On Monday night, protesters were gathered outside of the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, as they had been for more than a week, in order to demand the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
Although the protesters had been demonstrating in a peaceful manner all evening, around 10 pm, the police suddenly announced that a few protesters had become “aggressive” and then used their own claims as a pretext for a brutal crackdown. The police told members of the crowd that they had 10 minutes to evacuate before the police would start firing tear gas and forcibly removing protesters. Without warning, the protest had been declared illegal.
Police began to shoot tear gas into the crowd, creating a panic as hundreds tried to flee the clouds of chemicals, as well as the police officers who were chasing after them. Social media posts later revealed on-duty police officers reveling the pleasure of tear-gassing protesters that night. One officer boasted, “Y la calle limpiesita y eso que eran más y no tenían miedo, se les olvidó que nosotros somos menos pero tenemos mucho gas” (And the street is clear and those that were more and had no fear, they forgot that we’re fewer but we have a lot of gas). This was at least the third straight day that police had violently and suddenly ended a peaceful protest outside of the governor’s mansion.
The events of Monday evening had started to feel so routine to protesters that on Tuesday night they found a creative way to call out the police. Protesters brought children’s books to read bedtime stories and symbolically put the Puerto Rican Constitution to bed, drawing attention to how the police have been treating the Constitution much like a small child who gets sleepy as evening falls. Protesters pointed out that night after night, after hours without incident, police would announce to the hundreds gathered that the protest was over and no longer protected by the Constitution before they moved to violently dislodge protesters from the streets surrounding the governor’s mansion.
Some nights, police justified their crackdown by pointing to protesters who were supposedly trying to breach the police barricades. Other nights, they described protesters allegedly throwing water bottles and trash at police — unpopular but standard acts of expression normally protected by the Puerto Rican Constitution in the context of protests.
Protesters symbolically read bedtime stories to the Puerto Rican Constitution to bring attention to the illegal and repressive actions of the police. Protesters and legal experts have pointed out that the police do not have the authority to interpret the Constitution simply because they want a demonstration to end.
Throughout the protests, police have used brutal force such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons against protesters in ways that are impossible to justify, despite law enforcement efforts to criminalize protesters and paint them as dangerous malcontents.
Police Repeatedly Unleashed Brutal Force and Chemicals on Protesters
During the extraordinary and massive series of protests that has rocked Puerto Rico, Kilómetro 0, a human rights organization in Puerto Rico founded by Mari Mari Narváez — one of the co-authors of this article — has documented at least 39 incidents of excessive use of force by the police against individual protesters, using interviews with protesters and legal observers, as well as reports from social and traditional media. This does not include the thousands who were affected by the regular use of tear gas that punctuated these protests once the police decided it was time for the constitution to go to sleep.
Protesters have suffered the effects of relentless exposure to chemical irritants over more than half of the nights since the protests began. Police have chased protesters and bystanders through the narrow streets of Old San Juan and shot them in their backs, extremities and even heads with rubber bullets and pellets. Protesters have been beat up by police officers and unlawfully arrested.
According to statistics compiled by Kilómetro 0, in at least four out of the 17 arrests made by police, detained citizens reported to advocacy groups, legal observers, and lawyers that they were threatened with violence and death by police officers, who said things like, “Ahora es que te vamos a joder y a matar” (Now we’re going to fuck you up and kill you). The police also set fire to a parked car when they threw a gas canister against it, although they initially blamed protesters for the blaze. Residents of Old San Juan have also had their homes invaded by gases to the point where some families have had to leave their homes during the protests.
In addition to accusing police of using force in ways that broke with established legal protocols, protesters have also accused the police of deploying agents provocateurs. According to the Puerto Rican branch of the ACLU, plainclothes undercover officers infiltrated demonstrations and posed as demonstrators in order to rile people up to engage in confrontations with the police, which would give police the necessary pretext to end the protest. Even rap artist Bad Bunny denounced the use of infiltrados during the protests.
Additionally, protesters have accused police of filming and photographing them in order to mark them for retribution. This harkens back to a long history of police surveillance and infiltration used to destabilize and discredit social movements, a practice known as carpeteo in Puerto Rico. The extreme measures witnessed during these protests have been defended by high-ranking police officials, including Police Superintendent Henry Escalera, who said he would defend “democracy,” which these democratic protests apparently threatened, “to the last drop of blood.”
