It’s been nearly a month now that the area surrounding the US District Court of Puerto Rico in San Juan has been occupied. There are tents all over the area, on both the left and right sidewalks across it, and the grassy traffic median in between is lined with more. The main entrance is blocked by a makeshift living room – couches, coffee table and all – covered by a tarp. A litany of signs hang on the building’s gates: “No a La Junta”, “PROMESA = Pobresa”, “¡Despierta Boricua!”. Messages have been spray painted on the street, the sidewalks. The couple hundred feet of wooden boards that run parallel to the camp, erected earlier due to construction, are covered with more.
About 20 people claim full-time residency at el Campamento Contra La Junta. Their stay, like the federally imposed fiscal board they’re protesting, is indefinite.
The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) is a debt restructuring bill signed into law on June 30 that involves the implementation of a fiscal oversight board, known on the island as La Junta de Control Fiscal, in order to address Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion debt. POTUS and the politicians who support PROMESA tout the bill as a solution, a way of saving the island. But anyone involved with el Campamento Contra La Junta will tell you just the opposite.
PROMESA will give the seven-member control board power to supersede the Puerto Rican government. As a proposed measure to aid the repayment of the island’s debt, the law allows for the minimum wage to be dropped from $7.25 to to $4.25 for workers aged 25 and younger. It also puts public workers’ overtime pay at risk, and includes the option to freeze or reduce their pensions—all while specifically prohibiting their participation in strikes or protests. The bill includes provisions for the privatization or commercialization of schools, public housing, electricity, water supply, highways and land. And it exempts members of the board, who will be federally appointed with no input from Puerto Rican politicians or citizens, from any criminal liability for its actions. There is no end date stated in its text, and the whole thing will cost Puerto Rican taxpayers an estimated $370 million.
It’s not hard to see how someone might consider PROMESA to be another nail in the coffin of proof that Puerto Rico is, in fact, a US colony. That’s why the mission of el Campamento Contra La Junta is actually much broader than its name implies. Many of the protestors there are against the CDC-proposed aerial fumigation with a pesticide called NALED, which harkens back to the States’ testing of contraceptives on Puerto Ricans in the ’50s and the testing of napalm in the ’90s. Most are adamant in wanting freedom for Oscar López Rivera, the longest held political prisoner in Puerto Rican history. It’s safe to assume the vast majority believe the 1917 Jones Act, which requires all imported goods to be purchased from American-made ships with American crews, has long stifled Puerto Rico’s economy.
Officially, however, the movement operates on a three-point platform. It was agreed upon at one of their recent assemblies, which are held Monday and Wednesday weekly. The principles adopted: No to the federal oversight board, no to the debt, and yes to decolonization.
“[The US has] always been exploiting…the island, taking resources, monetary and natural resources. Scientific resources. All sorts of resources you can imagine, they just filter that off of the island. What they’re doing now is institutionalizing that same practice, making [it] even more present and evident with La Junta,” says 23-year-old Camila Sánchez-Longo, one of the movement’s founding members and a full-time resident of the camp. The origins of el Campamento, she explains, stem from dissatisfaction with a chaotic public assembly about the bill held on June 25 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum.
“A group of people started trying to break up [our] activity,” she says. “We tried to get in there, they said they were going to give us a turn [to speak]. We gave a guy a turn, and when he was going to take the first step onstage, San Juan’s mayor [Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto] stopped the activity. They took the microphones out and the chairs and everything.”
Two days later, one of the many other PROMESA opposition groups who were present at the assembly, the
Junte Contra La Junta, organized a protest in front of the Capitol building in Old San Juan. Another protest was planned for the following day, but fewer than 10 people showed up, she says. They spent about 12 hours handing out informative flyers and asking people to join them anyway.
“The next day, which was the 29th of June, there was a call-out for people to come here and protest,” Sánchez-Longo says.
When President Obama signed the bill into law the following day, interest seemed to dwindle.
“Around five people, mostly women, he was the only guy there,” she says, pointing to her partner Ibraham López, “we decided to organize and go around [to] the same circle of people who were talking and propose an encampment. To stay here [at the US Federal Court] at least a day, not to just leave when [the bill] was signed. We were pretty mad about the situation, about going to small rallies and not taking any further action. So we put out the motion, the decision to do that, and around 13 people or 15 people stayed here that night. We didn’t sleep. Lawyers began calling and people started paying attention. We had casetas and a few tents within a few hours.”
Currently, those involved in the movement are focused on better organizing their platform and plans, she clarifies. But they’re really quite structured already. They’ve got six established committees: Organization, Education, First Aid, Food, Security and Media. It’s a collaborative effort, though. López works in both Organization and Education. Sánchez-Longo works in Organization, but also helps with financing, and notes that “everyone does everything.” Even someone just visiting for a few hours is, in a way, working as security.
“Because you’re here, you’re watching. You have a camera. If something happens, you capture it. You work as security. If you see something sketchy going on, you’re going to go, hey, this is weird. Even if you’re not part of a specific committee, you work and collaborate with the encampment. That makes people feel part of it,” she says.
