On June 30, 2010, as part of a lesson in democracy, Betty Peña Peña drove with her daughter, Eliza, from the town of Caguas to the Capitolio building in Old San Juan, which houses the island territory’s legislature. They had been to several demonstrations before, particularly those organized by Puerto Rico’s teachers union, of which Betty is a member. This time they intended to join a coalition of university students, community organizations and labor unions at the Neoclassical Revival structure overlooking the Caribbean.
It was the last day of the session, and on the agenda were final arguments on legislation to carry out budget cuts designed to address what right-wing Governor Luis Fortuño had proclaimed a fiscal crisis. The session had been plagued by controversy surrounding the decision by Senate president Thomas Rivera Schatz, who belongs to Fortuño’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), to prevent the general public and independent media from entering the viewing galleries. The imposition of this unconstitutional restriction, coming after months of protest against the government’s harsh austerity policies, brought political tensions in Puerto Rico to a boil.
When Peña arrived with her daughter, the crowd, as many as a thousand or more, was singing and chanting slogans. As if sensing the wet gust of a wind that signals an impending tropical thunderstorm, Peña felt the atmosphere deteriorate quickly. “Suddenly a helicopter came over the ocean, really close to us, and we moved toward the students, who were by a row of parked cars, surrounded by a wall of police, the riot squad and mounted police,” she recalls.
Then a police officer, using a megaphone, ordered the crowd to disperse. In seconds the tactical operations unit—in actions that prefigured many of this fall’s evictions of Occupy Wall Street—began to viciously attack the demonstrators with batons and pepper spray. “They were just hitting people, and then my daughter, Eliza, was on the floor, and they hit me,” she says, beginning to sob. “But the blow didn’t hurt as much as when I saw her on the floor and I saw the police were on top of her.”
“The party in power wants Puerto Rico to be a state, but they don’t know the first thing about American democracy,” says William Ramirez, executive director of the Puerto Rico branch of the ACLU, which is suing the Puerto Rican police on behalf of the Peñas.
The brutality of police conduct that day was the culmination of a wave of violence that, while a problem for many years, has accelerated under the Fortuño administration. It drove Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican who attended the University of Puerto Rico, to rail against Fortuño on the floor of the House last February. “This year the people of Wisconsin took over the Capitol in Madison; they had 100,000 people there,” Gutierrez told me later. “But they didn’t send in the riot squad! They didn’t close down the Senate. Here, people march to the Senate and what did they do? They called the riot police and they pepper-sprayed, and I’m wondering, why isn’t anybody saying anything?”
In Washington the president and Congress remained silent, but in Puerto Rico people had been speaking up for quite a while. The efforts of Ramirez, along with those of another lawyer named Judith Berkan, helped to spur a three-year investigation of the Puerto Rican police by the Justice Department, the results of which were released this past September 8. Announced at a San Juan press conference hosted by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Pérez and Fortuño, the report found that the Puerto Rico Police Department—the second largest in the United States, with 17,000 officers—had engaged in a “pattern and practice of: excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment; unreasonable force…designed to suppress the exercise of protected First Amendment rights; and unlawful searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”