This year alone, 41 women have been killed in Puerto Rico, and at least 23 of them were killed by intimate partners. Activists on the island protesting violence against women this weekend had a clear goal: For Governor Rosselló to sign an executive order declaring a state of emergency against misogynist violence.
The order, designed by the protest organizers, the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, also demands a new protocol be implemented for addressing cases, calls for the creation of an inter-agency committee to support survivors, and requests an audit of 2,554 unprocessed rape kits.
A Centro de Periodismo Investigativo report released in May questioned the credibility of current numbers, relaying that organizations have seen an uptick in cases and noting that the “breakdown in island infrastructure and unreliable statistics from official sources makes it difficult to quantify the problem.” In 2012, the ACLU found that Puerto Rico had the “highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners.”
In a press conference held today, Rosselló said that he’d evaluate the collective’s executive order. He also declared himself a feminist, qualifying this by noting much of his administration’s work has been done by women.
But throughout the three days of protest, he said nothing. The crowd of activists numbered more than 60 at times. Some activists camped out, sleeping in tents on the cobblestoned Fortaleza and Cristo streets Friday and Saturday night. Still, by Sunday, the final protest day – which was, by no coincidence, also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, designated in 1999 by the United Nations to honor the activists Hermanas Mirabal, three of whom were assassinated by former Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960 – the governor still had not responded.
Police, however, did respond to protesters: Around noon on Sunday, during a struggle at the metal barricade between them, officers wielded batons, striking some and pepper spraying everyone within reach. About 10 people, eyes and throats burning, were treated by fellow activists on nearby sidewalks.
A few hours later, it was over. All but a few activists having cleared out, the area by the barricade was newly filled by locals and tourists taking smiling photos with the governor’s mansion in the background and, above them, a canopy of colorful umbrellas – a selfie station of First Lady Beatriz Rosselló’s ideation. Not captured in their photos, presumably, were the handmade signs that remained taped to the barricade, including one naming all of the women killed by spouses, ex-spouses, and partners this year.
Former Senator María de Lourdes Santiago, the current Vice President of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, was not surprised by the police response. “It’s what we’ve seen in all instances of important demonstrations of resistance,” she said.
Last May, the National Strike in San Juan’s financial district ended in violence, as activists were met by tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets from police.
De Lourdes said that for years, there’s been only one forensic gynecologist, and that many spaces dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence have seen budget cuts or have been closed altogether. The government’s “indifference” to problems of its people harms everyone, she said, “and in this case, it’s an indifference that kills.”
The protest began on Friday with a march from a nearby plaza to the governor’s mansion. Upon arrival, people of all genders and ages, including multiple children, gathered before a police-protected barricade, situated a block away from the actual mansion. They were led by speakers and bomba percussionists in chants like “respect our existence, or expect resistance” and “sign, Ricky, sign!”
Later that night, a candlelight vigil was held to honor victims – including a woman shot and killed earlier that day by her husband, a police officer. The number of domestic violence cases within the police department was another issue raised at the protest.
Sofía Vázquez Laureano, a Colectiva Feminista representative, pointed to recent findings by local news outlet El Vocero. “There are a reported 180 cases of domestic violence – and we know the numbers are always higher than that – perpetrated not by citizens, but by police,” she said. “We recognize that the executive order won’t be the ultimate solution. But nevertheless we think the absence of the state is noticeable when we walk the streets, while they kill us. We think the minimum response, the first step in addressing this on a bigger scale, is this executive order. So we’re staying until he signs.”
On Saturday morning, activities resumed with speakers, political performances, live music, and a drag show. Meanwhile, Colectiva representatives met with Johanne Vélez García and Ileana Aymat, both of whom formerly held the position of Procuradora de las Mujeres, a government office created in 2001 to oversee policies and laws regarding women’s issues. They confirmed to the Colectiva representatives that Rosselló was aware of the protest, and said they were in the process of preparing information for him and other government agencies.
More demonstrations were held elsewhere: To symbolize the blood of victims, Colectivo TOTO painted the San Juan airport signage and two government offices with red hands; at a festival in Aibonito, a municipality in the Cayey mountain range, young women and girls dressed in all black memorialized the murdered women in a demonstration; on the west coast, activists marched in silence inside the Mayagüez Mall, wearing signs bearing the names of victims and the violent ways in which they were killed.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Women’s Caucus of the House of Representatives, Lourdes Ramos, and another representative, María Milagros Charbonier, both belonging to the island’s pro-statehood party, criticized the protest, calling it political grandstanding.
As the protest wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, another instance of intimate partner violence was reported: A man in Isabela, armed with a machete, had held his mother and aunt hostage in their home before ultimately turning himself into police.
Later that night, the current Procuradora de las Mujeres, Lersy Boria, alleged that the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción has repeatedly refused opportunities to work together. The collective took to Twitter to respond today, saying Boria’s claim is false, and to issue another invitation to Rosselló – as well as Boria – to meet for discussion.
While promising in a tweet yesterday to “redouble efforts” in ending violence against women, Rosselló’s only action so far has been to decorate his mansion with purple lights – meant to honor victims, he wrote.
An online petition started by the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción urging Rosselló to sign the executive order is ongoing – in three days, more than 6,700 people have signed.