Interview with Vicente “Panama” Alba, by Molly Porzig
hat was the Lincoln Detox Center? How did it start and why?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York, we were living through a drug epidemic. In November of 1970, I was 19 years old and had been a heroin addict for five years. I began using heroin when I was 14, which was very common for young men and young women of my generation. Fifteen percent of the population was addicted (communities in the South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Bushwick in Brooklyn, including everyone from a newborn baby to an elderly person ready to pass on). The concentration of addiction was on teenagers and people in their early 20s and 30s. Addiction at that time was primarily to heroin.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government engaged in a war in Southeast Asia commonly known as the Vietnam War, but the United States was involved in all of Southeast Asia. There was an airline that was an operation of the CIA transporting heroin from Southeast Asia to the U.S. We see now in Hollywood movies “gangsters” importing heroin, but the bulk of heroin imported to the United States was a United States government operation, targeting poor communities of color, black and Latino communities.
In New York, heroin devastated most of Harlem and the South Bronx. Young people utilized heroin very publicly, sniffing heroin at dance halls or in school bathrooms, which led to shooting up intravenously. This was an epidemic that Black Panther Michael Cetewayo Tabua, one of the New York 21, wrote a pamphlet on called “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide,” which we used widely. In 1969, the Black Panther Party in New York City was decimated by the indictment of 21 Black Panthers and needed to focus on the trial, becoming inactive in other areas at that time. Because of the relationship the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords had, together we began looking at the heroin epidemic, the general health of our communities and the public health positions of institutions against our communities.
Lincoln Hospital was built in 1839 to receive former slaves migrating from the South. By 1970, it was the only medical facility in the South Bronx. It was a dilapidated brick structure, from the previous century that had never been upgraded. It was known as the “butcher shop of the South Bronx.” In the old Lincoln Hospital (and even today) you walk down the hall and see blood everywhere—blood on the walls, the sheets, the gurneys, your shoes. Doctors were assigned there for internships and learned on Blacks, Puerto Ricans and a very small diminishing white community in the South Bronx.
In early 1970, there was a woman by the name of Carmen Rodriguez who was butchered in the hospital and bled to death on a gurney. Following that death, the Young Lords, with the participation of some Black Panthers, took over Lincoln Hospital for the first time and demanded better health care delivery for people in that community.
During the takeover, the Young Lords, Panthers, supporters and translators set up tables where people came to document their experiences of the medical treatment. A major part of the takeover focused on how there were no translators at Lincoln Hospital. South Bronx is a predominantly Puerto Rican community, primarily of Spanish-speaking people newly arrived or second generation who spoke little-to-no English. People would walk in Lincoln Hospital for medical treatment and there was nobody there to understand your ailment or problem. The hospital administration had also been confronted about the lack of services for people with addictions, primarily heroin addiction. The community had told the hospital one of its shortcomings was that you come to the hospital and you get no treatment whatsoever. The hospital administration paid no mind to it.
Months later on November 10, 1970, a group of the Young Lords, a South Bronx anti-drug coalition, and members of the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (a mass organization of health workers) with the support of the Lincoln Collective took over the Nurses’ Residence building of Lincoln Hospital and established a drug treatment program called The People’s Drug Program, which became known as Lincoln Detox Center.
The police surrounded us and we said we weren’t leaving. By day two, the takeover had spread by word of mouth and we had hundreds of people lined up wanting to get treatment for addiction. About a month later, the administration had to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t leaving. They had been sitting on the proposal of some monies that had been earmarked for treatment that hadn’t been implemented. The money was brought and staff was hired from the very volunteers of the Lincoln Detox program we started. Of course the powers that be did not want us there but could not figure out how to deal with people saying we ain’t going. We’re staying and we’re going to serve our people.
We were very effective in doing so, and kept our program running until 1979.
What was your involvement?