A Long History of Puerto Rican Police Using Excessive Force
This repression and brutality cannot be explained away as police being overwhelmed and overreacting in response to the extraordinary public mobilizations that took place day after day for almost two weeks. Rather, these recent abuses serve to highlight how the police in Puerto Rico have historically and consistently used force and intimidation in order to prop up the existing political order during moments of crisis.
As documented by numerous scholars and activists, the Puerto Rico Police Department has a long history of repressing political and social dissent. Our “law-and-order” institution has historically killed, persecuted, incarcerated and blacklisted dissidents, particularly anti-colonial and pro-independence activists.
The conduct of the Puerto Rico Police Department during these uprisings is a reminder that, although Rosselló has stepped down, the territory will still be left with one of the most corrupt, repressive and violent police forces under U.S. jurisdiction. Along with the fight against austerity and the federally imposed fiscal control board, the fight for police accountability will continue after the #RickyRenuncia protests have ended.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report based on a multi-year investigation of the Puerto Rico Police Department that declared the force broken in a number of fundamental respects that have fostered a culture of corruption, impunity and disregard for civil rights at practically every level.
In 2013, the Puerto Rico Police Department entered into a consent decree with the federal government to radically reform the department and address the culture of abuse that had not only been allowed to fester but was encouraged by political elites in Puerto Rico. Shortly after, Arnaldo Claudio was appointed by the DOJ to act as a federal monitor and oversee the reform.
Claudio spent almost five years attempting to work with Puerto Rico Police Department officials and members of the local government to address the rampant corruption, violence, and politicization of the department. In May, Claudio resigned in protest alleging that both the local and federal governments had no genuine interest in reforming the Puerto Rico Police Department and making it accountable to the people of Puerto Rico.
#RickyLeaks Chats Revealed Police Role in Political Repression
The leaked chats released by the Center for Investigative Journalism show Rosselló and close political allies conspiring to hamstring and discredit the efforts of the federal monitor. Additionally, the chats show the “brothers” of the chat, as they refer to themselves, discussing plans to sic the police on political opponents, such as Rep. Manuel Natal.
For protesters, the police are part and parcel of the culture of corruption and violence that the #RickyLeaks chats revealed. The longstanding politicization of the police and their presence as the repressive arm of the state in the everyday lives of Puerto Ricans is also part of the frustration and desire for change fueling these protests.
The gross violations of fundamental human rights, especially the right to free expression, documented by journalists and human rights organizations during these protests occur at a time when democracy in Puerto Rico is constrained by the structures of colonial capitalism. As the passage of PROMESA, the imposition of a fiscal control board, and the outcomes of two 2016 Supreme Court cases on Puerto Rico’s sovereignty painfully reminded Puerto Ricans, the archipelago is subject to the whims of another country’s congressional power and robbed of meaningful self-government.
Additionally, as a result of the federal government’s attempt to deal with the debt crisis, civil rights cases brought against the state are being indefinitely halted under Title III, as are other cases involving financial settlement. This, along with a very lax execution of the Agreement for a Sustainable Police Reform and an absolute lack of independent or civilian oversight, has exacerbated the culture of impunity in the Puerto Rico Police Department.
Currently, Puerto Ricans lack formal ways of keeping the police accountable. Understaffed and overextended organizations like Brigada Legal Solidaria, ACLU PR, the Puerto Rican Bar Association and Kilómetro 0 have stepped in to fill this void and advocate on behalf of the people.
Self-determination, as well as political and social progress in Puerto Rico, has been stalled by the systematic use of repression in Puerto Rico. But this does not only apply to activists — vulnerable and marginalized communities in the archipelago are also frequent targets of the police. Communities and populations that rarely receive decent basic services from the state more often experience mano dura, or iron-fisted treatment.
Vulnerable communities are often subjected to discriminatory surveillance, targeted abuse and rampant human rights violations from the police. In the first six months of this year, the Puerto Rico Police Department has already killed at least eight men, two of whom were in severe emotional distress and two others who were underage. Four of the men were unarmed at the moment they were killed. The majority were young men from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
While protesters took to the streets to demand Rosselló’s resignation, they were also making a set of larger demands for the Puerto Rican state to be more accountable to the people and to cease promoting polices that cause harm.
Although Rosselló has stepped down, many protesters have vowed to keep up the pressure until they have the democratic and life-affirming society they deserve, chanting, “They’ve taken so much from us that they’ve taken away our fear.”