National Strike: Amid Indignation, Pepper Spray, Broken Glass and Tear Gas
SAN JUAN – The first rains of May for good luck, as we say in Puerto Rico, were the least of our worries at the start of this month. This past May 1st, although rainy, was the first International Workers’ Day that Puerto Ricans, with decreased rights, commemorated by breaking glass, and escaping tear gas.
The day of the general strike started with a bang: The Colectiva Feminista en Construcción feminist group woke Gov. Ricardo Rosselló just before 5 a.m by beating pots and pans at La Fortaleza, where police used the day’s first round of pepper spray to drive protesters from the main gates of the governor’s mansion. Shortly after, protesters blocked access to the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport, inconveniencing travelers.
In both cases, the protests were against the fiscal control board and the government’s austerity measures as well as in favor of the debt being audited, after Rosselló eliminated the Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit.
These protests were unforeseen. The public was expecting the general strike, which was summoned by about 30 unions and multi-sector organizations, that marched from five different starting points at around 10 a.m. to reach the final destination in front of the fiscal control board’s offices at the World Plaza Building in Hato Rey’s financial district.
Agencies and public corporations “were brought to a standstill,” union leader Pedro Irene Maymí said. A different story, however, was told by Public Affairs Secretary, Ramón Rosario, from the Fortaleza. “Essential employees were absent” from the Metropolitan Bus Authority and the Cataño ferry service, but the government was operating “normally,” stated Rosario, downplaying the massive march taking place at the banking district’s Golden Mile stretch.
At noon, with all the protesters on or near Muñoz Rivera Avenue, singer René Pérez, known as Residente, expressed solidarity with the “National Strike” and criticized the fiscal board. “I believe that what is happening is totally unfair, taking away that amount of money from the UPR [University of Puerto Rico], which is the soul of the country, because our youth is the soul of this country,” stated Pérez, whose stated reason for participating in the event was mainly the students.
The tranquility among the thousands of protesters was short-lived. In a confusing event, a group of police officers entered the heart of the protest and were received with stones and bottles, officer Lucas Avilés said.
“Be careful. There is a squad of police coming toward the crowd. Please, please, press, let’s go. Where are the reporters, the photographers? Alert, alert, we don’t want anything here, we don’t want a confrontation to overshadow this event. They are provoking us and we cannot respond with provocation,” warned the event’s MC, Milly Gil, from the stage, before the confrontation took place.
“I don’t know who pulled out the pepper spray. It started there [among the protesters]. They came to throw stones and bottles at us. That’s why we responded [with pepper spray],” Avilés explained regarding the day’s second round of pepper spray.
Although the police retreated under the light rain, tensions remained high, to the point that negotiators intervened between the Police Force and the protesters, as neither side wanted to yield. Five steps back for each group, decided the negotiators. Half an hour later, that group of police officers decided move—from Muñoz Rivera Avenue to Chardón Avenue—which was applauded by the protesters, while on the event’s main stage the artists completed their performances.
“Faced with injustice, we are not a submissive people,” someone said on stage. “From North to South, from East to West, the struggle continues, whatever the cost,” others shouted.
While many abandoned the strike, one group—the majority covered with hoods—started throwing stones at the UBS and Popular Center buildings, the latter was then attacked with bats and even smoke bombs. On the move toward Ponce de León Avenue during these acts of vandalism, the protesters realized that what was initially perceived as a concession on the part of the police was actually a trap: They were surrounded.
A group of officers lined up along Ponce de León Avenue and, while advancing, nightsticks in hand, they shot the first round of tear-gas canisters, sparking chaos. The only exit was toward Muñoz Rivera Avenue, where the stage was located. While the protesters shared the hundreds of bottles of the so-called Seattle Solution, the two groups realigned again, facing of on Muñoz Rivera Avenue.
“Are you OK?” was the most frequent question, even by many strangers. “The struggle continues, never surrender,” “We are the majority,” others shouted. The mobile percussionists again started to play, when many began to sit and place security barriers before them.
“Don’t get desperate, nothing has happened here. Breathe slowly,” said socialist leader Scott Barbés, who led the group for the remainder of the day.
“The effect of the gas has dissipated,” “We are ready for the second round,” others shouted until the second round of tear gas came, causing the demonstrators—less than half of the crowd that came to the strike—to again run from the police, this time toward the intersection of Roosevelt and Muñoz Rivera avenues.
Another confrontation, more tear gas, this second round lasted at least an hour. The protesters ran, but did not want to surrender. They continued singing and playing. The more gas was launched, the more they sang, strengthening the confrontational atmosphere. The boldest among them collected the gas canisters and lobbied them back at the officers, who were protected by masks.
“Don’t give up, Puerto Rico, this isn’t over,” “They won’t stop us,” they sang while it started to rain again.
More Seattle Solution, the remaining protesters now attempted to stay together, retreating little by little through Roosevelt Avenue, which they left full of graffiti and large rocks strewn all over on the road.
“Congratulations on a marvelous day. Pay attention to the announcements. Today is the beginning,” said Barbés after 4 p.m. Minutes after, the protesters were escorted to the UPR through César González and Piñero avenues.
There were at least five U.S. flags burned, seven protesters arrested that day—a number that increased to about 20 the next day— six injured police officers, 42 people and organizations sued by Banco Popular for damages to its building, and an undetermined number of people affected by the tear gas and flying objects.
“Our patience and tolerance reached its reasonable limit,” said the governor, who gave the order for police intervention as “commander-in-chief.” After condemning the acts of free speech that ended in “criminal acts,” Rosselló stated that they would file charges “at the local and federal levels” and blamed the event’s organizers for the outcome of the strike.
“The unions and other organizations do not condone acts of violence. Our march was peaceful and successful, it was extremely organized,” reacted the president of the Puerto Rico Workers Federation (FTPR by its Spanish initials), José Báez. “The governor is trying to undermine the success of the event and the massive participation of the people, which represents a rejection of his policies and of the board,” he added.
That night, it stopped raining. After the tear gas cleared, questions remained: What would happen once the stay under Promesa was lifted, and would Title III of said federal law be invoked.
“We feel it, we feel it, we feel the pressure. We are on the streets staging a revolution.”