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Wake Up Call: Civil Rights Abuses in Puerto Rico Highlight Need for All Americans to Pay Attention to the Island

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PUERTO RICAN POLICE
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Last week, the NY Times reported that the Department of Justice had uncovered appalling corruption within the Puerto Rican Police Department (PRPD). The offenses included unreasonable force, unconstitutional stops, searches, and seizures, and an ineffective disciplinary system. In an overview of the PRPD, the DOJ gave a failing grade, citing violent subcultures within tactical units and inadequate supervision and training. In spite of all the condemnations, the call to arms in defense of Puerto Rican citizens died with a whimper in the United States.

This muted reaction only serves to confirm the suspicion among those citizens living on the island that mainland America cares little about what happens to the Puerto Rican commonwealth. When Puerto Rico does become a topic of concern, it's often as a political ploy. A few weeks ago, Fox News and other conservatives highlighted Puerto Rico's declining unemployment and gushed over Governor Luis Fortuño's Scott Walker-like austerity measures. Now that unemployment is on the rise again, along with murders and other violent crime, not a peep from the right-wing.

Save for a few committed voices, the American left has not been much better. Puerto Rican poverty is over 45 percent, including 57 percent of children. Unemployment, which is over 16 percent, is greater on the island than in any of the 50 states. The median Puerto Rican income is roughly $21,000; Mississippi, the state with the lowest median income, is almost twice as much at $37,000. Yet, when President Obama put forth his Jobs Plan, which had several boons for the poor, unemployed, and working classes on the mainland, there was not even a mention of Puerto Rico, or any of the other US's so-called unincorporated territories.

Puerto Rico's political status and relationship with the United States is complicated and far from resolved, but it has the potential to be productive. Building a sturdy relationship has to begin with mainland citizens recognizing the economic and civil rights crisis that has festered under the Fortuno administration. Puerto Ricans have been trying to draw attention to this emergency for years, with Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) leading the charge from mainland America. Since February, Gutierrez has taken his case to the floor of the US House. His speeches about the civil and human rights abuses have been so forthright and shocking that he was censured by the Puerto Rican legislature, who sought to paper over the problem.

Now that the DOJ has issued its report, Fortuño and the rest of the deniers have been effectively rebuked. All American citizens, islander and mainlander, ought to encourage the DOJ to continue monitoring the situation, especially to ensure that opponents of the Fortuno agenda are not silenced. Our island hermanos y hermanas deserve better than what they're getting. Those courageous voices, in unison with advocates like Congressman Gutierrez, are Puerto Rico's best shot at political and economic renewal.