The U.S. Navy attacked peaceful protestors outside the fenced in bombing zone with tear gas and rubber bullets April 6, in Vieques, Puerto Rico. While the Navy claims that they acted in response to rock throwing, witnesses, including the head of the police in Vieques and journalists, said that was untrue. Witnesses said that only after the tear gas was launched did protestors respond by throwing back the tear gas canisters and rocks over the fence.

Colonel Cesar Gracia, chief of the Puerto Rican police units in Vieques, told the press that he was trying to convince the Navy officials not to use force when they started firing. “I had to run,” said Col. Gracia, because he had no gas mask.

Miguel Pereira, superintendant of the national Puerto Rican police, spoke out against the Navy’s use of tear gas against the demonstrators. He said that there was no need for tear gas and that they have to let the Puerto Rican police do their job. Before, during and after the incident there was a wall of Puerto Rican police between the protestors and the fence surrounding the military zone. The attack lasted about 45 minutes according to witnesses.

Calling the Navy’s action “barbarism,” Manuel Mirabal, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition (NPC), filed a complaint with the FBI charging the Navy with violations of civil rights. Mirabal also said that he would hold a meeting with the Secretary of the Navy when he got back to Washington, DC. The NPC had brought 150 of its members, who were in Puerto Rico attending the organization’s annual meeting, to Vieques to join in the protest.

The president of the Puerto Rican Asociation of Photojournalists, José Rodríguez, criticized the Navy’s interference with freedom of the press. Rodríguez said that this is not the first time that journalists have been attacked by Navy personell while covering events in Vieques.

The Navy has been under fire for its treatment of those arrested while engaging in civil disobedience inside the fences of the restricted area. Those arrested during the current exercises have been attacked with pepper spray, including a Catholic nun and an Episcopal priest.

The nun, Sister Carmen González, and another protester, Ismael González, engaged in civil disobedience and have been ordered held without bail until the end of the military maneuvers. Other protesters have been able to post $3,000 bail and ordered to remain away from Vieques until after the maneuvers end.

Among those affected by the tear gas was Omayra Gutierrez, daughter of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). Rep. Gutierrez, himself, was treated roughly when he was arrested in Vieques for civil disobedience.

Robert Rabin, spokesperson for the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, called on the Puerto Rican governor, Sila María Calderón, to order the police to not just protect the military area from the civilian side, but to protect the prostesters from military attacks.

The Reverend Angel Dario Carrero, head of the Franciscan Order in Puerto Rico, likened the situation in Vieques to that of Palestine. He said that both Palestine and Vieques “have dignity and not a price.” Carrero continued saying that both peoples face oppression from the “ruling sectors.”

In the United States, various organizations working to end the military use of Vieques are planning a National Summit for Peace and Justice in Vieques at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, NY on April 12 and 13.

The organizers of the event say that they seek “to reactivate the national-international campaign” to work together with the organizations in Vieques. They plan on bringing together “community activists, environmentalists, labor leaders, religious leaders, cultural workers, artists and elected officials who have been in solidarity with and who have shown commitment to the struggle for peace with justice in Vieques.”

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com

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