Puerto Rico: University students in standoff with riot police as their strike continues


December 16, 2010

A standoff between University of Puerto Rico students and members of the police Tactical Operations Division (riot squad) marked the second day of the strike that has practically paralyzed all academic and administrative activities in the Río Piedras campus.

The standoff, which lasted over four hours and covered the streets of Río Piedras, came around 1 p.m. after a group of some 250 students stormed onto the Natural Sciences building clapping and chanting slogans along its hallways.

“We don’t want to study in a military camp … We’re on strike, there are no classes,” chanted the students as they gathered at the building’s central plaza in an effort to interrupt the few classes in session.

Several non-teaching university employees watched the student protest from a distance, without joining in, but expressing their support for the students’ plight. “We all support the students but the administration has threatened us with dismissal,” said an unidentified university employee about their presence on campus. “Otherwise we would be marching with them [the students].”

A little over 30 minutes later police officers now stationed on campus warned the demonstrators they were “violating the law” and could be arrested. At the same time, the police requested the press leave the area. Almost immediately a contingent of riot policemen approached the area.  The group of students decided to take their demonstration to the Botanical Garden, where the UPR central administration is located. The demonstrating students were closely followed by the riot squad.

As the students approached the Botanical Garden another group of riot squad came out and assumed formation in front of the garden’s gates. The students then decided to demonstrate in front of the gates along 65th Infantry Avenue. Again the police warned the students that they had to “clear the road.” Journalists were also advised to clear the area.

The group of students, who had formed a human chain, was then surrounded by the squadron coming from the Botanical Garden and the squadron that had followed their march there. They opted to retire towards downtown Río Piedras via Luis Muñoz Rivera Avenue. But even as the students retreated the police followed.

“We are students, we are not criminals,” chanted the students as they marched towards Río Piedras and several commuters honked their horns to express their support amid the massive traffic jam.

All of a sudden the police charged against the group of students, who scattered running through the back streets of Río Piedras. Some hooded students responded to the police action throwing stones at them.

The police chased the students along University Avenue towards Ponce de León. Along the way student Luis Morales was arrested by members of the riot squad for allegedly taking down one of the banners that identified the “FREE SPEECH AREA” established by university administration.

Professors formed a line between the cops and the striking students

As the group approached Ponce de León Avenue a group of university professors formed a human chain between the students and the police. The students in turn formed another chain behind their professors. The riot squad was finally ordered out of the area after the students retreated to Ponce de León.

“The police do not have the authority to designate where one is to exercise the right to free speech … This is an attack against the civil liberties of the people,” attorney Osvaldo Burgos said. Burgos is an independent observer from the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

By 5 p.m.the students had occupied Ponce de León Avenue and were blocking traffic. After some negotiations the students agreed to keep the bus lane open, but would keep demonstrating on the avenue.

“There can be no doubt that this is a successful strike … We didn’t have classes and we controlled several streets,” Student Representation Committee member Ian Camilo Cintrón said. “We urge the administration to desist from its intransigence and negotiate. Otherwise, our demonstration will keep escalating,” the student leader warned.

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