Rebellion in “La Colonia”

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Joaquín Solano & César Ayala

JOSÉ GARCÍA, A young Dominican man, was killed on July 3 by police officer Michael O’Keefe from the 34th precinct in upper Manhattan. Officer O’Keefe claims that García was a drug dealer and that he was armed with a .38-caliber revolver. Residents from the Washington Heights area who witnessed the killing of García insist that he was unarmed and that the .38-caliber gun said to have been taken from him was planted.

During the protests that erupted in the Washington Heights area of upper Manhattan following the death of García, according to Dominican witnesses, on July 5th police lieutenant Roger Parrino pushed Dagoberto Pichardo, another young Dominican man, from the sixth floor rooftop of a tenement building located on 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The police version, however, maintains that Pichardo “fell” by himself while being chased by the officer.

Several days of protest followed the deaths of García and Pichardo. The Dominican community marched to the precinct in protest. Vigils were organized outside the funeral home where García’s body was kept. About 100 cars, scores of garbage cans, and three buildings were set ablaze during the rebellion.(1)

The Dominican uprising differed from the uprising in Los Angeles earlier this year in two key ways. First, in Los Angeles there were no protests immediately after the beating of Rodney King. The protests came after the acquittal of the policemen. In Washington Heights, the mobilizations occurred immediately after the murder of José García and Dagoberto Pichardo and lasted four to five days. When the District Attorney announced that the grand jury had found no cause against Officers O’Keefe and Parrino, the mobilizations were minimal.

Secondly, Washington Heights had the character of a protest with barricades. Cars and garbage containers were burned in the middle of the street for fighting the police. The largely immigrant Dominican community of Washington Heights brought with it the method of struggle which it utilized in the 1984 protests against the International Monetary Fund in the Dominican Republic: the street barricade.

Many of the participants in the protests in Washington Heights had previous experience in street demonstrations and mobilizations in the Dominican Republic. This reduced the purely spontaneous elements of the protests and gave the movement a certain amount of organizational cohesion.

Roots of the Explosion

The incidents surrounding the deaths of García and Pichardo are only a part of the difficult situation which the Dominican community confronts. By themselves, the two killings cannot explain the eruption of protest which followed. Conditions in Washington Heights have been deteriorating for some time; the deaths merely triggered the pressure cooker that had been on the stove for at least a decade before the explosion.

Washington Heights has a population of 350,000.(2) Whites constitute 18.7% of the population, Blacks 11.4%, Dominicans 43.5%, and other Latinos 23.5%. Combined, Latinos comprise 67% of the population of the area. With 43% of the population claiming Dominican origin, the neighborhood has acquired two unofficial names: Quisqueya Heights, after the Indian name of the island of Hispaniola which is shared at present by the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic; and “La Colonia,” because the neighborhood feels to some of the residents as a colony of the Caribbean nation.

Thirty percent of the households and 45% of the population eighteen-years-old or younger live below the poverty line. Twenty-one percent of households receive public assistance. Slightly over half of the population is foreign born and 27% does not speak English.

A quarter of the population over twenty-five years of age has less than a ninth grade education.(3) Forty-two percent of families with children younger than eighteen years are headed by women. Of all the children in Manhattan awaiting subsidies to be able to join a child care facility, 37% are in Washington Heights.(4) These are official figures. Undocumented workers, who do not enter into the official statistics, live under much worse conditions.

Among the hundreds of problems which affect the community are:

* Institutional racism: The Dominican people is of mixed African and European roots. The color line which characterizes U.S. society results in daily discrimination against members of the community. Many of the officers who work in Washington Heights come from middle-class enclaves in Rockland County and Long Island. The distance they keep from the community is increased by the language barrier. Few of the officers of the 34th precinct speak Spanish.

* Gentrification of New York and marginalization of working people. During the 1980s, a speculative boom in real estate caused a general increase in rents. Moreover, thousands of units remained empty when landlords purchased apartment buildings and warehoused them, waiting to sell at higher prices. At the same time, homelessness increased dramatically in the New York metropolitan area. The Dominican community was hit very hard by this process. Of the 68,869 available apartments, 89% are private. Of all the districts of the city, Washington Heights has the smallest number of government-owned units at 8,093.

* Closure of health facilities: and abandonment of the Washington Heights area by the City authorities in charge of providing necessary health services. The following hospitals left the Dominican community: Delafield, Jewish Memorial, St. Elizabeth, Syderlin, and Logan Memorial.

