THE BLOG

Massive Turnout Against Police Occupation of University of Puerto Rico

02/14/2011 09:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Student protests at University of Puerto Rico have mobilized a diversified public against the police occupation of the campus. On Saturday, some 15,000 marched along the main thoroughfares around the urban campus shouting in chorus "¡Fuera Policía, Fuera!" (Police, Get Out!). The turnout was largely in response to broadcast images of police brutality that began the Spring semester last week.

As perhaps testament that protest is worthwile, today the majority of police were ordered out of the campus, a welcome change from last week's volatile start to the semester, if the decision sticks.

The protest was triggered by a campus melee on Wednesday that led to 28 student arrests, including some who were merely en route to class. Serious injuries were reported. The day culminated with leaders of the professors organization APPU (Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios) calling a 24-hour work stoppage, which was then supported by the staff union HEEND (Hermandad de Empleados Exentos No Docentes). A crowd of about 1,000 students formed and occupied the vestibule of the iconic clock tower housing Chancellor Ana R. Guadalupe's office. All the students arrested were later released without charges. Thursday afternoon, the Hermandad extended the walkout another 24 hours, leaving the campus desolate for a second consecutive day on Friday.

The massive march on Saturday followed the resignation of University of Puerto Rico president José Ramón De La Torre, on Friday. In a letter dated Thursday, February 10, De la Torre requested that the Superintendent of Police, José Figueroa Sancha remove the police. Given the chronology of the request, it appears that De La Torre was the one removed. A widely shared belief is that top administrators are following a political agenda in which the ultimate goal is to dismantle and restructure the institution. In such conjecture, the strike is welcome as part of a government plan to justify closing the institution altogether. The origins of the strike lie in a student fee of $800 that could never be convincingly justified.

"The president's resignation shows a significant split over the purported need for the police occupation as well as the imposed fee," said Omar Ramírez, president of the General Student Council. In the letter to the police chief, De La Torre also reconsiders the role of distinct sectors in resolving the conflict, such as the professor and staff unions, and acknowledges the help of only one politician, Senate Speaker Thomas Rivera Schatz, seen as a future competitor to Gov. Luis Fortuño, though also from the right-wing flank of the Statehood Party. A more dire interpretation of De La Torre's letter is that the former UPR president wants to limit his liability in the event of more bloodshed or even deaths.

Gov. Fortuño on Friday was in Washington, D.C., during this latest juncture in the UPR crisis, attending a Conservative Political Action Conference, which gathered such right-wing notables as The National Rifle Association, The John Birch Society and The Tea Party. He also finds himself defending his wife's lucrative business as a notary public for the banks of Puerto Rico, collecting a minimum of $250 per signature and reaping approximately a million dollars per year.

Also on Friday, came news that Gov. Fortuño had named a commission to assess the university for restructuring. Among the appointees is the former UPR president José M. Saldaña, who published demagogic Op-Ed pieces labeling the Colleges of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education as hotbeds of communist revolutionaries, despite their markedly heterogeneous political temperament. In contemporary U.S. terms, the rhetoric of Fortuño and his appointees sounds like a Latino Tea Party.

"We appear to be in the first stage of a democratic dictatorship, a new absolutism," observed UPR Humanities professor Rubén Ríos Ávila.

As institutional venues for redress become besieged, the courts and civic unrest are sites of active opposition. The summary suspension last Monday of student leader Giovanni Roberto was reversed on appeal and the ruling also deemed unconstitutional the chancellor's edict prohibiting all protest and assembly on campus. Hence Wednesday's campus protests occurred while the prohibition was annulled. By the end of the week, however, the university won an appeal, and the case will now be again appealed on his behalf.

"Some of the most deeply rooted constitutional principles are at stake in this case after the administration of the University of Puerto Rico encroached on fundamental rights by establishing an absolute prohibition on free speech and the right to free assembly within the UPR campus," said attorney Frank Torres-Viada in a prepared statement.

Other reported abuses include police sexual harassment of female students. A complaint of excessive force against females being arrested was also filed in a governmental women's advocacy agency. These events seemed to touch a collective nerve, as intimated in this haunting video by student Luis R. Rosa, featuring a mother crying out as her only daughter is beaten by police.

Potential violence from riot police was averted on last Monday's first day of classes when members of the Hermandad union and onlookers formed a human chain between student protesters giving speeches and riot police who had completely surrounded them and were moving in to make arrests. The riot police retreated after professors, staff and public alike spontaneously involved themselves in a show of collective moral force.

During Saturday's march, the number of protestors became so great as to be able to temporarily shut down and occupy a major highway in a massive sit-in civil disobedience. The march drew members from 72 civic and political organizations, and seen participating were professors from the College of Natural Sciences, notables from the arts, seniors, community groups from housing projects, clergy, Vieques activists and even members of the Fortuño administration.

"I'm conservative and I work for this government," said one woman wearing a floppy hat to protect herself from identification and reprisals. "But I grew up in a small town, and I owe my economic betterment to my UPR education, and my children were also educated here," pointing to the campus where heavily armed policemen were stationed. "What the government is doing is just plain wrong."