Maritza Stanchich, Ph.D.,Associate Professor of English, University of Puerto Rico
More than 150 students practicing civil disobedience have been arrested in Puerto Rico and riot police on Thursday escalated violent repression of a university strike with brutal arrests and rubber bullets during a sit-in demonstration at the Capitol. As President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for governmental prudence during a historic revolt in Egypt, the most basic free speech rights are under attack with apparent impunity in this U.S. territory of about four million U.S. citizens still grappling with a century-old colonial relationship with the United States.
Meanwhile, the Reaganite Republican and pro Statehood Governor, Luis Fortuño, was again traveling on Friday, with a trip to California sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, though he denied attending a controversial event nearby with the billionaire Koch brothers behind the Tea Party movement. Fortuño’s bold austerity measures and ruthlessness have made him a Republican Party darling, as strategists scramble for Latino leaders they can promote while rejecting immigration reform and with Tea Party followers spewing hate speech against Latino immigrants.
The student strike that began in December against an imposed fee and the privatization of the institution has demonstrated the lengths to which the Fortuño administration will go to repress all dissent. The governor has laid off 20,000 public sector employees, nullified public sector union contracts, and gutted the budgets of cultural, educational and social agencies, including the University of Puerto Rico. Early in his term, he activated the National Guard for civilian purposes, to the public outcry of civil and human rights groups.
Adding to the climate of a university under siege, the administration announced 10 academic programs at the flagship Río Piedras campus have been placed “on pause” and would turn away new undergraduate majors, including the internationally renowned department of Hispanic Studies. That professors learned of this through the press, and using terminology that appears nowhere in university regulations, heightened fears that the university–a cornerstone of Puerto Rico’s national patrimony–is being dismantled.
“The thought is unbearable,” said Princeton University professor Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, an alumni of the Hispanic Studies program, who recalled his intellectual mentors there with reverent indebtedness. The department in turn announced it would fight the potential suspension, which echoes a broader attack on the humanities seen at public universities elsewhere, as crude market forces seem to suddenly determine what counts as knowledge.
With the next semester set to begin Monday, student protesters seem to be putting their lives on the line for public higher education, as growing contingents of riot police suppress even relatively small protests of 100 or so students. A journalist from Al Jazeera plans a trip to Puerto Rico to cover the unrest, largely ignored by most U.S. media.
Police have also dealt harshly with journalists during civil disobedience arrests, with several journalists attacked, and one correspondent of student-run RadioHuelga arrested, despite his clearly displayed press credentials. Press organizations filed complaints and assault charges against the police Monday on behalf of journalists violently blocked from newsgathering.
Indeed photographs and videos of Thursday’s police escalation are damning. Along with firing rubber bullets and using tear gas and pepper spray, police are seen applying pressure point techniques to the neck to block blood flow of student civil disobedients, which induces extreme pain and can be potentially fatal if misapplied, according to medical experts cited in the local press. Police are also seen in videos groping the breasts of a female student under arrest, prompting local human rights groups to publicly denounce such sexual misconduct and women’s rights groups to hold a protest today.
Thursday’s events brought to bear broad criticism from political leaders and the public alike, with concerns that further escalation may cause deaths. This independent video shows police abusing students under arrest and firing potentially fatal rubber bullets as protesters then took to the streets, as well as reactions from the public affected by the mayhem. When the arrests began, the students were sitting on the ground, arms-locked, in civil disobedience, as they have been for the past two weeks at entrances to the main university campus. The subtitled interview with a student being arrested was filmed from under a car, which the cameraman resorted to when police blocked his filming.
Expressions by a nun and teacher from a nearby parochial school echo widespread erosion of public confidence in the police, who in the past few years have been rocked by scandal, from killings attributed to police brutality or botched responses, to the biggest FBI police corruption sting in history with the arrest of more than 130 in October. Recent headlines indicate the new year began with the highest murder rate in a decade, with 111 murders in January, per capita a higher rate than Mexico.
And with the campus occupied by police breaking a more than 30-year truce, the nerves of members of the university community are as frayed as one could expect should a similar scenario unfold at Kent State University.
“Police chief José Figueroa Sancha and Governor Luis Fortuño are totally directly responsible for whatever happens,” said Elizabeth Concepción Laguere, a sister at the Convento Jesús Mediador, who was arrested on January 19 in solidarity civil disobedience, and wished aloud that “the public would overcome their fear and come out in support of the students.”