Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Radical Roots Of Community Acupuncture

Images from the Young Lords in the late 1960's and early 1970's.

Community Acupuncture and NADA Points

Updated September 2019:  I am excited to be part of the SEED Clinic {SEED = Support for Everyone Experiencing Distress} that started this past June.  I wrote this blog post about community acupuncture many years ago now, when a sliding scale/low-cost community acupuncture clinic was opening in Central Vermont.  I've since received NADA {National Acupuncture Association} protocol training using seeds or beads, so while different from using acupuncture needles, it uses the same 5 points whether using seeds, beads, or needles.  The clinic takes place every Thursday 6:30-8pm and the first Sunday of the month 5:30-7pm at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism classroom (downstairs), 252 Main Street, Montpelier, Vermont.  For more information please see the SEED Clinic: Facebook, on Instagram, and the website

I know that to many the thought of getting needles stuck in you is anything but relaxing. However, my acupuncture experiences have all been very grounding and rejuvenating, like I just woke from a nap. When I was living for a short time in North Carolina I found an acupuncturist who provided a sliding-scale, making this modality accessible for me. Later, I learned about Community Acupuncture or Group Acupuncture, which is quite different than what my acupuncturist friend calls "Boutique Acupuncture" which is more common in the States - seeing a practitioner one-on-one in a private room, having a full intake/consultation, laying down and getting needles put in points on various areas of your body.

In Community Acupuncture, people share space in one room, fully clothed, sitting or laying down, and needles are placed in the ear, hands, feet, face and/or head. While this atmosphere may be less private, it encourages a sense of community and may provide comfort to those less at ease with intimate, one-on-one, and/or unclothed settings. Practitioners are able to see more clients in less time, making these sessions much more affordable. Community acupuncture also encourages family members and friends to come in for sessions together. More family/friends = more comfort = more healing (hopefully). My friend who was inspired by the creations of Working-Class Acupuncture clinics changed her practice and found that providing Community Acupuncture greatly diversified her clientele, in terms of class background and ethnicity. The first two Community Acupuncture clinics that I received care at are both ones that friends were part of co-creating: Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, NY and Providence Community Acupuncture in Providence, RI.

I'm excited about the many efforts near and far to make health care more accessible, affordable/free, inclusive, and empowering.  This includes acupuncture and this is nothing new.  Those who've gone before have paved the way for community acupuncture to persevere and flourish. This includes those involved in such grassroots organizations as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. These groups, when mentioned at all in mainstream media, are usually described as criminals, gang members, cop-killers, and other terms used to instill fear and perpetuate separation between peoples who actually have much in common.  Rarely examined in mainstream media and history classes is the white supremacy, police brutality, systemic poverty, medical apartheid, aggressive military recruitment in communities of color and mistreatment of veterans, and other forces that communities were responding to.  It's also rarely mentioned that both of these organizations included healthcare as a top priority - see the Young Lords Ten-Point Health Program and Black Panther Community Programs.

Having recently learned that Community Acupuncture will soon be available in Central Vermont, I've been thinking about the Young Lords, both their organizing efforts during the late 1960's and early 1970's and those who've continued organizing today. The summer before last I heard Democracy Now's brilliant program "Influential Puerto Rican Activist Group the Young Lords Marks 40th Anniversary."  Former Young Lords spoke about how, inspired by the Black Panther Party and other community groups organizing for healthcare, education, and self-determination, and against police brutality and poverty, collaborated to meet the needs of their communities. The Young Lords took over a TB testing van that greatly underserving the people who needed it most, and later took over the Lincoln Hospital because of the lack of access to healthcare in the community. (I highly recommend listening to the broadcast and hearing the stories directly from people involved at the time!) I realized after the program that I'd heard of Lincoln Hospital before, because it offers free 2 week trainings in auricular acupuncture, where needles are inserted into the ear to support withdrawal (from street drugs/medications), promote relaxation, and address imbalances caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  

I had heard of this program and hoped to one day receive training there, but I had no idea that the center's history reached back to the days of radical mass movements in response to racism here and abroad, including the Vietnam War, during the 1960's and 70's. I had been writing to a few US Political Prisoners (PPs) for many years, and knew that these community organizers who were targeted by the US Government, including the FBI's COINTELPRO program which used illegal tactics, infiltration, and assassination to destroy peoples' movements, have contributed greatly to my life in ways that I'm not even aware of. However, I hadn't realized that there was a direct relationship between my passion for herbalism and community health and the US PP's I'd been corresponding with, who'd been involved with the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Front, the Weathermen/Weather Underground, the American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and who'd also organized with the United Farmerworkers, against apartheid in South Africa, and for Puerto Rican independence.

