Just after dark, a dozen young Puerto Ricans approach 21 Kennedy Street, an abandoned building near Keney Tower. Within minutes they are inside, establishing the space as a liberated area to be used for a breakfast program, free clothing distribution and drop-in center. Hartford Police show up but take no action against the teenagers, who call themselves the Peoples Liberation Party (PLP).
The day of the occupation, November 23, 1970, coincides with a surge in community anger over police brutality. Abraham Rodriguez, an unarmed nineteen-year old, had been killed the previous spring by Officer Anthony Lombardi (subsequently fired by the department). A recent small disturbance at the Lyric Dance Hall on Park Street turned into a police riot where women and men were indiscriminately beaten.
The PLP is influenced by the Young Lords Party, a New York City group that has been engaging in militant community organizing. The Lords have occupied an empty church and use it as a community center. They commandeer an unused medical testing truck to conduct the TB tests that would otherwise not be available. And in their boldest move, the Young Lords take over Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx on July 14th in protest of the substandard care the city provides. In solidarity, most of the hospital staff stay in the facility as well and continue their work. Their action forces the city to build a new hospital.
As described by 17 year-old Jose Claudio, the PLP’s leader, the Kennedy Street building is owned by the Hartford Housing Authority, one of many abandoned buildings throughout the city’s north end. Now the structure will have a purpose, he says, as party members paint the walls and fix the water pipes.
In less than a month, the group has set up a second site at the South Park Methodist Church. They plan to provide political education classes and work on the desperate living conditions in their neighborhoods. The community space is called the Abraham Rodriguez Memorial Center.