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Protests in Puerto Rico not reflective of U.S. democracy

Courtesy Jacqueline Hall

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 jacquelh@student.umass.edu.

Comments
22 Responses to “Protests in Puerto Rico not reflective of U.S. democracy”
  1. Annie says:

    Were you there just yesterday (Feb. 23rd) when the striking students attacked another group of students who wanted to enter the campus for a normal day of class?
    The strike defenders were utterly defeated in a student meeting when the majority of the students decided they did NOT want any more campus shut downs. Well, guess what? They decided to go ahead anyway. Then they attacked anyone who wanted to uphold the decision they had reached the day before. The police wasn’t there to blame for “acts of violence”, and the strikers were the ones beating other people up.

  2. Rincon_Puerto_Rico says:

    First off, I would like to say that I live here in Puerto Rico, and every person will remember the days of the beatings and Fortuno will not be re-elected. Yes, it is not right to beat the students and use of force, but some of these students do get out of hand…

    and I know why the students are upset about the $800.00 dollar price hike.. The students get allotted money every semester for books etc.. If they do not spend all the allotted money , THEY KEEP IT, it does NOT go back to the funding institution. In essence they make money, now this has been going on for years, NOW he wants to put a stop to it and the students are in an uproar.. GIVE ME A BREAK, the students that are making the most noise are the students that were making the most money back, and the students that are trying to go back to school are the ones that understand that the money train has sto0pped and they are moving on..

    Students should JUST PAY IT.The students that are causing all this destruction and invoking a riot should be put in jail and fined $800.00, for the cost of their tuition. Just pay the dam money.. and get on with your life, Education is a privilege, that taxpayers and government give you..AND for those who oppose- where in the constitution does it say and the right to go to school and learn..So you see, you are being jerkoffs- let the police do there jobs where we need them..we dont need them at the schools, we need them for real problems here in Puerto Rico, So for the students striking..GO HOME, GET YOUR $800.00, AND PAY YOUR WAY, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, go get a job.

  3. Maximiliano says:

    Basura de propaganda este articulo. Todos sabemos que hay una agenda de mostrar “violencia” en PR. PROPAGANDA!

  4. Luis Muñoz Villanueva says:

    Thank you so much for this article, we are in such need of national media coverage, the repression is not limited to student protests but to any type of protest or civil disobedience that annoys the governor’s office.
    There is a whole story to be told besides the situation at the university but this is a good start!
    Your description of the atmosphere and horror of jan 27th is exact.
    ps. one omission, on the day jan 27th of the constitution avenue protests, the police fired rubber bullets also towards the retreating students, please check this important fact there are videos of it!

  5. Myrisa says:

    In the UPR, 66% of students are eligible for Pell Grants. The cost of tuition for a B.A. degree is less than $1,500. The max Pell Grant is $5,000 so many receive checks to cash the difference. There are also student loans available and total tuition exemptions for talented students, for athletes, and for the children and spouses of the university employees, alive or deceased.

    The situation is not as depicted. The majority of students want to attend classes and they have already paid the special fee of $800/yr. But a group of anti government nationalists students imposes its will on the rest by means of violence and intimidation. They build barricades to control the entrances to the campus and do not let students and professors get in. See this:

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/videos-huelgaenlaupr-fuertecareoentreestudiantesenlaupr-800050363001.html

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/videos-huelgaenlaupr-fuerteencontronazoentreestudiantesyprofesor-801052539001.html

    Would not even let professors from the Faculty of Social Sciences to come in for a meeting of their faculty.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qycN0blyyBw

    The police was retired form campus, but after the events of yesterday (depicted by the videos) the police is back on the campus.

    http://www.elnuevodia.com/comienzaunpiquetefrentealrecintoderiopiedras-899189.html

  6. Lisa says:

    first, there is no democracy under a colonial regime. Puerto Rico is under a colonial relationship with the US since 1952, you cannot hope for democracy or a democratic virtue when the puerto rican people are not free in their own homeland.

