Puerto Rico: police violence against striking students

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Pepper spray and clubs were the methods used by police in Puerto Rico against protesting students at the University of Puerto Rico's main campus at Rio Piedras near San Juan on Wednesday, Feb. 9. But the students are getting more support from the general public and show no sign of giving in.

The current series of protests began in April of 2010, when the administration of the right-wing governor, Luis Fortuño of the New Progressive Party (PNP), finding itself faced with a major budget crunch, proposed a sharp cut in the budget for the university system. This cut was to be paid for by increasing registration fees per student by $800 and implementing severe program cuts. Students at Rio Piedras and several others of the 11 campuses reacted angrily. They charge that these measures will force up to 10,000 students out of the university, as well as damage some of its most prestigious programs.

Consequently, they have been carrying out a series of militant but peaceful demonstrations.

The cuts in the university programs and the rise in fees is part of a right-wing assault by the Fortuño administration in which thousands of public workers have also been laid off and their union contracts cancelled.

Again in December 2010, there were clashes between protestors and police, as students struck in anticipation of the implementation of the $800 fee in the coming session. On that occasion, there was a sharp reaction by the police. On Thursday Jan. 27, students marched to the capitol building in San Juan, and were subjected to a police attack in which, according to observers, pressure holds amounting to torture were employed by police. In addition, female students were sexually molested. They marched again on Feb. 7. Police were waiting for them, but were deflected from attack by a mass mobilization of non-students, including professors, non-teaching personnel and other members of society who interposed themselves between the police and the students, preventing what could have been an ugly clash with possible injuries.

On Feb. 9, two days after classes resumed, students massed again to protest on the Rio Piedras campus, but were confronted once more by police on horseback and on foot, who used pepper spray and clubs to attack students who were demonstrating and painting protest slogans on the sidewalk. Many students, including student leader Adriana Mulero, were arrested, bringing the number arrested this year to over 150.

After Wednesday's arrests, the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors announced that it was staging a 24-hour strike to protest the police presence on campus and the mistreatment of the students. The union representing the university's non-teaching employees, the Brotherhood of Exempt non-Teaching Employees, is also participating. Important sectors of labor and other social sectors continue to be supportive of the students. On Feb. 5, a resolution was presented to the Chamber of Deputies by four women members, who called for an investigation of police abuse of the students.  Students and their allies are also angry with the University of Puerto Rico administration for its hostile attitude and for facilitating the presence of police on campus.

Meanwhile, one of several pro-independence groups, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, charges that persecution of its members by U.S. authorities is on the uptick with searches of members' homes and phone taps by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. National Party Chairman Francisco Torres claims that on his recent return from Spain via New York City, he and his wife were arrested for several hours without cause.

Puerto Rico, originally a Spanish colony, was seized by the United States in the so-called "Spanish American War" of 1898, and never given independence. It is currently ruled as an "Associated Free Territory" or "Commonwealth" of the United States, but is seen as a colony by many in Puerto Rico and beyond. Over the years, there have been frequent clashes, some armed, between supporters of independence and U.S. and local authorities. During part of the 1940s, the U.S.-installed authorities made it illegal to advocate independence for the island, or even fly the Puerto Rican national flag or sing patriotic Puerto Rican songs. Though this "gag law" (Ley de Mordaza) is no longer in force, complaints of police spying on and harassment of the opposition are a continuous feature of life on this island, and of members of the numerous Puerto Rican communities in the United States.

Image: Aaron Goodman // CC BY-ND 2.0

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  • I just want to add to Emile Scheper's article here.

    (1) It is fair to note that the "right-wing governor, Luis Fortuño [is also the leader] of the New Progressive Party."

    The Puerto Rican statehood movement has always been to the right of the Puerto Rican body politic.

    (2) All of the eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico joined the strike - some later than sooner. That include the more conservative graduate schools.

    (3) The sexual assaults against the female students was captured on film and both video and still images of cops groping the arrested females students were shown throughout the nation, i.e., Puerto Rico.

    (4) The infamous Public Law 53, known as the "Gag Law" was modeled on the USA's Smith Act. The law led to the direct jailing of the leadership of the Nationalist and Communist parties.

    (5) Probably the most important addendum to this article may be that last June, after a strike of almost two months, the Board of Regents and the Student Representative Committee came to a mediated agreement which gave the students their main demands - revoking the extra $800 fee, constinuing with the meritorious student free tuition program, not charge students for actions during the strike, among others.

    The University and government authorities promply vioilated the terms of the agreement once the new school year started prompting a new wave of strike actions.

    Posted by José A Cruz, 02/15/2011 11:50pm (3 years ago)

  • Commentator Glory adds an important point which I failed to include in my article. If the Central States Association withdraws its accreditation of the University of Puerto it will be difficult if not impossible for students of UPR to transfer credits to US institutions. Having their degrees or credits from a non-accredited university may also harm the job prospects of students who move from Puerto Rico to the US for work. This will contribute to job discrimination by ethnicity in the US. This must not be tolerated.
    We can question why it is that universities and colleges in Puerto Rico are under the power of the Central States Association instead of having their own, specifically Puerto Rican, accreditation system, but the point here is that governor Fortuno and his henchmen are ruining a fine institution via their neo-liberal policies and the students and workers of the University of Puerto Rico do indeed need and merit the active solidarity of all progressive people.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 02/14/2011 2:26am (3 years ago)

  • We the students need help. People got hurt arrested just for walking in a campus where the police are the agressor. It is scary to see a march of 800 studendts where you have to hide or wait for the police so you can get hurt. We need help we are about to losse the acreditatation from the Middle States, not for strikes but for the lack of perfomance of the administration. Please people support the students it is not only for 800 is because classes are being cut,programs, and we get hurt just for being there.

    Posted by Glory, 02/11/2011 5:46pm (3 years ago)

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