This post was submitted by Dr. Evelyn Dean-Olmsted, University of Puerto Rico; Dr. Isabel Rivera-Collazo, University of California San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Andrea Lopez Rivera, San Diego State University.
The heavy police presence along La Milla de Oro (The Golden Mile) was expected. Occupying two blocks of parallel avenues, Muñoz Rivera and Ponce de León, La Milla de Oro is the Wall Street of Puerto Rico and home to the headquarters of several banks which experienced damage at the hands of a few masked protesters during last year’s May 1st protest. The 2017 march was one for the record books as one of the largest popular protests in the island’s history, mobilized in large part by students of the University of Puerto Rico. At that time, the students were in the thick of a strike and campus shutdown that would last more than 70 days in protest of proposed budget cuts that would (and likely will) gut the UPR system and drastically spike tuition. While many argue that such strikes do more harm than good given the current climate, few could deny the students’ impressive ability to mobilize a truly national movement.
The protest was smaller this year, some noted with dismay. But the National Strike on May 1 still attracted large crowds to central San Juan. Marchers came from all walks of life to protest the lethal combination of corruption and exploitation, from without and within. Desperation is at a high as a federally appointed fiscal control board begins to enforce austerity measures that, according to leading economists, will only compound the decades-long economic crisis. Teachers and children protested the Department of Education’s closure of 283 schools. Current and future retirees protested the pension cuts. Workers protested the reduction of wages and benefits. Students protested the strangling of public higher education. Many demanded to know why they still had no power, eight months after Hurricane María. All marched for their basic human rights, so shockingly disregarded in the past months.
The banks are a target of these protests because of their role in fostering Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, which prompted the U.S. Congress to enact austerity legislation in 2015. After last year’s property destruction, this year’s marchers were not surprised to see that the banks had used their clout to mobilize the city’s police for their protection. What is more, Roselló governors have somewhat of a reputation when it comes to cracking down on popular movements. Governor Roselló – not the current Ricardo, but his father Pedro – had deployed similar force when the public took the streets to decry his sale of the national telephone company in 1998. But what many did not expect this year – perhaps naively – was the officers’ proactive aggressivity toward their compatriots. After all, some reasoned, police officers are also suffering under austerity.
However, as studies show, police rarely bring along their military-grade equipment without using it. While other groups of marchers were peaceably allowed to proceed, the students marching northbound to the Golden Mile from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras encountered “a human wall of police” blocking their path, as described by the local branch of the ACLU. The protesters struggled against this wall of police with wooden shields painted black. The police wall pushed back: first with their bodies, then their batons, then their tear gas and rubber bullets. Chaos ensued as the protesters scrambled to escape the choking gas, many vomiting as they ran.
Around 2:30 p.m., the live feed from the news outlet El Nuevo Día showed the Golden Mile progressively emptying of people and filling with grey smoke. A handful of masked men were provocatively throwing rocks in the direction of the police line. A woman paced back and forth directly in front of them, shouting insults. She was promptly shot with tear gas at close range.
Otherwise, the march was pretty much over. Police movement was ambiguous: now in a row, now milling about. Then, inexplicably, the police line started to move. Straight and sure down Muñoz Rivera Avenue, southbound in the direction of Río Piedras, home to the flagship campus of the University of Puerto Rico. As they proceeded closer and closer to Río Piedras along Muñoz Rivera Avenue, blasting teargas as they went, onlookers began to worry and wonder. What on earth were they doing, and why? There still appeared to be no protesters in sight. Alex Figueroa, the reporter in the live stream of El Nuevo Día, trotted alongside one of the grim-faced officers and asked what they were planning to do.
“Arrestarlos.” Arrest them.
“Por qué?” Why?
“Por motín.” For a riot.
“¿A quiénes van a arrestar?” Who are you going to arrest?
“A todos” All of them.
