Puerto Rico: 15,000 March to End Police Occupation of University of Puerto Rico

Maritza Stanchich, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, University of Puerto Rico

February 14, 2011
Student protests at University of Puerto Rico have broadly mobilized the public against the police occupation of the campus with about 15,000 marching along the main thoroughfares around the urban campus Saturday shouting “¡Fuera Policía, Fuera!” (Get Out Police, Get Out!), in response to police brutality during last week’s volatile start of the semester.

A campus melee Wednesday of apparently indiscriminate police brutality led to more than 25 student arrests, including some who were not protesting, and with serious injuries reported. The day culminated with leaders of the professors organization APPU (Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios) calling a 24-hour work stoppage, which was then supported by the staff union HEEND (Hermandad de Empleados Exentos No Docentes), to the chants of a crowd of about 1,000 students occupying the iconic clock tower housing Chancellor Ana R. Guadalupe’s office. All the students arrested that day were later released without charges. Thursday afternoon, the Hermandad extended the walkout another 24 hours, leaving the campus desolate for a second consecutive day on Friday.

Saturday’s march also followed Friday’s resignation of University of Puerto Rico president José Ramón De La Torre, following his attempt to end the police occupation of the campus. The president’s resignation highlights fissures in the forces now dominating the university, and further spread the incontrovertible belief that the university has completely lost its autonomy and is under direct government control, with top administrators serving as instruments to perhaps dismantle and radically restructure the institution. Many of UPR’s most prestigious intellectuals have long conjectured that the government had planned to provoke a strike on purpose, to foment a violent scenario that would justify even closing the institution altogether. The strike began after a series of administrative and governmental provocations in December in the face of student demands to negotiate an imposed fee of $800 this semester, and $400 thereafter, as stipulated by accords ending a two-month strike on 10 of 11 campuses this past spring.

“The president’s resignation shows a significant split over the purported need for the police occupation as well as the imposed fee,” said Omar Ramírez, president of the General Student Council, referring to a letter made public shortly after the president resigned, in which he requested Police Chief José Figueroa Sancha remove the police from campus. In the letter, De La Torre also reconsiders the role of distinct sectors in resolving the conflict, such as the professor and staff unions, and acknowledges the help of only one politician, Senate Speaker Thomas Rivera Schatz, seen as a future competitor to Gov. Luis Fortuño, though also from the right-wing flank of the Statehood Party. Schatz is credited for creating a scholarship fund to offset the fee, though also perhaps intended to ease the transition to a privatized university. The former UPR president may also be protecting his reputation in the event of worse bloodshed or deaths in the conflict.

Gov. Fortuño on Friday was in Washington, D.C., during this latest juncture in the UPR crisis, attending a Conservative Political Action Conference, which gathered such right-wing notables as The National Rifle Association, The John Birch Society and The Tea Party.

Also on Friday, came news that Gov. Fortuño had named a commission to assess the university for restructuring, with appointees known to be openly hostile to the institution. These include former UPR president under the Commonwealth Party José M. Saldaña, who repeatedly published flagrantly demagogic Op-Ed pieces in the local press leading up to the strike, demonizing in particular the Colleges of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education as hotbeds of communist revolutionaries, in discourse reminiscent of certain right-wing 20th-century Latin American dictators. These colleges, like their counterparts in Business Administration and Natural Sciences, are in fact markedly heterogeneous in political temperament, and the institution as a whole, like many others of its size and ilk, is quite conservative throughout. In contemporary U.S. terms, Fortuño’s axmen seem to operate discursively as a Latino Tea Party.

“We appear to be in the first stage of a democratic dictatorship, a new absolutism,” observed UPR Humanities professor Rubén Ríos Ávila.

As institutional venues for redress constrict, the courts and civic unrest remain sites of active opposition to Fortuño’s policies. Last Monday, student leader Giovanni Roberto’s summary suspension was reversed on appeal, and the same case deemed the chancellor’s edict against all protest and assembly on campus unconstitutional. Hence Wednesday’s campus protests occurred while the prohibition was annulled. By the end of the week, however, the university won an appeal, and the case will now be again appealed on his behalf.

“Some of the most deeply rooted constitutional principles are at stake in this case after the administration of the University of Puerto Rico encroached on fundamental rights by establishing an absolute prohibition on free speech and the right to free assembly within the UPR campus,” said attorney Frank Torres-Viada in a prepared statement.

Other reported abuses include police sexual harassment of female students, with one such incident instigating a campus confrontation early last week. A complaint of excessive force against females being arrested was also filed in a governmental women’s advocacy agency, with the petite student movement leader Adriana Mulero Claudio, who was particularly roughed up on Wednesday, filing the claim.

Potential violence from riot police was averted on last Monday’s first day of classes when members of the Hermandad union and onlookers formed a human chain between student protesters giving speeches and riot police who had completely surrounded them and were moving in to make arrests. The riot police retreated after professors, staff and public alike spontaneously involved themselves in a show of collective moral force.

During Saturday’s march more than 10,000 protesters at one point engaged in a civil disobedience sit in, periodically shutting down a highway, in solidarity with more than 150 students who had been arrested for such acts weeks ago. The march drew members from 72 civic and political organizations, and seen participating were professors from the College of Natural Sciences, notables from the arts, seniors, community groups from housing projects, clergy, Vieques activists, even members of the Fortuño administration.

“I’m conservative and I work for this government,” said one woman wearing a floppy hat to protect herself from identification and reprisals. “But I grew up in a small town, and I owe my economic betterment to my UPR education, and my children were also educated here,” she added. “What the government is doing is just plain wrong.”

With public higher education in dire straits elsewhere — most recently Missouri cut 116 academic programs throughout its public higher education system — the very survival of this most prestigious university in Puerto Rico, the largest center of higher learning in the Caribbean and largest Hispanic-serving institution in the United States seems to be hanging in the balance.

But a major shakedown is one thing, and a blood feud quite another. As the second week of the semester begins, the UPR administration continues to insist it can ensure the safety of students and employees with a militarized campus, while the alarming sound of helicopters and sirens belie such claims. The administration argues the police must remain to prevent striking students from attempting to shut down the campus, yet that could be averted with real negotiation of the student fee, which never happened as had been agreed. Ultimately such entrenched polarization holds everyone hostage, and those who believe they can “win” such a conflict with brute force will surely prove to be sorely mistaken, and hopefully not tragically so. So the video here by student Luis R. Rosa wisely portends, with a haunting mother’s cries as her only daughter is beaten by police, as we, too, viscerally bear witness.


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