence that Juan Ramos had on the social and political and liberation struggles of the Puerto Rican, Latino community, but also of all communities in Philadelphia. He was widely respected by people in the halls of power, as well as people, ordinary, everyday folks on the streets of Philadelphia.

You know, when he founded the Young Lords chapter in Philadelphia, he and the other people with him — Irma Lopez-Salter, Wildredo Rojas, the others who founded the Young Lords chapter — had a much more difficult situation than those of us who were involved in the Young Lords in New York. Of course, we were organizing in the era of John Lindsay, who was basically a mayor of New York who was a liberal Republican and who did not tend to want to crack down on any kind of dissident movements. However Juan and the other Young Lords in Philadelphia were facing perhaps the most neofascist mayor in American history, Frank Rizzo, who was an ultra-right-wing Democrat who was constantly attacking any kind of dissidence. He had a chief inspector of his Civil Affairs Unit, George Fencl. That was the red squad of Philadelphia. They were the ones who stripped the Black Panthers naked when they arrested several of them in North Philadelphia, who beat up a young Mumia Abu-Jamal when he was just a high school student organizing for better conditions of Black students in Philadelphia high schools. And George Fencl was the kind of guy who would go to every single demonstration and personally let any activist know that he knew their first name, he knew where they lived, and he was constantly trying to intimidate folks. The Lords in Philadelphia were firebombed twice in the first year of their existence, and no one ever found out who did the firebombings. So that was the kind of climate in which Juan was able to begin organizing in the Puerto Rican and Latino community at the time.

And he had amazing success. Even though I knew him from the Lords, it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia in the mid to late 1970s that I began to actually work closely with him. And by then, he was leading the fight against Rizzo to stop the charter change, so that Rizzo could not remain as mayor for life — a successful movement. And out of that came the Puerto Rican Alliance, which Juan was not only the founder but the first president of. And there were amazing things that the alliance did in its time. For instance, he was one of the first people to talk about the Navy presence in the islands of Culebra and Vieques, mostly because a lot of the fishermen who had been pushed out of their homes by the Navy in Vieques had ended up moving to Philadelphia, so there was a large community of former Vieques residents who lived in Philadelphia. And they produced a lot of solidarity efforts on behalf of those of their family members who were still on the island of Vieques.

And, of course, I think probably the most significant contribution that Juan made was his leadership of the squatters’ movement. After the savings and loans crisis of the late 1970s, there were thousands and thousands of abandoned homes, that were federally owned, because HUD had foreclosed on them, but no one was living in them. And so, we in the alliance led a squatters’ movement to basically — for people to break into the homes, to the boarded-up homes, and make them livable again, homestead. And we had hundreds of families in those homes. But the government was still threatening to evict everyone, so we started a whole protest movement. I remember in early 1980, we led an occupation of an Independence Hall, the seat of American democracy, I think the only time that Independence Hall was ever occupied by a group of protesters. And with the families and the children, everyone, we sat in at Independence Hall for a day, until the police evicted us. But George Fencl was so worried about the bad publicity of arresting children, as well as their mothers, that they basically put everybody into paddy wagons, drove them a few miles away and dumped us out in the street again.

But then, subsequently, I think the most significant civil disobedience action was in April of 1980, when we were still trying to get the titles to the homes of the squatters, and so we decided to occupy the headquarters of Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in a tough race against an insurgent Ted Kennedy, who was trying to contest his nomination for the presidency, and they were neck and neck going into the Pennsylvania primary. And on the day before the primary, we occupied the offices of Jimmy Carter. And back in those days, the offices were key, because, you know, all the mobilization of voters was done by phone banking and by the index cards that you had of your preferred voters. This was long before the internet and really before, mostly, computers. And so, they needed those headquarters, and we had occupied the state headquarters downtown on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.

And so, the Carter administration dispatched Bill Gray, who was the dean of the congressional delegation of Philadelphia, an African American minister, who was actually a good friend of ours. And I’ll never forget, it was midnight before the Pennsylvania primary, and Bill Gray meets with Juan Ramos and myself in a little bar a few blocks away from the protest. And he says, “Look, the White House has sent me down here. They’ve authorized me to negotiate with you. I give you my word that if you leave the offices tonight, because we need them for tomorrow’s election, you will get the titles to the homes for all the squatters. However, we can’t make any announcement. We can’t look like we’ve given in to you. But I give you my word.” And I, of course, was not in favor of just a word. I wanted something in writing. But Juan was much more wise about this, and he said, “Look, I’ve known Bill Gray all my life. I trust him. We’re going to accept his word, and we’re going to pull out.”

So we did, and the families pulled out. The primary went ahead. Carter won the Pennsylvania primary. And from then on, he swept Ted Kennedy in the remaining primaries. So, I think it was important that Juan had that kind of practical sense. He was a revolutionary, but he also had a practical sense. He wanted to get things done.

One of his other great accomplishments was the development of a children’s festival at Hunting Park in Philadelphia, which became an annual event attended by thousands of people, basically a series of games and athletic events and others that became a fixture of the Puerto Rican community of Philadelphia. There are so many things that he was able to accomplish.

Of course, beside being a city councilman, beside being an appointee of Mayor John Street in the Street administration, he was just a wonderful person with an enormous capacity for understanding how you meet the needs of people who are oppressed and in need of organizing. And he’s a great loss to the Puerto Rican community. And I want to especially express my condolences to his wife of many years, Ana Sostre, who herself led a — was the director of a fantastic folkloric dance group for many years in Philadelphia, and to all of the other comrades of his in that city.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan, we thank you so much for that remembrance. And again, our condolences. Juan Ramos, rest in peace and power.

When we come back, we will look at the life and legacy of the groundbreaking Irish singer and political activist Sinéad O’Connor, who has died at the age of 56. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Sinéad O’Connor.

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