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Politics of a Parade: How Pro-Independence Puerto Ricans Resisted Colonial Tactics in New York City

Puerto Rican Day Parade organizers turned the tables on the politicians pressuring them to denounce Oscar Lopez Rivera.

Thousands of marchers, including Puerto Rican leader and recently freed political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, filled Manhattan's 5th Avenue for the 60th Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 11, 2017. (Photo: Joe Catron / Flickr)

In a modern-day manifestation of the old colonial divide-and-rule tactic, corporations and New York City politicians, including the mayor, were recently caught trying to engage in backdoor deals to divide the city’s Puerto Rican community over a pro-Puerto Rican independence activist’s participation in the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

The corporate and political efforts to divide the Puerto Rican community came after Manhattan’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade — one of the diaspora’s largest celebrations of Puerto Rican culture — announced that it would honor Oscar Lopez Rivera, a pro-Puerto Rican independence political prisoner who had recently had his sentence commuted by President Barack Obama after being imprisoned for over 35 years for “seditious conspiracy.”

The controversial parade in question took place on Sunday, June 11, the same day that Puerto Rico, currently facing a financial crisis, held a referendum on the island’s political status, leaving Puerto Ricans divided over choosing between its present “Commonwealth” status, statehood or independence. With a historically low 23 percent voter turnout due to a boycott of the election by independistas, who say the referendum was rigged in favor of statehood, statehood won with 97 percent of the vote. But the referendum was essentially meaningless.

With an independista like Lopez Rivera vilified as a “terrorist” in the leadup to the parade, it’s no surprise that those who benefit from colonialism, both on the island and in the diaspora, are doing their best to make the fight for independence difficult. The results of the referendum and the controversy surrounding Lopez Rivera in New York City both clearly show the colonial status of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, even in the diaspora. Back on the island, this colonial status was thrown into high relief in August 2016, when the United States government set up a colonial fiscal control board for Puerto Rico that has since imposed drastic austerity measures, including cutting funds to schools and social services.

After the announcement in New York City that the National Puerto Rican Day Parade would honor Lopez Rivera during its June 11 event from 12 pm to 3 pm, Lopez Rivera — a former member of the militant Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) who carried out a series of bombings in the 1970s — was quickly demonized by right-wingers, the police and both of NYC’s major local newspapers.

Corporate sponsors of the parade, including Goya, Jet Blue, the New York Yankees, AT&T and Coca-Cola, announced that they would boycott the parade due to Lopez Rivera being honored.

Local media outlets like the NY Daily News, Univision, NBC New York and Telemundo47 said they would pull out of the parade. Commissioner James O’Neill of the New York City Police Department and officials like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzales also announced that they would not be marching in the parade either. Nonetheless, the board of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade stood firm in its decision to honor Lopez Rivera. Mayor Bill de Blasio at first claimed that he would march in the parade, but behind the scenes, he was working to get Lopez Rivera to step aside as an honoree at the parade.

“I made clear to [the board of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade] that I was uncomfortable with the situation and I wanted them to resolve it, I really believe they could resolve it,” Mayor de Blasio told NY1. “If it wasn’t resolved, I wasn’t going to be a part of it.”

Amidst these boycotts of the main parade in Manhattan, corporations and politicians started to express interest in the smaller, more local, third annual Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade scheduled for 5 pm in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The Sunset Park parade also began to attract backdoor offers of financial support, especially from those same corporations and local politicians. What they didn’t realize is that the organizers of the Sunset Park parade are also independistas who support Lopez Rivera.
“That’s the history of political repression under US colonialism,” Dennis Flores of the community activist group El Grito de Sunset Park said regarding the boycotts and vilification of Lopez Rivera. “This is what’s it’s been like for the independence movement from the very beginning, when the US bombed their way and invaded Puerto Rico in 1898.”

Flores and El Grito de Sunset Park organize the neighborhood’s parade. As a result, many of the politicians and corporations that boycotted the main parade began to get in contact with him, sending him emails and text messages and requesting conference calls. Flores says that many of them offered him money and other forms of support in exchange for being able to march in the Sunset Park parade and asked Flores to openly denounce Lopez Rivera and the main parade. He recounted one call he received from the NYPD Hispanic Society, which also included representatives from Goya on the line.

“They basically were feeling me out and asking me if we were honoring Oscar Lopez in our parade,” Flores told me.

They also asked Flores if Lopez Rivera was going to attend the Sunset Park parade too. When Flores informed them that Lopez Rivera was technically not getting an award and that Lopez Rivera would not be at the Sunset Park parade, they made their offer.

“Clearly, they already knew who I was,” Flores said. “They knew what I was about, but they were trying to find the safe ground to be able to say ‘How about if we support what you guys are doing? How about if we partake, we sponsor your parade, we bring some people out there to march?”

However, Flores said, there was a catch: “They basically said: ‘Are you willing to disassociate yourself from anything about Oscar Lopez? Denounce what they’re doing, and we’ll come out and support your parade.'”

Flores then refused, informing them that he’s an independista as well as a supporter of Lopez Rivera. Flores even later released a statement on the day of the parade saying, “We honor the freedom fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera and we stand in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people back on our home island.”

“They didn’t get the opening that they were hoping for,” Flores told me. “But they were clearly shopping around.”

And they weren’t the only ones shopping around. People from Univision reportedly contacted Flores and asked if he supported Lopez Rivera. Flores showed me emails and text messages proving that he was contacted by the staff of politicians like Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn DA Gonzales, Mayor de Blasio and even the right-wing New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. All of these politicians are also either facing an upcoming election or looking to pursue higher office.

