In a National May Day Strike, Puerto Rican Marchers Face Down Tear Gas To Protest Privatization

Kate Aronoff

Strikers took the opportunity to bring their fights to their opponents’ doorsteps. (Bryant Martinez)

This sto­ry first appeared at Rethink­ing Schools.

In a May Day event large­ly over­looked by main­land U.S. media, strik­ers rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous unions, oppo­si­tion par­ties, and social move­ments all con­verged on San Juan’s bank­ing dis­trict, known as Mil­la De Ora” (the Gold­en Mile) for a nation­al strike.

Push­ing back against a slew of aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures being unveiled by the Wash­ing­ton-appoint­ed Fis­cal Over­sight and Man­age­ment Board (FOMB) and Puer­to Rico’s rul­ing New Pro­gres­sive Par­ty, strik­ers took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring their fights to their oppo­nents’ doorsteps, ral­ly­ing through­out the day at their offices in loca­tions scat­tered through­out the city.

By the end of the day, police were fir­ing off sev­er­al rounds of tear gas and wrestling stu­dents to the ground.

Strik­ing teach­ers from around the island began Tues­day out­side the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion. Just a few days ear­li­er, sev­er­al of those same teach­ers had been pep­per sprayed dur­ing anoth­er demon­stra­tion against the fis­cal con­trol board’s plan to close 283 pub­lic schools on the island and replace them with char­ter schools that like­ly won’t be sub­ject to reg­u­la­to­ry over­sight. That edu­ca­tion plan was one of a rash of new pro­pos­als released by the board (col­lo­qui­al­ly known as la jun­ta”) just a day before cer­ti­fy­ing them in mid-April, which togeth­er lay out dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tions for every­thing from labor law to energy.

It’s a colo­nial sit­u­a­tion that we are fac­ing,” Mer­cedes Mar­tinez, pres­i­dent of the Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion of Puer­to Rico (FMPR is the Span­ish acronym), tells me. The fis­cal over­sight board are the ones telling the gov­er­nor what to do. If he was some­body else he would say no. They are not here for the peo­ple, they are here for them­selves.” In addi­tion to school clo­sures and char­ter­i­za­tion of the island’s school sys­tem, FMPR is also fight­ing pro­posed cuts to pub­lic sec­tor pen­sions, which the board has sug­gest­ed should be cut by 25 percent.

Inspired by oppo­si­tion to those plans and, in part, by strik­ing teach­ers in Okla­homa, West Vir­ginia, and Ken­tucky, FMPR vot­ed in an assem­bly sev­er­al weeks ago to strike on May 1. (At that point, Arizona’s walk­outs had not yet happened.)

So under a blaz­ing sun Tues­day, union mem­bers in the edu­ca­tion bloc wore dif­fer­ent col­ors to denote their respec­tive affil­i­a­tions. FMPR wore yel­low, and many mem­bers hoist­ed match­ing yel­low signs denounc­ing the fis­cal plans as abu­sive and crim­i­nal,” and the board itself as a colo­nial body. As the loca­tion of Tuesday’s demon­stra­tion might sug­gest, one of the main tar­gets — for teach­ers and demon­stra­tors more gen­er­al­ly — was Puer­to Rico’s con­tro­ver­sial edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary Julia Kele­her, tapped by Gov. Ricar­do Rossel­ló for her record as a Bush-era Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion staffer turned edu­ca­tion consultant.

The month after Hur­ri­cane Maria hit Puer­to Rico, Kele­her tweet­ed that Puer­to Rico should look to the trans­for­ma­tion of New Orleans’ school sys­tem after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na as a mod­el. After that storm, New Orleans pub­lic schools were rapid­ly pri­va­tized, in many cas­es while stu­dents still resided in oth­er states wait­ing for their homes and com­mu­ni­ties to be rebuilt. Since that time, Kele­her sup­port­ed poli­cies that seem to be mov­ing the island fur­ther in that direc­tion — includ­ing the fis­cal con­trol board’s — and received hearty finan­cial and advi­so­ry back­ing from U.S. Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Bet­sy DeVos. Many of today’s demon­stra­tors also took issue with the gap between Keleher’s $250,000 salaryand the teach­ers’ own salaries. Puer­to Rican teach­ers make the least on aver­age of any of their coun­ter­parts in oth­er U.S. states and ter­ri­to­ries, just $33,952 per year.

