December 28, 2010
By Lua Harmsen
The year 2010 has been a hectic one as the University of Puerto Rico continues to face difficulties. Beginning with the student strike in April, it seems the conflicts are constant. Most recently the students of the Rio Piedras Campus have begun to strike once more in repudiation of the institution’s new $800 special fee but the administration is not backing down. The incidences in which security and police have used extreme force are more and more frequent. This poses the question: How much confrontation is too much?
The UPR has been the stage for violent conflicts almost constantly since its foundation more than a century ago. Professor Lester McGrath of the UPR-Mayaguez Humanities Department attributes the clashes “to our eternal crisis, the crisis of common-wealth status.” Student protests have most commonly been political, such as objections to the presence of the U.S. military and the ROTC on campus.
During the strike of the UPR in the ‘70s, centered around the presence of the ROTC in the university, police took quite extreme measures with students.
“In those days the police didn’t just take over the university, they toke over the whole town of Rio Piedras,” said Wanda Ocasio, UPR alumnus and doctoral student in Cultural Studies at the University of Illinois. “Police Swat didn’t just hit students, they hit anything that moved.”
Excessive use of force like this is what lead to the death of one student in 1970, Antonia Martinez, age 21 from Arecibo. When she shouted “Killer!” from the balcony of her apartment at a police officer who was beating a young man, the officer turned around and shot her in the head. “It wasn’t even in the university, it was outside on Ponce de Leon Street!” added Ocasio.
Until the 90’s most student movements in the UPR were characterized by how chaotic and violent they were, not only because of the students actions but also because of the intervention of the police and the tactics they used. Many conflict even resulted in deaths.
But in 2005 the Academic Senate devised the Non-Confrontation Policy, in order to avoid such tragic events and ensure “a climate of tolerance and respect for diversity expected of the university community.”
It states that in order to avoid physical confrontation the UPR must: “1) To guarantee the freedom of speech of all the components of the university community, 2) To establish as institutional policy the use of all resources possible to avoid the intervention of the Police of Puerto Rico in university matters, 3) To establish mechanisms of dialogue and communication… during situations of conflict.”
But at the beginning of December this policy was pushed aside and more than 1,000 police officers occupied the Rio Piedras Campus as students began to strike once again. And on December 20, in a police used tasers, tear gas and batons, injured students and arrested 16, many times, throwing them to the floor in order to do so.
Shift Supervisor Ricardo Figueroa and Security Officer Jonathan Perez form part of the UPR-Mayaguez Security Department. In contrast with Rio Piedras, Mayaguez has not seen as much need for physical interventions and Perez attributes that to the mutual respect that the students and guards have for each other.
But a job is a job and Figueroa, if ordered to do so would have to follow instructions like the police officers in Rio Piedras. He assures, however, that in Mayaguez the guards are well informed of civil rights and would not violate them.
Perez understands that they have to take great care in order to do so, because abuse is often caused by bad decisions. “When detaining a young man or woman, if they can be detained with one officer alone, there is no need to use four,” said Perez. “That case would be excessive use force.”
Jonathan Perez takes his job very seriously. That is why he isn’t very happy about the actions of the guards in Rio Piedras.
This December, Capitol Security, the private company being paid more than 1.5 million dollars for its services there, ‘urgently’ recruited around 80 individuals to be put to work in the conflict. The means for recruiting them was through a facebook page which stated that the first 80 people to answer the call would be hired on the spot.
This caused Perez to doubt how professional the company is. “They are people who are not trained and not prepared to intervene in that type of situation. That’s when problems happen,” he said. He also admits that abuse of force can take place if a guard or an officer loses control.
Figueroa’s stance is to protect all the students weather they are in favor or opposed to the strike. “I see you guys like my kids. You don’t abuse your kids, but you don’t spoil them either.” He hopes for the university dispute to end soon, because in addition to working there he is also a student.
Some feel that an end isn’t likely without more violence first. “The police respected violence from the other side,” Said Lester McGrath in reference to the strikes of the ‘70’s. “They abused the students until the day they arrived armed to the teeth as well. And then something finally got solved.”