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Members of the Young Lords, Black Panthers and Young Patriots march in protest over the fatal shooting of Manuel Ramos by an off-duty Chicago police officer.

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Letter to a Young Lord: Remembering Manuel Ramos

Fred Hampton was killed in a police raid seven months after you, Manuel Ramos, were gunned down by an off-duty police officer in Bridgeport in 1969. Hampton was 21. You were just 20. You also were my grandfather.

Members of the Young Lords, Black Panthers and Young Patriots march in protest over the fatal shooting of Manuel Ramos by an off-duty Chicago police officer.
| Sun-Times file photo

A Puerto Rican flag draped over your casket, as your comrades carried you out of a funeral home and thousands flooded the streets to get one last glimpse before you were laid to rest.

That’s a scene in the new film, “Judas and The Black Messiah,” which tells the story of your contemporary, Fred Hampton. He was killed in a police raid seven months after you, Manuel Ramos, were gunned down by an off-duty police officer in Bridgeport.

Hampton was 21. You were just 20.

You also were my grandfather.

The fact is, I don’t know much about you, other than that we share a name. But I always admired you.

You and other founding members of the Young Lords Organization fought to uplift the Puerto Rican diaspora in Lincoln Park. You were a leader among your friends. You wanted your heritage celebrated instead of forgotten for the sake of assimilation.

You helped fight for better housing, improved access to fresh food and stood up against urban renewal, which was pushing Puerto Ricans out of Lincoln Park.

This is the story I was told about the events that led to your death:

Your two kids — my father and aunt — were asleep when someone knocked on your Lincoln Park apartment door. It was a friend seeing if you were going to a party, but you were hesitant. You looked at my grandma and she gave you a look that said: Stay home.

A woman tries to tear down poster of Manuel Ramos, slain Young Lords member, which was on wall of her building in the 800 block of West Armitage Avenue in August 1969.
A woman tries to tear down poster of Manuel Ramos, slain Young Lords member, which was on a wall of her building in the 800 block of West Armitage Avenue in August 1969. She walked half a block, trying to tear down each of the dozen or so posters, as Young Lords tried to protect the signs.
Archivos Sun-Times

You told your friend no. But he was relentless, and you gave in.

At the party, you heard a commotion outside, and went to see what was going on. You saw a man yelling at your friends. You didn’t know he was an off-duty police officer.

You tried to break up the argument, calm things down, but failed. The man pulled out his police-issued gun and shot you and your friend. He lived. You died.

After the shots rang out, several Young Lords jumped on top of the man to hold him down until police arrived. He was not arrested. They were.

You were unarmed but the off-duty cop said you pointed a gun at him. Numerous eyewitnesses told police that was a lie. The officer was questioned and quickly released.

Initial news reports said no gun was found. Weeks later, news accounts began saying a gun was found inside a doorway. Those at the party insisted no gun ever was found.

Three weeks later, a coroner’s inquest found the killing justifiable.

The Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News both covered the aftermath of the shooting and the civil unrest it inspired. Your fellow freedom fighters called you a murdered revolutionary and a “ghetto child blown away.”

A Chicago Sun-Times story from May 6, 1969, about two marches protesting the deaths of two men. One march was sparked by the fatal shooting of Manuel Ramos by an off-duty Chicago police officer.
A Chicago Sun-Times story from May 6, 1969, about two marches protesting the deaths of two men. One march was sparked by the fatal shooting of Manuel Ramos by an off-duty Chicago police officer.
Archivos Sun-Times

But the handful of stories published in both papers failed to answer a simple question:

Who was Manuel Ramos?

Your death sparked thousands to hit the streets, protesting police violence against young Black, Brown and poor white people. Over 3,000 people overflowed the funeral home to view your body. Hundreds gathered in front of police stations, demanding charges be brought, and you were very much one of the catalysts for what became the original Rainbow Coalition.

On May 14, 1969, the Chicago Daily News reported “1,000 marchers — Puerto Rican, Blacks, poor whites and just plain angry people — participated” in a protest over your death, which was “evidence of a revolutionary coalition being assembled” in Chicago by the Black Panthers.

The Young Lords and others march in May 1969 to protest the killing of Manuel Ramos by Chicago police.
The Young Lords and others march in May 1969 to protest the killing of Manuel Ramos by Chicago police.
Archivos Sun-Times

The Young Lords also broke into an administration building at McCormick Theological Seminary in Lincoln Park on May 15, 1969. They barricaded themselves inside and hung a banner declaring it the “Manuel Ramos Memorial Building.”

Seemingly at no point did the papers feel the need to humanize your life, despite all the unrest that followed your death.

There was no interest in learning what you stood for or why the Young Lords were so hurt. They didn’t care that you were a young father. They didn’t ponder the impact your death would have for two generations.

You were just a dead gang-member-turned-political-activist; there was no room to explore your humanity.

Your death is something my father has never fully grasped. He often thinks his life would’ve been different if you were around. You could have helped him avoid the gangs and the drugs.

A commemoration of Manuel Ramos’ life by artist Ricardo Levins Morales.
Social justice artist Ricardo Levins Morales followed the Young Lords when he was just 13 years old. This piece commemorates Manuel Ramos’ life.
Cortesía | Ricardo Levins Morales

As a young Puerto Rican coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, he also was a victim of police brutality.

My dad taught me to avoid police at all costs. If I ever found myself in an interrogation room, a request for a lawyer is the only thing that should come out of my mouth. It was important to remain tight-lipped, even if police tried to beat a confession out of me.

“Getting hit over the head for 48 hours straight is a lot better than getting a life sentence,” my dad would tell me, again and again. I was maybe 8 years old.

And so I steered clear of police officers — even distrusting officers in my own family.

As a father, now it pains me to imagine speaking with my child about anything remotely similar, but for my dad, it was about keeping me alive.

In a lot of ways, you’re the reason I’m a journalist. My dad always said real power comes from the pen. Over the years, because of what happened to you, I have tried to make sure my work captures the humanity of events.

When my dad saw the trailer for “Judas and The Black Messiah,” including a depiction of his father’s casket draped in a Puerto Rican flag, his emotions took over, he said.

All these years later, the “what ifs” rushed through his mind again and for a moment, he felt like he was at your funeral for the first time — he was only a year old when you died.

As for me, I am still left wondering: Who was Manuel Ramos, beyond these pivotal, yet often forgotten, events?

The Young Lords, Cobra Stones, Black Panthers, Young Patriots and Students for a Democratic Society march to protest the murder of Manuel Ramos on West Armitage Avenue in May 1969.
The Young Lords, Cobra Stones, Black Panthers, Young Patriots and Students for a Democratic Society march to protest the murder of Manuel Ramos on West Armitage Avenue in May 1969.
Sun-Times files
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