During a routine inventory of a Queens warehouse last week, archivists found 520 boxes full of surveillance files from the New York Police Department on the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam. However, just two years ago, Baruch College Professor Johanna Fernández – a historian writing a book on the Young Lords – was told the files didn’t exist.
Galvanized by the Civil Rights Movement, the young, urban Boricuas out of Chicago and New York known as the Young Lords fought for justice for the Latino community in the 60s and 70s. They advocated for everything from queer rights to self-determination for Puerto Rico, and as they challenged the government, the NYPD kept meticulous records on them. With police officers even attempting to join the group to subvert their work, the Young Lords took precautions. “In many instances, they had to destroy documents in order to protect their comrades,” Fernández told Gothamist.
As a result, Fernández had to turn to the very group that tried to obliterate the Young Lords. Years of writing letters did nothing, and at one point, the department told her that they didn’t have any records that proved useful for her book. However, according to the New York Times, Fernández didn’t buy this because by that point, she already got her hands on dozens of police report pages from 1969 to 1970, which detailed extensive monitoring of the Young Lords. She sued the city in 2014, and after 100 hours of searches, Judge Alice Schlesinger dismissed the lawsuit. The mishandling of the information brought into question how police dealt with historically important documents, especially those that don’t paint the police in a positive light.
Flash forward to last week, and the city now has located thousands of files, with about 15 boxes containing mostly photographs. “This is going to be the most complete record of police files, of surveillance of political activities, I would venture to say in existence,” civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver told NY1. For Fernández this moment has been 10 years in the making, but she won’t get immediate access to the files. The New York Times reports that the city’s Records Department is setting up guidelines for who is able to view the documents.
Former members of the Young Lords also hope to get some time to pour through the records. Pablo Guzmán, for example, wants to know who police sent in to infiltrate them, but he won’t hold his breath. “But we’re not going to find out who the turncoats were, who the agents were,” he said. “They’re going to redact all that.”