* Loss of jobs: Industrial jobs have been leaving the inner cities. In the current recession, official unemployment in New York is above 9%. Unofficial unemployment is much higher, particularly in a community with large numbers of undocumented workers.

* Education: Shortage of classroom space and of decent education for the children of the community are of crucial importance: There is only one high school in Washington Heights. The one Dominican member of New York’s city council, Guillermo Linares, made his political career around the issue of education in Washington Heights. But while Linares got a career, the community did not get the educational conditions it demanded. Undocumented children can attend the public schools, but undocumented students are not admitted into the campuses of the City University of New York, the main public institution of higher education in the city.

Importing A Culture of Opposition

It is important to underline the causes of Dominican immigration to the United States. In 1965, United States Marines invaded the Dominican Republic and crushed a “Constitutionalist” popular uprising against the military. After the defeat of the Constitutionalist sector in the war of April 1965, elections were organized, under the tutelage of the invading Marines.

The “winner” in the elections was Joaquín Balaguer from the Reformist Party. Balaguer had been an important advisor to Dominican dictator Trujillo. His regime implanted a 12-year reign of terror (1966-78) which featured:

* selective physical elimination of all opposition, especially the revolutionary opposition which played an outstanding role against the U.S. Marines, combined with generalized repression in all layers of society.

* stimulation of Dominican emigration to the United States, especially among youth, as an escape valve to the social pressures of the regime. In the 1960s the U.S. economy was still in an expansive phase and was able to absorb cheap immigrant labor from the Dominican Republic.

* introduction of the drug trade and drug use. It is necessary to emphasize that, in addition to the other ills, the intervention of U.S. troops had as a consequence the conversion of the youth of the barrios, mainstays of the revolutionary oppositional struggle, into the principal consumers of drugs.

Despite these facts, there were waves of protest with ingenious methods of struggle which demonstrated the great capacity for self-organization of the Dominican people. There were struggles against the impositions of the International Monetary Fund during the presidential terms of Antonio Guzmán and Salvador Jorge Blanco. These struggles culminated in the “Insurrection without Weapons” against the International Monetary Fund, which cost so many lives in April 1984.

But under the formulas for “growth” of the International Monetary Fund, joblessness has been increasing in the Dominican Republic. The exodus of population from the countryside to the cities cannot be absorbed by the meager industrialization of the island. Manufacturing in the Dominican Republic has developed largely in the “Free Zones” (Zonas Francas) where foreign-owned industries escape local taxation and deprive the Dominican state of sources of revenue which could be used for developmental purposes, particularly the development of an economic infrastructure.

Foreign loans are tied to measures of “fiscal responsibility.” The Dominican state has eliminated subsidies on basic consumption items. These austerity measures have aggravated the conditions of life of the marginal poor in the cities and towns. Dominican workers are forced to emigrate to survive.

Media and Police Harassment

The New York City dailies have been launching racist stereotypes against the Dominican community. Washington Heights is located next to the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River and connects New York to Northern New Jersey. The bridge itself is an economic institution. The large market for drugs which exists in Washington Heights depends on suburban white youth from New Jersey, who come into Washington Heights due to its proximity to the bridge.

Dailies in New York have carelessly promulgated the stereotype of the Dominican drug dealer, angering the Dominican community. Alfredo Rodríguez, a thirty-two-year-old Dominican, complains: “There was going to be an explosion sooner or later. You saw the tension. There’s a lot of criticism of Dominicans and we’re very annoyed. It’s the image that a lot of people have portrayed. They think that we are all drug dealers.”(5)

Bodega owners are constantly harassed and subjected to exorbitant rents and police extortion. The 34th precinct is under investigation after allegations of drug-related corruption. Officers from the precinct have been accused of shaking down merchants by demanding “burglary insurance.” Last year Joseph Occhipinti, a federal immigration agent, was convicted of illegally searching bodegas and beating up the owners.(6)

Taxi drivers also suffer from lack of police protection. Only a few months ago, a Latino cab driver was mugged and/or killed every day (many of them were Dominican). Street vendors suffer confiscation of their goods by the police, depriving them of the right to make an honest living for themselves and their families. All of these factors account for the explosion of protest which took place in Washington Heights.

Outcome of the Protests

Struggles against police brutality are difficult to wage and even more difficult to sustain. In a typical pattern, the protests of the community in Washington Heights flared up and dissipated slowly.