Wikipedia writes: "The Lincoln Hospital's acupuncture drug detoxification clinic was founded in the South Bronx by activists involved with The Black Panther Party, The Republic of New Afrika, the Young Lords, and Students for a Democratic Society. The clinic offered drug rehabilitation with a holistic approach, employing acupuncture, political education classes and community service.  In the courses, participants learned about their addiction in a political context, exploring how their addiction harmed themselves, their community and family. It also explored the role of governmental institutions such as the CIA in drug trafficking and profiteering as well as how drug addiction has worked against progressive and revolutionary change. Community work was also politicized: doing work such as helping an evicted tenant find housing, welfare rights work, helping a family with transportation to go see an imprisoned relative, or attending a trial showing support for one of the many political prisoners who were being railroaded into prisons for their political work. 

Eventually the center was targeted by the FBI under COINTELPRO. FBI agents would attempt to turn drug addicts involved in the center into informants, often successfully. The tension came to a head when over 200 members of the New York Police Department
and their SWAT teams used excessive force to close it down. The government claimed that clinic workers were mismanaging funds, but others claim it was an excuse to close the clinic because of its revolutionary politics.
" The center is now known as Lincoln Recovery Center.

In a recent visit with US Political Prisoner friend/mentor, I learned that fellow PP/Prisoner of War Dr. Mutulu Shakur is an acupuncturist. He's been politically active since he was a teenager, when he became part of the New Afrikan Independence Movement. He became a licensed acupuncturist in the 70's and worked with the Lincoln Detox Center for 8 years, as a political education instructor, counselor, acupuncturist, and the Program's Assistant Director. He was a Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA) and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture and lectured before medical communities around the world. He is also the stepfather of hip hop artist Tupac Shakur. (Dr. Shakur was arrested on February 12, 1986. Click here for more information on his case.)

I'm going to include excerpts from a radio interview with Dr. Mutulu Shakur, though I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. Mutulu Shakur: On The History Of The Use Of Acupuncture By Revolutionary Health Workers To Treat Drug Addiction, And US Government Attacks Under The Cover Of The CounterIntelligence Program (COINTELPRO)

Free Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Mutulu Shakur with co-defendant Marilyn Buck (Rest in Peace),
and Revolution in our Lifetime by Emory Douglas

"So the Lincoln Detox became not only recognized by the community as a political formation but its work in developing and saving men and women of the third world inside of the oppressed communities, resuscitating these brothers and sisters and putting them into some form of healing process within the community we became a threat to the city of New York and consequently with the development of the barefoot doctor acupuncture cadre, we began to move around the country and educate various other communities instead of schools and orientations around acupuncture drug withdrawal and the strategy of methadone and the teaching the brothers and sisters the fundamentals of acupuncture to serious acupuncture, how it was used in the revolutionary context in China and in Vietnam and how we were able to use it in the South Bronx and our success. Primarily because we had a love for our people and we had a commitment to our people, we started very rudimentary....

...all the fads and the health foods stores and all of the reflexology clinics and all of these things that allow to function today would not exist if revolutionary men and women did not fight tooth and nail to spread the possibilities of another form of healthcare system to the third world grassroots community.

(The 200 policemen that raided the Lincoln Detox Center). . . just controlled the whole thing and fired all of us or told us that we were to be sent to other hospitals. Right now today you can go into New York City and in those municipal hospitals within the community, with the black and Puerto Rican and poor communities, a municipal hospital, not the private hospital, but the municipal hospitals, you can now receive acupuncture treatment for drug withdrawal as an alternative method of treatment. And that exists today because many men and women were put in jail, shot and killed, had mental disorders, all the things that go with on going low intensity warfare, all the suffering that can be attributed to that is for ??. The reason why men and women now can go get acupuncture and alternative healthcare has to do with that cadre of men and women. And they need to be praised and that situation needs to be correctly analyzed.

