Manifestacion Pacifica, o Represion del Pueblo? / Peaceful Protest or Repression of the People?
Updated: May 3, 2019
I attended the May 1 protests as an observer with a group of volunteers working to ensure the public's right to free expression was protected. The march which took place in La Milla de Oro, Puerto Rico’s central business district, home to the big banks that have been at the center of Puerto Rico’s debt controversy, was generally peaceful and, based on my inexperienced observation, police presence was excessive. The news reports coming out of the day were generally positive, as thankfully there were no grave incidents. However, I think the measure of a "successful" demonstration is whether people felt heard. Were the people given the right to express themselves freely, or were their voices suppressed? I can honestly say I don't know the answer. Here is what I do know: Protests are important for a free democratic state – they should not be suppressed. Major legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were born from direct action of the people, by way of sit-ins, marches, and protests. It is a way for the general public to bring awareness to power. The persons participating in the demonstrations yesterday were not violent, they were generally harmless and simply looking to express their views, whether to march against PROMESA, to protest the current administration, the lack of education funding, or any of the many other symptoms of colonialism ailing the island. I understand police presence is a necessary factor in public demonstrations to the extent it is meant to ensure no public or private property is damaged and no violence occurs. On Wednesday, police presence was extremely high, causing intimidation for sure, which I am guessing is what they were going for. But I wondered why they had SWAT teams and hoses ready to go for just a peaceful march down the road?
Many proponents of this overdone display of police force point to the fact that in the past, a few rogue participants caused damage to property and overtly challenged the police. For example, in the 2017 May 1 demonstrations, a small minority of protesters smashed the windows of the elite Banco Popular building. The following year, likely as a reprisal for the actions of those very bold few, the police was extremely violent. Mayhem ensued when the police resorted to tear gas, pepper spray and enclosing of demonstrators. Some officers even followed individual university student protesters to their residences to arrest them. As we marched down the street this year, the level of tension was high due to the uncertainty of what would occur that day.
As I marched forward as an observer, I noticed a police blockade. There was confusion about the route we were supposed to take. However, at that moment, this caused tension between the public and the police. There were what seemed like 2 to 3 rows of police, wearing helmets and knee pads; while behind them another large group of police officers huddled – and not far behind them, what looked like a SWAT team was standing by. Once the demonstrators reached the blockade, one of them sat on the weighted plastic road blocks to question why they were not allowed to pass through. One of the officers, maybe a higher-up, appeared from behind the front lines to address her directly and, when she stood up (on the police-side of the blockade) the officer yanked her, dragging her behind the rows of armed policemen, all of whom immediately pulled out their retractable batons (I think we call them “macanas”) – ready for any blowback. The sight was impressive. I will never forget the clicking sound of the batons, causing a sense of indignation and helplessness among the group of protesters – and the girl was nowhere to be seen seconds later. This was so early in the march that I was gravely concerned about how the rest of the day would unfold. As the standoff dragged on, many protesters chanted, others asked the police to join them, while on the other side of the barrier, I noticed the change in formation behind the front lines. Different uniforms were now behind the front rows. These officers wore black shirts and sand pants, like some sort of special forces unit. Some agents were prepared with gas masks and one of the special forces-looking agents held a large hose. The tension rose to the point where we all had our handkerchiefs ready in case they released tear gas. I cannot explain to you the amount of disappointment and sadness this moment brought me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a powerless people, fighting to be heard, staring into the faces of other members of their community – their same compatriots, neighbors, born of the same struggle – only uniformed, on the opposite side of the fight. I was horrified at the prospect of these weapons of control being used by the police on its people, and questioned the need for it in the first place. How is this necessary?
It is hard for me to understand the police behavior beyond the rerouting of a marching path, and even if the demonstrators tried to deviate from their marching route, it is completely unfathomable they would need a SWAT team to enforce this. I believe it is painfully obvious, then, that the police was there to repress public expression. This is where it gets uncomfortable for me. I see two sides of a balance: maintaining order and peace and the free expression of the people on their terms. Of course there are always people who unnecessarily aggravate the situation – on both ends. (Shout out to the guy who wanted to go to the ATM which just so happened to be in the Banco Popular building.) I also understand that some officers abuse their power because they can. I am not here to talk about those. The balance that should be attained here is that of free expression without oppression or destruction. So, were the demonstrators repressed, or were they asking for more than they had agreed to? I only hope the people have a sufficient platform to express themselves, to avoid more resentment and tension.