Excerpt: "His Panic"

Actually, I forced myself on them. I graduated from Brooklyn Law School, interned at a community legal services office in the heart of Harlem at 116th Street and 8th Avenue, and then became the co-chairman of an activist group of minority lawyers we called the "Black and Brown Lawyers Caucus." In August 1969, I gained radical credibility when our group literally seized Donald Rumsfeld. The future two-time Secretary of Defense was then head of the Office of Economic Opportunity. We all worked for Federal Legal Services, which was part of OEO, so Rumsfeld was our ultimate boss. As part of a larger movement to protest Nixon Administration policies toward the poor (which included us), we invaded and occupied Rumsfeld's Washington office, holding him captive until we were all arrested. Hosting an Inaugural Gala for the wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC in January 2004, I recounted the story for the secretary and a group of generals. I got big laughs.

But in the day, there was nothing funny about our commitment to radical social change. By 1968-69, the Young Lords were advocating community services like free breakfast programs and testing for lead-paint poisoning for neighborhood children, campaigning for the independence of Puerto Rico, occupying a local hospital that was notorious for sub-standard care, confronting local police and other authority on behalf of Barrio residents, seeking common cause with similar civil rights/anti-war activists around the country in a grand, multi-racial 'Rainbow Coalition,' and idealizing a semi-socialist society. The Lords were led by a unique combination of college-educated activists and by several street-smart, old-school leftist organizers. Some of the former are still active in public life, like the poet and commentator Felipe Luciano, New York Daily News columnist and former head of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Juan Gonzalez and WCBS correspondent Pablo Guzman. The Lords were the first homegrown—that is Stateside—Puerto Rican activist group concerned with social issues like poverty and police brutality rather than focusing as most PR groups did at the time on the island's independence.

The Lords were getting press and not all of it was bad, staging protests, organizing confrontations with the local precincts and dealing aggressively with the somewhat sympathetic administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay. At the time the group was being represented by several traditional young white lefties from the Lawyers Guild. That's when I forced myself on them, rushing into their office typical of the radical 1960's—a smoky, crowded and poster-filled room in the shadows under the Park Avenue elevated train—and demanding that since I was the only Puerto Rican radical lawyer around who was their age, they were mine to represent. They were bemused—some still tell that story—but my offer/demand was accepted.

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