ACLU denounces Police violations during Puerto Rico National Strike
SAN JUAN – Despite improvements evidenced among police officers in terms of collaborating and negotiating during the demonstrations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported a series of crowd management violations by police officers during the National Strike held May 1, mainly for using tear gas and some officers’ lack of identification during the arrests.
Following the participation of 12 ACLU observers at the demonstration, the organization noted that the police failed to issue an alert to protesters using loudspeakers to warn them about the intended use of tear gas so people would be aware that they would need to react.
The lachrymatory agent began to be used at about 2:30 p.m., over the course of an hour, after several people broke glass panes and threw smoke bombs at two buildings in the financial district, a matter in which police officers failed to intervene, the ACLU reported.
“Tear gas is used as a form of dispersion. There has to be a warning and this is pointed out by [the police’s] policy … That way you are forewarned so you can protect yourself. At that moment, when we breathed the tear gas we did not realize at all [that they had been thrown]. We were in a process of having a dialogue with one of the commanders who was leading one of the squadrons,” attorney Josué González said during a press conference at the ACLU offices in Hato Rey.
Although they acknowledged the Police’s efficiency in handling traffic during the National Strike—a demonstration that they described as “successful” because most attendees, estimated at more than 100,000 people, remained peaceful—the ACLU members said the Police also failed to have medical personnel available to care for those affected by tear gas. They also failed to do any cleanup work after releasing the chemical agents and perform subsequent medical evaluations on the people who were affected by it.
“We certainly saw a lot of violations in relation to the Police reform in the sense that there are some established protocols as to the things they can or cannot do, and among them is the use of badges and ID name tags. And I would say that a large number of police officers had no identification, while others had them,” said ACLU Executive Director for Puerto Rico William Ramírez.
While acknowledging that the attitude of the “regular” police agents—not those of special units —was “superior” to that in the past, he also pointed out that some of the arrests were made by officers who had no identification and incorrect information was given about where the arrested protesters would be transferred.
Regarding the members of the Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT), he said some had the insignia of “The Punisher” character (a skull), which was rejected by Police Superintendent Michelle Hernández as it encourages the use of brutal force on the population.
Although the Police superintendent denied that undercover agents were present in the demonstration, Ramírez refuted her. “There were undercover agents [there]. Police officers in civilian clothes are valid if they identify themselves as police officers. It is not valid if they fail to identify themselves as police officers,” he said. He cited as an example the arrest of a young woman weeks ago by two plainclothes agents who did not identify themselves as police officers and put her in a civilian car. “That’s hijacking [carried out] by the state; that’s not an arrest,” he added.
Ramírez also denounced the Police’s lack of intervention with people who engaged in acts of vandalism. “They were confronted by students, who cornered them because they said that those [who were committing acts of vandalism] were not students; they corralled them and reprimanded them,” but the police failed to intervene. He criticized the attempt to identify people through “eyewitnesses,” a formula that in the past has led to the arrest of innocent people, he said.
Regarding the first clash between police officers and demonstrators, which took place around 12:30 p.m. and where tear gas, bottles and fruit were thrown, ACLU observers stressed that they were unaware of the reasons why a group of officers ventured into the heart of the demonstration, which had been peaceful until then.
“In that area [where] the stage [was located], where the events were taking place, there was absolutely nothing going on. And it goes without saying that if you activate the Special Forces to venture in formation into a crowd then people are going to become upset. And it’s not like people surrounded the officers, it’s that the police went in,” González said.
Prof. Juan Giusti, who acted as an observer for the ACLU, said he was unaware of the reasons why the Police retreated toward Chardón Avenue before launching the tear gas, if during the agreement with negotiators and demonstrators it had been established that they would move to the space in front of Popular Center, a building that was vandalized minutes later.
The ACLU director insisted that demonstrations are protected by the constitutions of Puerto Rico and the United States and rejected the government’s attitude toward the protests.
Members of the ACLU also rejected the government’s criticism of the judicial branch, which sometimes “serves as a counterweight to government abuses” and noted that government repression is expressed not only through police deployment, but also by expressions against peaceful demonstrations and in legislation passed behind closed doors and surrounded by law enforcement officers.