Aurora Muriente Pastrana, who is both a law-school student and adjunct professor in the humanities department at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), had come to the steps of Puerto Rico’s capitol building on April 18 with a group of university students, professors, workers, and activists to raise their voices against the passage of a bill that would eliminate the government-funded Debt Audit Commission, which was created in 2015 to audit the island territory’s $70-plus billion in debt. In solidarity with a group called the Citizen Front for Auditing the Debt, the growing crowd began to stir when representatives of the Citizen Front were not allowed access to the building to observe the bill’s hearings, as is their constitutional right.
Muriente, who is part of a movement that has shut down university operations since March, said the crowd was chanting “We’re Citizens, Not Criminals!” with some urging the police to join them, since their pensions were also threatened by austerity measures. But then, in a poignant echo of the violence that occurred on these same steps in 2010, the demonstrators were, without warning, beset by nightstick-wielding riot police, who fired a barrage of pepper spray at them.
“I was recording what was happening, and the spray reached my hands and arms and I breathed in a lot of it. I had to receive medical assistance,” Muriente said. “Other students and professors were sprayed in the face and hit with billy clubs indiscriminately.”
The return of violence to the capitol steps was a reminder that the US Department of Justice had investigated the Puerto Rico Police Department in 2011 for use of excessive force, which led to a consent decree that placed the department under DOJ supervision. According to Puerto Rico ACLU president William Ramírez, the use of the spray was in violation of the DOJ-enforced agreement with the PRPD. It’s not clear whether the police were emboldened by the recent statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that such federal investigations of police abuses would be re-evaluated. At any rate, tensions are rising again in Puerto Rico, now that the Fiscal Control Board—which was created by the US Congress’s PROMESA bill to supervise all government expenditures, and which took power in January—has begun to push for austerity measures, such as a $512 million cut in university funding by the year 2025.
Bernat Tort, who teaches in the philosophy and women’s and gender studies departments at UPR, was hit in the face with pepper spray when he resisted the riot squad’s attempts to push demonstrators away from the building. “We were prepared for the possibility that they might use [pepper spray], but no one was prepared for the stinging pain, all over the body,” said Tort. “I lost my sight for 40 minutes.” Tort, who belongs to a group called Self-Convened Professors in Resistance and Solidarity, feels strongly about supporting an audit of the debt. “The audit would reveal 1) how much of the debt is illegal, 2) who is responsible for putting together the illegal bonds that were sold, and 3) who was involved in the underwriting,” he said.