Students, teachers at University of Puerto Rico-Piedras boycott classes as long as police remain on campus

Students at the University of Puerto Rico, a public university that serves 65,000 mostly working class students, have been organizing and mobilizing to defeat a government plan to increase their tuition fee by $800 in January 2011. To protest this attack on their right to education, students sat down and slowed traffic on a major highway in the capital city of San Juan in November. This Tuesday, students raised barricades t0 blockade the UPR-San Juan campus for two days, beating off attacks by police and security guards. In the spring of 2010, UPR students went out on  strike for 62 days, shutting down 10 of 11 UPR campuses and defeating most of the government’s cuts to the university’s budget and changes to the academic program.

A student, wearing a mask, sits on a barricade during a protest at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan early Tuesday Dec. 7, 2010.

Puerto Rican Daily Sun, December 10, 2010

Students at UPR Piedras hold vigil to keep cops off campus

“As long as  there is a police presence inside the University, there will be no classes,”  said the spokeswoman for the Student Representation Committee, Maria Soledad Davila. “Police have not entered the university for the last 30 years, and  when they have, it has been to repress ideas and limit the project of a public university.”

It was not business  as usual at the University of Puerto Rico Piedras campus Thursday as  students, teachers, labor groups and political organizations presented a united  fund to boycott classes.

While students gathered outside the gates, refusing to go to class, their professors met off- campus and voted not to teach as long as police remained on campus. They also postponed the strike vote they had approved last week in  exchange for the administration receiving the  students for a dialogue. Several organizations demanded that the police  be removed.

“There is no doubt that the government is frightened by the  university’s power, and the love the people have for it as an institution,” said  Maria Gisela Rosado, president of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, in reference to the presence of police on campus.  “We  want this fee to be canceled, or at the least put on hold, until the institution  can get on an even keel, and all of us can look for ways to resolve this,” she  said. The group also urged the people to join the march from the Capitol  to La Fortaleza scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m.

Student spokeswoman for the Student Representation Committee, Maria Soledad Davila, said the  administration is taking advantage of the academic recess ordered by the  chancellor to install cameras. “They are taping, and we don’t know what  they are doing in the faculties,” she said. “The people are here aware that the  University is not theirs
[the administration’s] but ours.”

“As long as  there is a police presence inside the University, there will be no classes,” she  said. “Police have not entered the university for the last 30 years, and  when they have, it has been to repress ideas and limit the project of a public university.” “The teachers will not bar the way of anyone”, she said, but  the majority of students, professors and employees are expected to repudiate the  police presence on campus.

This protest was not anticipated when they met  to give a strike vote for an event which is scheduled for  Tuesday.

Another group condemning the presence of the police is the University Pro Independence Federation, known as FUPI.
“This is a serious act of provocation on the part of Luis Fortuno’s government towards the  university community and the island as a whole,” said FUPI spokesman Kevin  Luciano, adding that it was also “a historic step backwards for the  university.” [Fortuno is the Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico-ed]

“Police have not been brought on campus [in recent years]  precisely because it has brought dramatic consequences including the death of  Antonia Martinez Lagares, two police and an ROTC cadet at the beginning of the  1970s,”
said Luciano.

Also commenting on the police presence was the Movement to Socialism, which called on the student body to “act decidedly and  united, before the new institutional aggression on the part of the government  against university
autonomy, the non-confrontation policy and accessibility to  an excellent public education.”

“We denounce the occupation by  police of the UPR campuses aimed at intimidating and creating a belligerent  climate. When the police were removed [from UPR] 30 years ago, it was because of  the vicious killings, attacks and
arrests, the climate of confrontation,  building of dossiers, and harassment, the result of which was a failure of  democracy and crass violations of civil rights,” said the organization’s  spokesman Alvin R. Couto de Jesus.

“Police on campus represents an act of confrontation that undermines the university autonomy project and  eliminates the non-confrontation policy because it destroys the possibility of  resolving conflicts from a university point of view built on dialogue and  mediation,” he said.

Another point of view came from the  Association of Pro-Statehood Students which announced Thursday that it will create a united front with the leaders of the organization on other campuses to  prevent incidents like those which occurred in Rio Piedras. The  organization’s president in Mayaguez, Edwin Jusino, said there is no conflict  between the statehood cause and the protection of UPR. “If it is true  that we have the right to protest, it is also true that we must not violate the  law. Our struggle must not be a violent one; we must develop dialogue and lobby  to force the government and the legislature to resolve the UPR crisis,” said  Jusino.

The Trade Union Coordinating Group said that it had also agreed  to express solidarity with the many organizations of professors and non-teaching  workers.  They also voted to support the students of the 11 campuses who  are rejecting the new tuition fee. They also will participate in activities to  promote their position.

They also repudiated the remarks of Chief of  Staff Marcos Rodriguez Ema, who said they would (literally) “kick out” the demonstrating students. The director of the group, Luis Pedraza Leduc,  said “[Rodriguez Ema’s] words are the fundamentals to create a climate of  uncertainty, fear and violence at the University.”

Pedraza Leduc  said Rodriguez Ema did the same thing in 1996 when he provoked a strike at the  Government Development Bank, which lasted for two months. Pedraza  Leduc criticized La Fortaleza for instructing government agencies to mobilize  employees of confidence to the UPR campus participate in marches which support  the university administration.

After the 48-hour strike ended, Fortuno  announced that he would soon name a committee to amend the regulations of UPR. On  another subject, Fortuno justified the mobilization of the police to the  campuses and said that after
noon classes would begin, allowing workers to clean  up the barricades and trash which the students placed in certain areas.

The president of the Popular Democratic Party, Hector Ferrer, called  on the governor to remove the police, and urged alumni to support the  students. He said the governor should assume the responsibility and  face the situation.
“We have seen conflict and unpleasant encounters, which have resulted in violence, we have seen student and police lives in  danger, but the governor has been absent. It looks as if solving this conflict  is not one of his priorities,” said Ferrer.

In reaching out to former  students, he said: “This struggle is not just  about the students, it affects the  whole country, and it is time for the alumni to take a step to join this cause,  which is, without a doubt, a fair one.”

Ferrer invited the governor to  put aside political differences and to use “viable means” presented by the PDP  delegation to solve the conflict. Among their suggestions are a bill  proposed by the Law School students to amend the Scholarship Fund law and bills  that propose to amend the Fiscal Emergency Law 7 to restore the income formulas  of the UPR General Fund.

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