Severe police brutality, constitutional violations and government sponsored propaganda are rampant and currently destroying civil liberties in Puerto Rico. Though nearly everyone is aware of the recent uprisings in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, the injustices being suffered by Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are hardly mentioned in mainstream media.
Students and faculty at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) have been holding “civil disobedience” strikes since Dec.14 in protest of a recently imposed $800 fee. Approximately 50 percent of the population in Puerto Rico is living at or beneath the federally declared poverty level. The flat fee combined with a dissolution of fee waivers, previously available to honor, athlete and low-income students, will prevent thousands of students from studying this semester, ruining graduation dates and courses of study.
This past December I tried to research the current manifestations of problems in Puerto Rico. Since most information is in scholarly articles a few years old, in Spanish, or seemingly incomplete, I traveled to Puerto Rico for the month of January to meet with students and learn about what is unfolding there. Nothing I read, certainly nothing in mainstream media, prepared me for the horrific violence I witnessed.
The way in which these peaceful protests have been met with violence and destruction of civil rights should demand the attention and concern of the U.S. and the world. The lack of media attention isn’t due to a decrease in news-worthy issues. When the crises in Puerto Rico are considered, the lunacy in claiming that Egypt is following U.S. leads in democratic pursuit is obvious. The U.S. must be held accountable for the democratic failings in its last colony.
When the increase of fees was announced, student representative committees immediately requested, as is the democratic practice, a dialogue with the administration and Board of Directors at the University of Puerto Rico flagship campus in Rio Piedras. However, the administration, which has strong ties to the current pro-statehood Partida Nueva Progresista (New Progressive Party, PNP) government headed by Governor Luis Fortuño, has denied opportunity for a dialogue, publicly denied that there is a strike or any negative reaction to the fee and ordered an overwhelming police presence which has effectively turned the campus into a militarized zone.
The administration also successfully pushed a bill through the legislative body drastically limiting the areas where it was “legal” to protest to places marked with an “area of expression” sign. This is a drastic and unwarranted violation of the First Amendment, freedom of speech and expression. It is a more serious issue that the bill orders police to “subdue” and “arrest” anyone whom they suspect to be protesting outside of the areas of expression.
Subdue, as I observed, is a gross understatement, just as it is absolutely unwarranted. On Jan. 12, students, with the permission of professors, were handing out fliers which explained the nature of the protest. Within the hour they were beaten and arrested. Although most students are held briefly and let go without charges after being arrested, the police have been targeting the student leadership and these students have now been charged and must deal with extensive prosecution.
Students, some faculty and members of the community have been meeting each morning at several of the entrances to the campus at Rio Piedras. There, around 40 students sit cross-legged with arms linked across the entrance while the other protesters stand or sit behind them holding signs and singing a revised version of the campus’ theme song.
Generally, a group of students are arrested by 12 p.m. and the demonstration dissipates. Protesters then meet, usually in a church’s basement, to plan further events; demonstrations then resume around 2 p.m. and can last into the evening. To reinforce the peaceful nature, the protesters refer to these demonstrations as “civil disobedience.” The repercussions, however, are not civil by any means.
There were four kinds of police on the Rio Piedras campus; the “regular” police, civilian police (police in street clothes), the horse brigade and the Tactical Police Unit. All units are heavily armed, especially the Tactical Police.
The Tactical Police, who look more like soldiers, wear full protective gear, including helmets, and the officers carry shields, batons, pepper spray, two or three guns (one of which is strapped to their leg) and extra ammunition either slung around their bodies or in a t-belt pack. The Tactical Police Unit is the body of law enforcement which makes the arrests, beats the students and are anxious to fire pepper spray into students’ faces.
The brutality with which the Tactical Police make arrests is horrifying. First they march in lines to surround the line of students sitting, forming a first wall of separation between the sitting students and the rest of the crowd. Then, additional Tactical Police form a second circle around the individual student whom they are arresting. The walls of police bodies usually prevent onlookers from photographing the violence. However, these makeshift barricades do not stifle the anguished screams of students as they are beaten, cuffed and violently thrown into vans.
The worst display of violence I witnessed was on Jan. 27, when students, some faculty and members of the community met in front of the state capital building. After six hours of demonstration, the Tactical Police made 50 ruthless arrests. I witnessed a student be purposefully dropped head first onto the pavement then intentionally kicked in the temple by a police boot. Throughout the arrests, a large crowd of employees from the capitol building literally cheered the police on.
After the arrests remained approximately 170 protesters who began walking down Constitutional Ave., away from the capital building and place of protest, re-grouping in an intersection near the capitol. About 250 Tactical Police and 50 regular police followed.
Completely unprovoked, the Tactical Police began to fire pepper spray out of guns which resembled bazookas directly into the faces of students who were less than three feet away. Several students collapsed from the spray while all the others began to run down the street, stopping to congregate in front of a church to discuss what to do. In the midst of negotiations came the sound of more guns.
The Tactical Police were chasing the students. They advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in a line blocking the whole street. The students began to run again only to find that about 80 other Tactical Police had crept up the alleys surrounding the church encircling the students. The students were no longer protesting, were not and had never been armed, and were frantically running away from the capital building as Tactical Police maneuvered to intentionally entrap and hurt the terrified students. The police chased the retreating students almost two miles that day.
The fee, which the students are protesting, was supposedly implemented to replenish a $40 million UPR budget deficit. However, proposals submitted by UPR law school students and by faculty, which present alternative and pragmatic means of satisfying the budget crisis, have been completely ignored by the administration and by the government. Resolution 1006, for example, proposes to use an unallocated $50 million surplus found in the government’s stabilization committee to pay the deficit and abolish the fees.
For the students, this struggle is about their right to education and their understandable desire not to attend school in a militarized zone. For the government, this is about power. It is unfortunate that students’ education is being used as a proxy and a means of desecrating civil liberties. It is devastating that the United States government dares to congratulate itself for serving as an example of democratic virtue for the rest of the world while atrocities being suffered by U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are completely ignored.
Jacqueline Hall is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.