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Rep. Luis Gutierrez Headshot

On the Puerto Rican People: 'You Will Not Silence Them and You Will Not Silence Me'

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The following is adapted from a speech by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, delivered this morning to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

Two weeks ago I spoke about a serious problem in Puerto Rico. The problem is a systemic effort by the ruling party to deny the right of the people to speak freely, to criticize their government openly, and to make their voices heard.

I talked about student protests that had been met with violent resistance by Puerto Rican police. I talked about closed meetings of the legislature, and about efforts to silence the local Bar Association.

I was not the first to speak about it. And I could have said much more.

I could have gone into greater detail about how a federal judge -- whose picture I displayed on the floor -- jailed the head of the Puerto Rico Bar Association rather than let him disseminate information to the members of his organization.

A judge with a history of close ties to the ruling party and with a clear history opposing the Bar Association and who was described by my good friend Charlie Rangel -- after the judge handed out harsh sentencing to protesters of the bombing of Vieques -- as "reminiscent of the judges we had in the U.S. in the South in the civil-rights movement who wanted to punish a community to stifle freedom of speech."

I could have detailed the complaints of students, legislators, the press, and the general public who were beaten and pepper sprayed by police who clearly went too far in suppressing the people's legitimate right to demonstrate. Female students who were treated with gross disrespect by the police and whose stories were captured in the searing report by the ACLU of Puerto Rico, "Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico: First Amendment Under Siege."

This was the government overreaction to demonstrations at the university over budget cuts and the layoffs of at least 17,000 and maybe as many as 34,000 public employees. And demonstrations at the Capitol over budget cuts and layoffs were also met by riot police, clubs, and more pepper spray.

The images of police tactics and behavior explain why, according to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, there is an ongoing investigation -- as we speak -- into allegations that members of the Puerto Rico Police have used "excessive force, had conducted unconstitutional searches, and acted discriminatorily."

How could you see the pictures and not speak out?

And I was hardly the first to speak out about these matters (see, for example, this statement by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union or this editorial from the Puerto Rico Daily Sun) and I will not be the last...

As a member of Congress, it is more than my right -- it is my obligation -- to speak out when fundamental freedoms are attacked.

And what was the response to my speech defending the right of the Puerto Rican people to be heard?

It was to challenge my right to be heard here in the U.S. Congress.

The resident commissioner of Puerto Rico said that only he is authorized to speak about Puerto Rico in this body.

This week the Puerto Rico legislature debated a resolution of censure -- yes, censure -- condemning me for speaking out against these abuses.

A leading member of the ruling party even said, essentially, "Gutierrez was not born in Puerto Rico. His kids weren't born in Puerto Rico. Gutierrez doesn't plan on being buried in Puerto Rico... So Gutierrez doesn't have the right to speak about Puerto Rico... "

Let me tell you something -- if you see injustice anywhere, it is not only your right but your duty to speak out about it.

We don't speak out against injustice or apartheid or human rights abuses or the denial of rights to women in places around the world because we ourselves were born there. That's silly. Where we see injustice we speak out because it is the right thing to do.

Ironically, by questioning my right to speak out on behalf of free speech, they have made my point crystal clear. By challenging my free speech, they have amplified the words of my five-minute speech more than if I had spoken for five hours.

And it is their right. My critics have the right of free speech even as they deny that same right to others.

And I want them to understand this: Your efforts to silence me -- just like your efforts to silence so many people in Puerto Rico who disagree with you -- will fail, just as every effort to blockade progress only makes the march toward justice more powerful and swift.

I may not be Puerto Rican enough for some people, but I know this: Nowhere on earth will you find a people harder to silence than Puerto Ricans. You won't locate my love for Puerto Rico on my birth certificate or a driver's license, my children's birth certificate or any other piece of paper.

My love for Puerto Rico is right here -- in my heart -- a heart that beats with our history and our language and our heroes. A place where -- when I moved there as a teenager -- people talked and argued and debated because we care deeply about our island and our future.

That's still true today -- and that freedom is still beating in the hearts of university students, and workers who've been fired and members of the Puerto Rico Bar Association and every person who believes in free speech. You will not silence them, and you will not silence me.

Abraham Lincoln, a leader who valued freedom above all else, said: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves."

It's good advice, and I hope Puerto Rican leaders take it.

A video of Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez's speech to the U.S. House of Representatives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUy-cglbAGg