  7. Melissa says:

    Thanks for writing about Puerto Rico’s struggles. It is a right to be able to afford college and to attend a campus without worrying about being arrested or attacked by the same people that should protect us. Hands down the most accurate and sincere article about the UPR’s crisis. Something like this, would NEVER happened in the US. We need more press, we need help…

  8. Gloria says:

    Yes, 66 % of students receive federal aid but of the remaining 44% of students, many are just above the official poverty level and it can be very hard to pay. My husband is not eligible for pell grant, could not pay this semester’s fees. I have three siblings in the Colegio de Mayaguez. Mom had to dish up 2400 usd that had not been contemplated in our family budget. I know another family in the same situation.

    Whether students are infighting or not is beyond the matter. It does not excuse the police from using excessive force, especially as crime is so rampant on the island and has actually gone up sharply since so much of the force is paying more attention to the students than to actual criminals.

  9. Gregorio says:

    Great article. Yes, the struggle is about the fee hike (and the gradual privatization in general of public resources in PR). It is also indirectly, as you mention, about Governor Fortunos massive layoffs of public workers. In a time of severe economic downturn, the powerful continue to attempt to subvert democracy and benifit themselves and their cohorts.

  10. Alex says:

    First of all, to Annie, who posted the first comment: The Student Assembly aproved a 24 hour shut down of the campus. The strikers did commit acts of violence but the shut down was not “illegal” because the mayority had decided at the assembly that they were supposed to do a shut down. and to Myrissa: It’s true 66% of students are granted the Pell Grants but that does not mean that they recieve it in its entirety, only 12% of that 66 percent recieve the full scholarship. And a BA degree is cheap compared to other universities but the Puerto Ricans income is very low compared to other countries and prices are higher than in some areas of the US where the incomes are much higher. Superstores like walt mart charge in Miami half of what they charge in Puerto rico. The other fact is that many of the students who paid the 800 dollars did not do it willingly. That is because if you recieve the Pell Grant they automatically discount the 800 dollars without asking the students or giving a chance to pay the money gradually as the supposedly promised.and finally its very interesting that you have posted links to sources of Puerto Rican media, especially the newspaper El Nuevo Día, which is common knowledge that they are biased and have influences with political party that runs the government.

  11. Rev. Helion Cruz says:

    The students who “attacked another group of students who wanted to enter the campus for a normal day of class” were a group of students who were trying to convince the students who were trying to enter the UPR not to, because the day before the student body had decided by a huge majority not to attend classes and call a 24 hour strike. The students who attempted to enter the campus were trying to break the decision of the majority of the student body. What has been happening here is that a minority of the student body will not understand that whatever happens today at the UPR will determine what will be the future of the UPR for them, their children, and their children’s children. The PNP does not care about the future of PR, they only care about the power they have today and what they can get out of their power today. Tomorrow be damned.

  12. Jean says:

    @ Melissa,

    You are mistaken. College, or being able to afford college, is NOT a right. We have the right to receive proper high school education. but that’s it. Even though society benefits from a better educated workforce, the government does not have to ensure everybody has the capacity to get a degree after high school. Idealists think like that and they are the ones that have gotten together with anti- anything groups that love to protest about everything. The UPR’s student body has, unfortunately, a large amount of cry-babies that will protest against anything.

    If everybody knows that the economy has suffered in the past years, and that prices for everything (goods and services) have gone up, then how is it justifiable that they won’t allow their tuition costs to be increased. Every time the administration has attempted to increase the cost of a ridiculously low-cost education, there are protests, strikes… They need to grow up and face the world’s reality. You get and you pay for… so you should pay to get something.

    As Rincon_Puerto_Rico pointed out: many of them have been making money of their college education. I know of many students who are tuition exempt for being in varsity teams, or having a high GPA. They still get a lot of money from the Pell Grant and spend it mostly on entertainment and alcohol. They just got used to receiving free money like that and now resent the fact that that model is not sustainable anymore. Many students follow that train of thought and that’s why the events depicted here are happening.

  13. jacqueline says:

    While education is not a constitutionally protected right, freedom of speech IS. The fee increase is not desirable, and Pell grants don’t make it much easier. As Gloria and Alex explained, being just above the poverty line or receiving a Pell grant really doesn’t make it much easier to pay.

    The point here is that the government is crushing civil liberties to make sure that they get their fee paid , that their power is obeyed. The fact that the amount of money the government is spending on the police to militarize the campus and try to silence the students far out-costs what they would receive from the fees in the first place doesn’t matter to Fortuno simply because this is about Power. Right to education has less to do with this than does the fact that the government, subject to U.S. federal law, is limiting freedom of speech and ordering abuse of its citizens.
    Furthermore, if the government wasn’t so obstinately determined to get their way over a fee, the police could perhaps be more effective in fighting crime elsewhere pervasive.