(Dr. Mutulu Shakur uses the term "chemical warfare" to describe the intentional infiltration of communities of color/poor communities with drugs by the US government. Also, when asked to describe his use of "low intensity warfare," Dr. Shakur said, "I think a lot of times we put titles on things to cut the explanation and where we need to put the explanation, make the explanation more clear. Low intensity warfare very simply put, is the play on the weaknesses and uncovered flanks of organizations or formations that are a threat, to the powers that be or to your adversary. As it relates to us and the United States government and military government, we, the liberation movements, were infiltrated with agents, money was stolen and we were beginning to accuse each other, work that we were doing to educate and propagate to the community was being subverted and converted ’cause we did not control the media process. Our own egos were being used against us very fundamentally. Your mail was being stolen when you expected the mail to come for this, that or the other. Shoestring budgets were being stretched to the limits so we would fail to make certain deadlines. So we began to feel inconsistent, impotent, incompetent and we felt that the things were falling apart. So our morale began to weaken. So with a weak morale and a vicious military attack, an assassination of key leader, or a car accident driving him off the road, or an addiction or a supporter or something, anything that can breakdown the fundamental structure and the spirit of a formation is low intensity warfare. Where you’re being attacked everyday but it’s not the clear line that you anticipate. And it’s not haphazard attack. It’s a very fundamental, thought out, programmatic attack at the weaknesses that have been reported by the agent to the superior.")

In conversations with herbalists, acupuncturists, and others dedicated to accessible community health, often we speak of "health justice" as a fairly new concept. A new vision of healthcare that is inclusive of communities that have been excluded by the mainstream, dominant medical system that is dictated by straight, cisgender (non-transgender), upper-class, able-bodied, white men and corporations. However, this pharmacetical-flooded and profit-driven system is quite recent. Plant medicines and other traditional modalities such as acupuncture have been practiced much longer and their practice continues. And this generation is not the first to work for community healthcare rooted firmly in self- and community-sufficiency, a sense of empowerment and liberation (rather than perpetuating racism, ableism, ageism, mysogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc as well as rigid ideas of what's "normal"), and putting people's health before profits and ego.

My hope is that as we move forward with projects that embody our passion and vision of community healthcare, we draw on the lessons and wisdoms of our elders, many of whom are still held in US penitentiaries for their work serving the community. May we remember those who have passed, those who are incarcerated, and those who are still working for health justice - both from the inside and the outside. Let's read up on our history! Let's correspond with those community organizers held in prison, to share our ideas, learn directly from their experiences, and receive their feedback! And let's share what we learn, especially with the youth so that they may have the knowledge that they are part of a strong movement that stretches far back in history.

The Lincoln Story by Ellinor R. Mitchell
May Day Free Acupuncture at Devi Health in Chicago (video)
National Acupuncture Detoxification Association
Acupuncturists Without Borders is a non-profit group who treats trauma victims in a group acupuncture setting, including Haiti and New Orleans post Katrina and has reserached P.T.S.D. for their Military Stress Recovery Project.
The Mujeres of the Young Lords By Erica González
The Young Lords’ Legacy of Puerto Rican Activism By Jennifer 8. Lee


  1. Chester Community Acupuncture in Chester, VT and Vermont Community Acupuncture in Burlington are 2 other other clinics also open for affordable business. Thanks for an interesting article.

  2. Thanks for the post Dana! Just and FYI...Josh Singer in Montyp @ Integrative acupuncture and oriental medicine is one amazing man!

  3. Thank you so much for this amazing article and for high lighting the connections between the work that community acupuncturists are doing today with the work of preceding work done by the Young Lords and the Black Panthers!-Mimi

  4. When I first moved to New haven in the early 70s I went to a free health clinic that was run by the Black Panthers.

    Thanks for a really informative article that gives a good look at our recent history and helps me see why I am dedicated to sustainable, affordable herbalism.

  5. Thank you for the historical background and the credit due our much maligned community organizations, such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.