There’s only been one serious security issue so far. During an early protest, a member of the camp (who asked us to withhold his name) was hit by a car that crossed a blockade and reached the crowd. His injuries were minor, but the incident was frightening, he says, especially because there were children nearby. The police detained the driver, issued him a fine, and the victim filed a report.
Generally, there haven’t been any conflicts with the rotating crew of police presiding over the camp. But the sub-contracted security officers of the US District Court have employed intimidation tactics, says Sánchez-Longo.
“Some days they just look at us and they’re talking to each other and passing the time, then some other days they’re inflicting this psychological warfare. They’re trying to inflict panic and terror among us,” she says.
Stadium-style lighting was planted right inside the gates, for one. They’re kept on all night long, making it difficult for the protestors to sleep. Initially, the generator used was emitting CO2, Sánchez-Longo says, and was turned directly toward the camp. She and López say that, despite requests, it wasn’t moved until media showed up.
Still, el Campamento looks to be thriving, both for the community living there as well as its visitors. Meals are served buffet style from a covered kitchen area. They receive donations regularly; there’s always coffee and water available. In the daytime, there are workshops and charlas to educate people about their platform and about other movements worldwide. At night, they frequently show films about social, political and environmental issues. On a regular basis, there’s poetry, spoken word, DJs, traditional bomba y plena, local independent bands and other performers on the pop-up stage they’ve built. At any given time, the ages of people taking part in these events is far-reaching. A lot are in their 20s, but there are activists in their 50s, 60s and even 80s there. There are often children accompanied by parents, too. At all hours, there are strict rules against alcohol and drugs.
“We have people who are implementing that and making sure that it’s enforced,” says López. “If you come from the 24/7 [convenience store] down there and you’re drunk, you can’t stay here. Once you freshen up and you sober up enough and you’re a rational human being again, you can come and start collaborating.”
Another rule: Zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. “We want to reflect in this community the community that we want to see in the world,” says Sánchez-Longo.
Shaping and maintaining the community isn’t easy, though. Lily Díaz, 22, is one of only two Media Committee members responsible for documenting the day-to-day activities and creating event promo to share on social media. She says they don’t get much rest. “We basically don’t sleep a lot; we have to be vigilant all the time,” she says. “We work with all the committees also.”
Díaz has been involved in social movements for more than five years, she says, but this is the first time she can wholeheartedly identify.
“When I came here, it was something that I could touch. I could, like, feel it. Because it was direct action….What we’re doing, it seems sometimes like it’s not enough, but we’re occupying a space that didn’t look like this before. This has never happened before. The Feds, the USA, they don’t like things like that. We’re disturbing their peace. In a way, we’re creating a little bit of chaos in this space. And for me that’s really important because it creates an impact on people,” she says. “When people pass in their car and they see this place now, they don’t even remember how it was before, and it’s actually something positive….basically, I’m here because this is something I can be part of, it’s not something metaphorical, it’s something I can grasp…Something like this brings you hope that people can create chaos, because you need that. You need to create chaos in your country for a change. You just can’t stay home and watch TV and say I don’t want the fiscal board here. You need to go out and do crazy stuff in a positive way, you need to occupy spaces and do graffiti and make people wonder why we are here.”
20 people claim full-time residency at el Campamento Contra La Junta. Their stay, like the federally imposed fiscal board they’re protesting, is indefinite.
Another full-time resident, 26-year-old security workeR Ronaldo Sanchez, echoes Díaz’s call for change: “Hay que hacer que el pueblo abra los ojos de cualquier manera,” he says. Above all else, Sanchez says, he wants the people of Puerto Rico to know that they’re being lied to.
Much of the island is in favor of PROMESA, having accepted the last resort notion that it’s Puerto Rico’s only means of rescue. Those are the people el Campamento hopes to reach. Last week, for example, they held a discussion on decolonization—not just in a political sense, but in the minds of the colonized, too.
“I think this is a reaction, a very clear reaction, of people who want to give strength to the rest of the country and courage to the rest of the country to protest and denounce what is wrong. To actually say…that you can do something. It might be small, it might just be one crazy person who says no, I’m going to stay here this night, but we as an encampment have been very clear that we want to create a space for dialogue, for education, for discussion, for mobilization. And we just wish to see this replicated all around the country,” Sánchez-Longo says.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a literal encampment, she adds. Any solidarity with the movement is courageous, and extremely helpful.
“Even if it’s five minutes, listening to what we are living here, to what we are trying to communicate, what we are trying to do for the country. It’s a very immense sacrifice. The first thing that people need to see is that. Sometimes you need to sacrifice comfort in order to achieve something that is greater than the individual, and greater than personal desires. And so we’re organizing and we’re creating that base of what we are demanding and also how we are working,” she says. “After that base is constructed, I believe that we’re going to be able to see an impact of outreach and creating international and national movements.”