One of the day’s more col­or­ful signs, a ban­ner around 12 feet tall, fea­tured a fake mug shot of Kele­her at the top above the Span­ish word for sur­plus.” Sev­er­al mem­bers the teach­ers’ bloc posed for pic­tures in front of the sign.

She’s no good,” retired sci­ence teacher Juan San­tos said. She’s not doing any­thing for edu­ca­tion, or lis­ten­ing to any­one. She’s wag­ing a rev­o­lu­tion against the people.”

Near­ly every­one I spoke with agreed that the admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials and the board had both tak­en advan­tage of the storm’s dev­as­ta­tion. She didn’t come here for edu­ca­tion. She came here for her own ben­e­fit,” anoth­er retired teacher, Tony Latal­lo­di, said of Kele­her. Her back­ground isn’t in edu­ca­tion. It’s in busi­ness. All she knows about is mon­ey-mak­ing. It’s like me — an edu­ca­tor — run­ning a hos­pi­tal. The only place to learn about edu­ca­tion is in the classroom.”

We’re fight­ing for our rights as teach­ers. Our rights are being vio­lat­ed in ways you can­not imag­ine,” added Latal­lo­di, who lives in the south­east­ern town of Patillas.

While the con­ver­gence of march­es from each part of the city resolved in a kind of fes­ti­val of speech­es and music from the main stage, the lat­ter half of the day took a more chaot­ic turn.

After many marchers had dis­persed, a con­tin­gent com­prised of stu­dents from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico and sev­er­al oth­ers were hop­ing to march to the cen­ter of Mil­la De Ora, only to be stopped by police. At some point marchers believed a set­tle­ment had been reached where­by police would let them pass, but no such thing hap­pened. Demon­stra­tors pressed on in a tense con­fronta­tion, attempt­ing to push through police lines to their des­ti­na­tion. With­in min­utes police fired sev­er­al rounds of tear gas into the crowd, send­ing not just stu­dents but chil­dren and elder­ly peo­ple run­ning to escape the fumes. At least 100 police, some in SWAT gear and oth­ers in mil­i­tary-like garb, pro­ceed­ed to push crowds south toward the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico (PR), peri­od­i­cal­ly fir­ing off new rounds of tear gas and march­ing forward.

Soon after, police entered off-cam­pus stu­dent hous­ing, pulling out and arrest­ing peo­ple from behind fences. The inter­ac­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly charged giv­en the his­to­ry of San Juan police and the uni­ver­si­ty. After UPR stu­dent Anto­nia Martínez Lagares was shot and killed by police dur­ing an anti-war demon­stra­tion in 1970, offi­cers are not per­mit­ted to enter the campus.

Among those arrest­ed in that same Rio Piedras neigh­bor­hood was Luis Rodriguez Sánchez, the head of Proyec­to de Apoyo Mutuo Mar­i­ana, which pro­vid­ed food and solar pow­er in Mar­i­ana after the storm. Accord­ing to illus­tra­tor and jour­nal­ist Mol­ly Crabap­ple — who’s been writ­ing about Sánchez’s mutu­al aid project for the last sev­er­al months — the rea­son giv­en for his arrest was expired plates,” although sev­er­al peo­ple versed in Puer­to Rican pol­i­tics spec­u­lat­ed that the police were tar­get­ing well-known organizers.

At a press con­fer­ence Tues­day night, Gov. Rossel­ló denounced vio­lence on the part of pro­test­ers, which con­sist­ed at its most aggres­sive of throw­ing rocks and light­ing bags of trash on fire in the street. This kind of vio­lence,” he said, hold­ing up a rock, dam­ages the good name of Puer­to Rico.”

Late Tues­day night, Mar­tinez post­ed on Face­book that 22 stu­dents — who were protest­ing mas­sive tuition hikes and oth­er deep cuts to the UPR sys­tem — had been arrested.

Today was a mil­i­tant May 1st, Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Day. Thou­sands of teach­ers and work­ers on the streets of Puer­to Rico,” she wrote. Repres­sion by the gov­ern­ment was bru­tal. Roads were obstruct­ed by police offi­cers, stu­dents were pep­per sprayed, tear gas thrown, tasers, balas de goma’, police chas­ing stu­dents to their dorms and arrest­ing them.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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