Marco Carrión, the commissioner of de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit, contacted Flores on behalf of the mayor. Emails show that Carrión invited Flores to coffee at the Aroma Espresso Bar on May 19. At these meet-ups for coffee, Carrión tried to convince Flores to let Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner O’Neill march in the Sunset Park parade.

Flores, who is a member of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, decided this was a good opportunity to force the mayor, the commissioner, and all the other politicians to publicly address Broken Windows policing, a policing strategy that purports to reduce larger crimes through strict enforcement of small quality-of-life crimes but which, in fact, is used as an excuse to target, harass and arrest poor people and people of color. Mayor de Blasio has supported this policing approach since he first entered office and hired one of Broken Windows’ biggest advocates, Bill Bratton, as NYPD Commissioner. Bratton resigned in September 2016 amidst protests, but the mayor has persisted in defending Broken Windows despite criticism from immigrant and anti-police-brutality activists.

“He had asked me if the mayor and the police commissioner could come to the [Sunset Park] Puerto Rican Day Parade,” Flores told me. “I said the only way that could ever happen is if the mayor and the police commissioner sit down at a town hall, hosted by us, to address issues around Broken Windows.”

According to Flores, Carrión didn’t say no at that point but claimed he’d try to get an answer from the mayor and the commissioner. Flores later met with fellow anti-police-brutality activists in the Coalition to End Broken Windows to discuss setting up the town hall, but Carrión never got back to Flores. More than a week later, when they finally met up again, Flores said it seemed clear that Carrión was stalling. A town hall on Broken Windows, opposition to which has gained some steam amongst liberal establishment politicians, would not look good for Mayor de Blasio, even if it meant he could march in the Sunset Park Parade.

Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn DA Gonzalez, who is currently campaigning to keep his job against a number of strong contenders, did agree to participate in a town hall set to take place within the next two weeks. He recently had to square up with some of his opponents at a forum, where it was made clear to Gonzalez that he needs to present himself as progressive on policing issues in order to win.

Also, unsurprisingly, the right-wing Assemblywoman Malliotakis, who is currently running for mayor, had the most clumsy interaction with Flores. Malliotakis, never one to pass up a chance to bash Mayor de Blasio, had recently called Lopez Rivera a “terrorist” and loudly denounced de Blasio for saying that he’d march in the main parade.

“While we are pleased that Oscar Lopez Rivera will not be recognized at the Puerto Rican day parade as a freedom fighting hero,” her campaign wrote in a statement on June 5, “the fact remains that this terrorist has shockingly shown more integrity in doing what is right for the parade than our own city leadership who refuse to denounce him and instead waited until he declined the award.”

But behind the scenes, her staff was contacting Flores, an independista and copwatcher, in order to ask if she could “donate” and march in the Sunset Park parade — a parade which officially began as a response to police brutality and has always included an Oscar Lopez Rivera contingent.

“Mr. Flores I am writing on behalf of Assemblywoman Malliotakis who would like to march in the Sunset Park parade,” says a text message sent to Flores from a number belonging to the Staten Island-based Von Agency, the public relations agency working for Assemblywoman Malliotakis’ mayoral campaign. “Can we still donate and participate?”

Before Flores could even respond to the text, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a whole article claiming that Assemblywoman Malliotakis would be marching in the Sunset Park parade, which was presented as the good parade as opposed to the Manhattan parade “honoring political extremist” Oscar Lopez Rivera. These were classic colonial divide-and-rule tactics, where conflict and division is encouraged amongst a colonized people in order to more easily rule them, and Flores made sure to publicly state that Malliotakis was not welcome at the Sunset Park parade.

“Clearly, that’s all she wanted. She wanted that type of exposure,” Flores told me. “She didn’t care about Sunset Park. She didn’t care about us. She had no respect for the organizers. She didn’t even wait for us to give a response to say ‘yes, you can come to the parade’ or ‘no, you cannot.’ Nothing!”

Truthout contacted the offices of Malliotakis, Marco Carrión and de Blasio for comment in the days leading up to the parade but did not receive a reply.

By demonizing Lopez Rivera as a “terrorist,” boycotting the main parade, and attempting to get a Puerto Rican organizer to publicly denounce both the main parade and Lopez Rivera, corporations and local politicians have shown that while they will gladly accept Puerto Rican dollars and votes, they will not tolerate Puerto Ricans who dare fight for the freedom of their people. Even after Lopez Rivera had announced in a June 1 op-ed that he would be marching “not as your honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather,” they refused to end their boycotts.

But these recent events have also shown that Puerto Ricans, as well as Black and Brown people in general, can resist modern colonial divide-and-rule tactics and can even flex their political muscles against the colonialists in the process. So far, Flores’ town hall on Broken Windows scheduled for June 30 is set to feature Public Advocate James, DA Gonzales and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former cop, originally agreed to attend the town hall but, less than 24 hours after the parade, backed out, which resulted in El Grito de Sunset Park releasing a statement on June 13 banning him from ever marching in the Sunset Park parade again. Meanwhile, voters have learned the damaging truth about the attempts made by both Mayor de Blasio and Assemblywoman Malliotakis at backdoor deals.

As long as the colonized have just a little bit of integrity and solidarity, they can take on their oppressors. And for now, politicians and corporations will know that the Puerto Rican community will fight back against efforts to divide it.
“You’re pitting us against other people,” Flores told the NY Daily News regarding Malliotakis trying to march in the Sunset Park parade. “You’re using our parade to say, ‘These are the good Puerto Ricans and those are the bad ones.’ That’s not cool with us.”

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