Hundreds of protesters were tear gassed by police at Puerto Rico‘s National Strike Tuesday, and many others pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, and struck with batons. The mayhem began shortly after 2 p.m., and attendees – including elderly people and children – felt the effects of the chemical agent even as they fled. Many suffered injuries in the panicked rush to escape the Milla de Oro, the financial district of San Juan where the event took place.
Hours later, a press conference was held by Governor Ricardo Rosselló that also included Héctor Pesquera, the Commissioner of Safety and Public Protection, and Police Commissioner Henry Escalera. The group responsible, they agreed, was Se Acabaron Las Promesas, a collective of activists organized two years ago in response to PROMESA, the U.S. law passed to address the island’s $72 billion debt, and the subsequent implementation of a federal Fiscal Control Board of un-elected officials. Officials accused the group of antagonizing police, and throwing rocks and other projectiles – including acid. Fifteen officers were injured, they noted, and held up rocks allegedly used against police to demonstrate.
So far, no proof has emerged that the protesters used acid. The use of rocks and other projectiles is true. Those on the receiving end, however, didn’t come unprepared: Police dressed in full riot gear with protective helmets with shields. They had gas masks, batons, and some had guns for shooting rubber bullets, too – and when the chemical clouds became inescapable, the vast majority of protesters only had bandanas and T-shirts to cover their faces. And some didn’t even have those.
Later in the day, a sizable group of police appeared in a residential street in Río Piedras, near the University of Puerto Rico’s flagship campus, in persecution of protestors.
Throughout the day, there were at least 12 confirmed arrests.
Some of the primary issues denounced at the protest were pension cuts, the closure of 283 public schools (in addition to the 179 closed last year), the rolling back of labor protections, the privatization of government entities (the power authority, for one), university tuition hikes, corruption in Puerto Rico’s own government, and the US Fiscal Control Board and the colonial nature of the austerity measures that it has implemented.
Se Acabaron Las Promesas was not the only group present at the strike, of course. A slew more showed up: Labor unions, the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, LGBTQIA organizations, among others. So while the protest convened around La Milla de Oro, several different routes of arrival existed and not everyone convened at the stage set up for speakers and performers.
Se Acabaron Las Promesas, which began its march at the Department of Labor, planned to continue through the Milla de Oro, but a stronghold of police in riot gear blocked the group. Immediately after the chaos started, it posted on Facebook that it’d been negotiating passage with police when the tear gas attack occured.
This morning, Se Acabaron Las Promesas held its own press conference. When asked if members of its group launched the projectiles, Joselyn Velázquez, one of its two representatives replied, “The only person responsible for what happened yesterday is the incompetent governor of Puerto Rico.”
The group held strong to its claim that the police themselves incited the violence, stating that the governor had given instructions to allow the protesters to continue marching, but the police contradicted those instructions. The group elaborated on those prior negotiations, saying the discussions lasted 45 minutes to an hour, some of which took place directly with Police Commissioner Rivera.
“The people of Puerto Rico have the right to demonstrate and protest in their streets,” continued Scott Barbés, another representative of Se Acabaron Las Promesas.
He added that the people have a right to defend themselves against institutional violence.
“We are defending ourselves,” Barbés added. “The government is violent, the federal government is violent, the dictatorial control board of the United States congress against the people of Puerto Rico – that is the violence that exists.”
The group called for another protest in San Juan today – this one launching from the beachside tourism hub of Condado. The same message from Tuesday – denouncing the “dictatorship of the Fiscal Control Board” and all its oppressive austerity measures, and calling for decolonization – continues, but it’s also demanding the dissolution of Acts 20 and 22, two tax incentive laws designed to attract wealthy investors and corporations from outside the island, essentially making the island a tax haven for the rich. Barbés stressed this march is not an attack on Condado or the people that live there, but rather an opportunity for tourists to understand firsthand what’s happening in Puerto Rico, and to express solidarity.
“We want the whole world, just like yesterday, to understand that here is a mobilized pueblo. And in Condado, there are tourists, and we have a right to tell the world, and we have a right to tell the people who visit us, that this is not a paradise,” Barbés said. “They have destroyed it. They’re looting it. They’re poisoning the ground and the air, and they lied to you just like they lied to us, Puerto Ricans, for 120 years.”