In front of a wall filled with agitprop posters of Malcolm X, Mao Zedong, and Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, doctors stuck tiny needles into the ears of a woman going through heroin withdrawal. It was 1971 and they were demonstrating a new acupuncture treatment for addiction at a detox clinic at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. The woman, no older than 30, had a runny nose and watery eyes and shook with chills. But after the treatment, “you could see, immediately, her withdrawal symptoms receding,” said Mickey Melendez, 73.
Melendez was not a doctor. And the detox clinic was not a regular medical operation. It was run by the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil-rights group that Melendez co-founded. At the time, the Bronx was facing a heroin epidemic, with one in five people in Mott Haven battling addiction. But up until 1970, there had only been one detox clinic in the entire city, at Beth Israel in downtown Manhattan. That’s why the Young Lords forcibly started their own, on November 10, 1970, when they took over the former nurses’ residences on the sixth floor of Lincoln Hospital, and started what came to be known as the People’s Clinic. That summer, as the new Market Road Films documentary Takeover shows, the Lords had taken over the entire hospital, which was known in the neighborhood as the “butcher shop”: Its deplorable conditions — blood-splattered walls, roaches — led people to describe it as a place where you went to die. On top of this, the building was in such disrepair that it was condemned. After a 12-hour occupation on July 14, 1970, then-Mayor John V. Lindsay promised to renovate the rundown hospital building. The Lords, emboldened by the first takeover, came back four months later, determined to get addiction treatment for the Bronx by any means necessary.
After starting the clinic, the Lords quickly realized that the standard methadone treatment they were providing was trading one addiction for another. So they looked to communist China for inspiration: “They used acupuncture to detox the people that were addicted to opium,” Melendez said. “So we said, this brings us all together, this brings our health program together, our politics together, our direct action together.” With the help of Mutulu Shakur — a Black Panther member who was a trained acupuncturist — and several white doctors who already worked at the hospital, they developed the five-point auricular acupuncture method, which was designed to stimulate the nervous system and liver to relieve withdrawal symptoms. The acupuncture, combined with tapering doses of methadone, helped many patients get clean in as few as ten days. The Lords worked as the doctors’ assistants and translators for the Spanish-speaking patients. “So we have to explain to them, ‘When you get acupuncture, you’re not going to get a rush, but you’re gonna feel so relaxed that you think you’re gonna feel you’re naturally high,’” Walter Bosque, a former Young Lord and nursing student at the time, recalls. “And people started liking it, they wanted more, and we got very popular.” The clinic opened at 9 a.m., but people would start lining up at 7 in the morning.
For the first eight months, the clinic was in financial limbo and everyone worked for free. Eventually, it received city funding and could pay its staff. By 1971, the clinic was detoxing 600 people every ten days, and many patients participated in the clinic’s political-education program. Lessons involved reading and discussing books like Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide by Michael Tabor or Mao’s Little Red Book. “The patients are, unfortunately, thinking that they’re the problem, that they’re the misfits,” Bosque said. “They don’t realize that the society is corrupt.” The idea was to get people clean and turn them into activists, too — and some patients did eventually become volunteers at the clinic.
While the clinic was successful in getting people off heroin, its radical politics meant the city was never fully onboard with its existence. But even if the mayor was wary of the program, the Lords felt like Koch knew who he was dealing with. “Because of the first takeover, certain things had been established, particularly with the city: that these people are serious, they’re willing to die for this, this was our commitment for it,” Melendez said.
But starting in 1973, the clinic suffered a series of major setbacks, including having its funding cut by a state health agency. And then in 1974, Dr. Richard Taft, a white doctor who worked at the clinic, was found dead of a heroin overdose inside a closet in the clinic. He wasn’t known to be a user, and the Lords believe that he was murdered amid conversations with the federal government about funding for the clinic.
The clinic continued its work for four more years, operating solely with city funding. But in 1978, Chuck Schumer, then a young assemblymember who chaired a subcommittee on city management, began to target the operation, saying that it mismanaged funds. In a press conference at the time, Schumer called the clinic a “ripoff drug‐treatment program” that the city had protected and continued to fund “through years of continuing scandal.” (Melendez denies claims of funds mismanagement.) In November 1978, Mayor Koch ordered the clinic to be evicted. “Hospitals are for sick people, not for thugs,” he said, according to a Times article.
The Lords agreed to leave, but since seven of them were part of the hospital union, they couldn’t be fired. So the city split them up, sending them to hospitals across the city. But the treatments developed at the People’s Clinic didn’t end with its eviction. After David Dinkins was elected mayor in 1990, Melendez was hired by the administration and expanded the acupuncture program to all city hospitals for a number of years. Dr. Michael Smith, one of the doctors who worked alongside the Lords at the clinic, also continued using the acupuncture treatment at Lincoln Recovery, the addiction-treatment center that continued to operate at the hospital (this version didn’t offer any radical political education with the treatment). He later founded the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association in 1985, which has trained thousands of people around the world in the five-point method the Lords developed. “I think he kept something going that I think otherwise would have just kind of also gotten put under the carpet,” said Sara Bursac, NADA’s executive director. But for decades, neither Smith nor NADA gave any credit to the Young Lords.
That began to change after the documentary Dope Is Death, which tells the story of the People’s Clinic, came out last year. Bursac says that after watching the documentary, she realized the organization needed to find a way to highlight its roots. “When the activists were forced to leave, the acupuncture came back, and everything sort of resumed,” Bursac says. “But I think the harm that was caused by the Young Lords leaving, or being purged, has never really been addressed in the organization — it was just kind of covered up.” Now, NADA acknowledges its origins, and Bursac has reached out to former Young Lords to talk about the radical history behind what became the NADA protocol. Juan Cortez, of New York Harm Reduction Educators, says that despite going through the acupuncture-based detox himself, he only recently learned of the Lords’ involvement when he went on to intern at the clinic. “I always thought it was Dr. Michael Smith, who was the medical director at Lincoln at the time,” Cortez says. “And even when I was there, the story only started from Dr. Smith on; they never really spoke about the activist part.”
After the clinic closed in 1978, Bosque continued to work as an acupuncturist and volunteer at events around the city to help treat people facing addiction. But his career took an unexpected turn earlier this year: He got a call from Dr. Mark Sinclair, who now oversees Lincoln Recovery. He had seen Dope Is Death, too, and asked if Bosque could come back to work at the clinic to train staff on acupuncture. Bosque initially didn’t want to, since he’s been retired for the past decade, but he eventually said yes — even though the clinic is very different now. “The seeds we planted bloomed, and we still have a movement of radical acupuncturists,” Bosque said. “Well, not as radical as we used to be back in the day. Things have changed, but the movement still exists.” Cortez agrees. “We don’t take over buildings anymore, right?” he said. “We work with the government to achieve our goals, but we still have some of the same issues, we still have racism, we still have health disparities, there’s a lot of things that we still need to work on.”