  14. Pedro says:

    People posting comments on this report who are trying to either negate or mitigate the effect or the fierceness of the assaults by the police have hidden agendas. You can argue about the correctness of the petitions. But you cannot hide the beatings, abuse and restrain of freedom of speech and association. The Puerto Rican police, under the direction of Luis Fortuno, Marcos Rodriguez Pujadas, Thomas Rivera Schatz and Assassin Figueroa Sancha is as guilty as Hitler and his police force in Nazi Germany. No difference

  15. Luiggi says:

    For Rincon_Puerto_Rico: I believe the Puerto Rican constitution does include a right to education, as do the constitutions of many countries (not the U.S.).

  16. Wait, I agree with the student movement and fighting for our rights. But the United States ARE NOT the best example of their own ideas of democracy.
    Example #1 Their own Civil Rights movement, first under Martin Luther King, they had to rename it affirmative action and is still a struggle against racism today.
    Example #2 There many Rodney Kings (police brutality, just like us)
    Example #3 Katrina, man they just let the black community rot.
    Example #4 Arizona’s law regarding immigrants, where is the democracy there?
    and most recently, Wisconsin, what’s up with that? They have the same sort of injusticies and social inequalities. They are no white gods, and our goal should be, not to be like them, but a better us.
    So I agree we do have problems, but don’t tell me the U.S. is the track to democracy I should follow. They are definitely not that obvious.
    I do appreciate letting the world know that we are suffering due to human rights violations, I just have strong reservations with the apparent patronizing tone of the title of this article, and the overall presumption of the United States as the utopy of democracy.
    That would be Costa Rica.

  17. This video is a compilation of the repression suffered by University of Puerto Rico´s students. Some of the documented events in the video are described in this article.

    Follow this link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRvavwFrcuM&feature=player_embedded

  18. Rakel says:

    To the person who says studying is a privilege. IT IS NOT!!! to study is a right!!!!! Fortuño is doing everything so only the rich people receive benefits. this article is great it shows the truth of what students are living in Puerto Rico and the violence we have gone through! It is a brutality!!!!

  19. Sean says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_education

    Read it and weep. Education is a fundamental human right.

  20. Luis says:

    The struggle is about destroying the Puerto Rican Culture and the Educational system so to create non-critical thinking citizens that will vote for the pro-statehood party. This pro-american party “TThe New Progressive Party” is in reallity a smoke curtain; they prey on un-educated people by luring them to vote for them because they will make PR the 51st state of the union, but in reallity they are just plain crooks and opportunistics also backed by other opportunistics like the religious right for their sole purpose of gaining poweto acquire wealth and power.
    Two days ago the House Majority Leader (Whip), left his post when he gave Positive for Cocaine. This pro-statehooder told the press a month ago that he never learned anything from the books because he doesn’t like to read! The present GOP gov in the island wwants people to be like him…I guess!

  21. jose says:

    Thanks for the article. This fills a need for more English-language press on these issues. The situation in Puerto Rico has direct parallels with what is happening now in Wisconsin and other states governed by Republican terror. As a professor in the University I have witnessed students being violently and indiscriminately attacked by members of the Fuerza de Choque (i.e., the Tactical Police Force). This is a violation of their civil rights and an insult to academic integrity.

    The UPR Board of Trustees has never opened its books. The have not made public basic documents which show how much debt is owed. Until they do so we should assume that they are doing so to cover their own asses, size down the university, and raise unjustifiable revenue.

    According to the US government Pell grants are supposed to cover more than merely tuition. Consider income levels of the average Puerto Rican family, consider the long-term effects of running a public university like a corporation, consider costs of living on the island, consider the difference between job training and a quality 4-year education, consider the rule of law! If you do so then it will be difficult to support recent actions of the PNP and UPR administration.

    The students are criticized so often lately. Where are our critiques of the administration’s refusal to dialogue, the violation of civil rights, the destruction or proud tradition?

  22. Duh says:

    This is why the US should just drop Puerto Rico. It is a colony which has brought nothing of benefit. Either join as a state or let them have their freedom entirely.

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