This exchanged occurred as the officers were approaching the Piñero expressway: the boundary between Hato Rey and Río Piedras. As they continued to advance, the police didn’t just cross an overpass, they crossed thick lines of class, race and power that divide Puerto Rican society. While Hato Rey is the business district – not just banks but also shopping malls, restaurants, a few luxury high rises – Río Piedras is its much poorer, (demographically) younger, and Blacker neighbor. Once a charming and bustling urban center, it has been hit hard by the economic crisis of the last several decades. Thanks mostly to its student and immigrant Dominican populations, however, Río Piedras has stayed alive and even showed signs of regeneration. Nonetheless, many “respectable” San Juan citizens see it as a place of which to steer clear. The UPR students are caricatured as pelús – long-haired, pot-smoking idealists who only go on strike, cause trouble and take days off of school. Dominicans, for their part, are subject to virulent nativism and racism. No, Rio Piedras is not the high class. It is the land of Barrio Venezuela, of Capetillo, of Buen Consejo: it is the other Puerto Rico. It represents what the island’s protected classes wish to forget – Blackness, extreme poverty, urban decay, and the “radical” thinking that dares to challenge the status quo.
So when police start moving in a coordinated regimen away from the Milla de Oro and toward Río Piedras, it’s not just a matter of movement through space. It sends a clear message of intimidation from the rich to the poor, the older to the younger, and the whiter to the darker-skinned. While a short, noisy visit may be tolerated, La Milla de Oro is not for you and your protest. Think twice about any future action and stay in your place.
While the move into Río Piedras may have baffled, the police’ next move terrified. The blue and black mass turned sharply and flooded the tiny residential streets of the Río Piedras’ Santa Rita neighborhood. At that point, the discourse among onlookers shifted. If the police presence at the march until now was merely onerous, in Santa Rita it was intolerable. “¿Qué hacen aquí?” people shouted from their windows, absolutely dumbstruck. What are they doing here? One video, shot from behind a second story window, shows the police tossing gas canisters into the street below. The man behind the camera shouts frantically: “Aquí no, aquí no! Aquí hay familia, aquí hay niños!” (Not here, not here! There are families here, there are children here!).
Residents quickly recovered from the initial shock and took to the streets to resist. This was no place for a police invasion. While the protesters posed no significant resistance to police until this point – aside from yelling insults, throwing some rocks and running from tear gas – the story was not the same in Rio Piedras. As policemen entered private property to grab people and pull them out to the streets, it was obvious that a line had been breached. The police were not welcome there, and they knew it. After arresting a few people, they pulled back. “We are done, we are leaving.” Mediators took to the megaphones, “Yes, they will leave, they are not staying.” If Milla de Oro is not for us, residents seemed to be saying, then neither is Rio Piedras the place of the rich, nor of their oppressive, quasi-militia. Reporter Alex Figueroa managed to ask a question of a young brown-skinned man as he was loaded onto a police van: “Do you know what they are arresting you for?” “For fighting for my country,” the man said calmly.
In all 20 people were arrested, four of whom were quickly released without charge. Governor Rosello and the San Juan police received round condemnation from the ACLU and other observers, and a federal investigation into the clashes was ordered on May 4. Although illegitimate and even illegal, this bizarre chase scene enacted across the San Juan streets was an attempt by police to reinforce the geographic borders between the powerful and the powerless, rich and poor, lighter- and darker-skinned. They also wished to demonstrate their own absolute dominion. You, Río Piedras, must stay in your place, but we the police can and will invade to keep you there. This message was particularly timely in anticipation of the UPR student assembly held on the following day on May 2, when students would vote on any further collective action. As disruptive as it was, last year’s strike was not marred by the police violence of times past. This year, the police seemed to be menacingly waving a finger – you students may not be so lucky.
How successful were the police in conveying this message? Whoever coordinated this May Day invasion – and it is as of yet unclear who exactly gave the order – must question what exactly they accomplished. Did they terrorize? Certainly. Did they instill fear and respect of the police and their powerful patrons? Certainly not. Río Piedras saw straight through this show of force and into the moral weakness of those who have brought Puerto Rico to this precipice. However, rather than fall over the edge, the residents of Santa Rita showed that when Río Piedras is pushed, Río Piedras pushes back.