My quiet brother, Pablo, had transformed into a student leader while I was in prison. I saw a confidence in his body after I was paroled, a passion in his eyes, a flawless political oratory. He and a friend, Victor Hernandez Cruz, organized the Franklin High School Student Movement (F.S.M) demanding ethnically relevant courses, better lunch-room food and more say in the decisions made in their high school.
Random House had just published Victor’s first book of poetry, SNAPS, but, Victor had remained humble, still hanging with the fellas and living subsistence style out of a theatre loft on 104th Street called The Gut Theatre. The director was a short, white Columbian named Enrique Vargas whose politics were romantically revolutionary,but, whose fund-raising was hard-nosed capitalist. Watching him work the arts administrators was a lesson in how to fight the power and keep your eyes on the prize. Enrique would quote poetry, recite long passages of novels, dance wildly with women in charge of the monies, smoke pot with them and deliver impassioned speeches on the plight of Latinos in the Western Hemisphere, anything, to keep that little building on 104th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenues, alive and functioning. For that time, our guerrilla street theatre group was extraordinary. Puerto Ricans loved seeing their daily oppression acted out with truth and hilarity. Our shows drew hundreds of folks. The bodegueros and small restaurants loved it ’cause they sold food and drink, but, they could also laugh at themselves and the short-term stupidity of some of their street corner greed.
I had befriended a local guy named George Rivera, jibaro to the bone, nationalistic, independentista, a family man who always had a weapon on him, who loved to fight and, more importantly, loved to win. But, he couldn’t beat his landlord who snatched Rivera’s bi-weekly welfare check for rent and would sneer when asked about the holes in the wall and the rats that lived in them. I told George the only way to fight this creep was to organize the block as well as the building, to call city buildings officials, stop the rent payments, start an organization, picket the building and call the press.
As I explained basic tenant organizing, George would listen with the most intense stare I’d ever experienced. He’d give me that stare and then say , “I don’t want to start some shit I’m not gonna finish. I’m telling both of you, and I don’t know if you really know what I mean, ’cause both of you are word guys, you talk nice and shit. I’m a street guy. If I say, I’m gonna kill you. I’m going to kill you. If I join this shit you’re talking about, I’m going all the way, not just for my family….for all of us.” Victor and I would look at him, look away and stay quiet. He meant it.
The day came. July,’67. Hot, sweltering, no breeze. When I hit the block, George, shirt open, hair disheveled, unshaven, gestering wildly with his arms out and crying, screamed, ” I’ve been looking for you all morning. Where the fuck you been?” Before I could answer, he grabbed my forearm and pulled me into his building and kicked his apartment door open. I stood transfixed, in shock. On his wife’s lap was his 7 year old daughter screaming hysterically with rat bites all over her chubby legs. In the crib, was his younger daughter, 3, open rat bites on her arms.
“I’m gonna kill this mothafucka,” was all George said repeatedly and then suddenly bolted toward the broom closet and grabbed a .22 Marlin rifle we had bought in Bridgeport, Conneticut the week before.
His wife, cradling the oldest child, started to scream at the top of her lungs, ” I’m gonna lose you too. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I can’t take this.” She was screaming, the babies were screaming, George was screaming, it was madness.
I ran toward the apartment door, locked it, turned to George and shook my head.
Just kept shaking my head no. I wasn’t going see him kill this piece of shit landlord and then die or waste away in jail, his family torn apart.
Get the fuck out the way, Felipe! I mean it. Don’t stop me, man. ”
I lost all composure. Started to cry, the snot rushing from my nose, tears down my face.
” We’ll do this together. But, please, Georgie, not like this. Not like this. Let’s find Victor. Let’s do what we said. If we find him on the streets, let’s kill him. If we don’t, let’s get our boys together and tear this neighborhood apart. Fuck it. I’m with you. But, let’s do this right. I DIDN’T COME OUT OF JAIL TO SEE YOU DIE TODAY. ”
George’s wife, hearing my plea, instinctively knowing I was begging for time, began to scream,”Georgie, listen to him. Please, papi, don’t do this. Listen to him.”
Disgusted and worn out, George threw the rifle on on linoleum floor, sat down at his wife’s knees and without looking up, said, ” Go find Victor. I’ll wait.” I knew I could take him at his word, thank God.
Running, running, running, grabbing people on the streets, asking them
desperately, “Where’s Victor? Have you seen him? Where’d you see him last?” Finally, I caught him 2 blocks from George’s apartment in the theatre. Why didn’t I think of going there first?
I burst into his little loft space on the second floor and ran it down. Victor listened carefully, looking at me sometimes to see if I was too far gone, but, mainly, stroking his beard and mustache, thinking.
“Well,” he said said, after I couldn’t go on anymore, “The time has come and the shit is on. You know the Chairman of the Black Panther Party is in town, Bobby Seale. You think we could see him? ”
Wait a minute, I thought. What the fuck does Bobby Seale have to do with rat bites, right now. But, the more I mulled the idea, the more I realized what Vic was leading toward. We said we wanted to build an organization. George made it clear to us that when he was ready, he would be ready to die. Well now, the system hurt his kids. He was ready to go all the way. And so were we. So why not go to the guy who had pulled guns out on cops in Oakland and demanded justice for young black brothers being arrested, who was not afraid to shoot it out with white men who thought we were less than human.
I had come to meet and admire Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committe(SNCC). The group’s name was such a misnomer because Rap’s whole credo was Arm yourself or Harm yourself. If I could get to Rap or James Foreman, I knew I could set up some kind of a meeting and lay our plan out for armed struggle in East Harlem, including killing this prick of a landlord.
Miraculously, I was able to set up a meeting with Foreman, one of most incredible intellects of the Civil Rights Movement, Bobby, the Chairman of the Black Panther Party and another Panther whose name was Pennywell or Pennyweather, something like that. The meeting was set for the next afternoon in some lady’s garden apartment on the West Side. Now, we had to explain the delay to a very distraught and angry father who wanted blood on the streets….now.