As soon as the protests erupted, over 2,000 NYPD officers occupied Washington Heights. Police moved around the neighborhood in contingents of forty and helicopters surveiled the area without interruption. Until the present, Washington Heights has remained a militarized zone, with the police increasing their presence according to the level of community mobilization.

The City of New York, particularly the Mayor’s office, has organized a public relations campaign in the community. Michael Kharfen, Mayor Dinkins’ point man for civil disturbances, set up a sort of command post and rumor control center in the community. Through Kharfen, the Mayor’s office paid for the funeral arrangements and burial of José García in the Dominican Republic. For this act of pacification, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association refused to invite Mayor Dinkins to its annual celebration.

Marlene Cintron serves as Dinkins’ “liaison for Latino affairs.” Together, the public relations people and the police high command met to strategize how to disperse and counter the protests. Dominican councilman Guillermo Linares “worked tirelessly to calm his Washington Heights District.”(7)

The authors interviewed residents of Washington Heights who claim that Alianza Dominicana, a local community service agency, received budget reinforcements after the protests. The 34th precinct let it be known, according to local residents, that contrary to customary practice, people arrested in any demonstrations would be reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

A grand jury investigation was to decide whether to charge Officers O’Keefe and Parrino for the murder of García and Pichardo. Before the release of their results, the public relations “machinery” of the Mayor’s office switched into full gear.

Daniel Brito, who witnessed the death of Pichardo, retracted his previous declarations in a sworn statement. The Office of the District Attorney announced the decision of the grand jury one week after it was reached by the jurors, apparently in an effort to give the public relations machine enough time to do its work. When the decision was finally announced, the protests were minimal. The movement had in effect been demobilized through an intelligently balanced combination of repression and co-optation.

Lessons of the Struggle

While the uprising in Washington Heights did represent a mass political mobilization of the Dominican community, the failure to sustain it points out several issues that Dominican activists will have to confront in future struggles.

The Dominican community in New York is essentially disenfranchised. Immigrants are deprived of voting rights, even in municipal elections. Most undocumented immigrants have little legal recourse in case of abuse, do not qualify for employment in the government agencies, and find themselves operating in the “informal” sector of the economy. The inevitable conclusion is the need of a struggle for political enfranchisement of the immigrant population.

In the struggle against police brutality, the Dominican community found itself with few allies. The Puerto Rican Democratic Party politicians, who are better established in the political machinery and who routinely pay homage to the idea of Latino unity, were totally absent from the scene. The conclusion is inevitable that Latino unity must be built from below and must bypass the Democratic Party politicians–Puerto Rican as well as Dominican–whose main job is to get a piece of the municipal budget allocated to them in exchange for delivering the “ethnic” vote to the Democratic Party.

Dominicans, like the Puerto Ricans, the African Americans, and the other people of color in New York, are overwhelmingly members of the working class. Working people are at their best when they organize in their workplaces.

The struggle against police brutality is a defensive struggle. It is hard to keep such a movement organized and in motion over time. The majority of the community suffers from police harassment, racism, lack of housing, discrimination, and so on. But in order to be effective, a Latino movement must be linked to a militant trade-union movement which combines workplace organization with community organization.

The U.S. labor movement is at present unable to play this invigorating role in communities of people of color. And the role of Dominicans in the unions is minimal. At the same time, the decaying U.S. labor movement (16% of U.S. workers are organized) must find a way to organize the new workers of America in order to revive unionism. If the existing unions refuse to organize the immigrants, then the immigrants must organize their own unions. Only then will Latinos be able to overcome their basic weakness in U.S. society: being a working class people without working-class organizations.


  • Joel Siegel, “Washington Heights in City’s Front Burner,” Daily News, 7-8-92.
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  • “Los dominicanos son los grandes marginados en `la Gran Manzana’,” El Diario La Prensa, 7-8-92.
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  • “Washington Heights at a Glance,” New York Newsday, 7-8-92.
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  • “Los dominicanos son,” El Diario la Prensa, 7-8-92, op. cit.
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  • “Seeking Respect, Justice in Washington Heights,” New York Newsday, 7-8-92.
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  • Rose Marie Arce, Alison Carper, Elaine Rivera, “Height of Frustration: Two Cultures Clash in `La Colonia,'” New York Newsday, 7-8-92.
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  • Bob Liff, “Gears in Motion,” New York Newsday, 7-8-92.
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  • November-December 1992, ATC 41