miércoles, marzo 11, 2015

March 11 1971

What follows is one of the Carmelo classics. I wrote this in February 1998, a more hot-headed period of my life.

There is no room for moderation at the University of Puerto Rico. There will be violence if our demands are not met. The University's administration will be responsible for whatever happens.

- José Granados-Navedo, UPR student and right-wing bomb-throwing terrorist, January 27 1971. Mr. Granados is currently a legislator for the neofascist New Progressive Party.

At the beginning of March 1971 the political tempers at the Rio Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) were hotter than they ever were in that institution's whole history.

The forced recruitment of Puerto Rican youths to fight against the Vietnamese people, the unwanted presence of the ROTC in the campus, the totalitarian style of UPR president Jaime Benítez and the frontal assault by the right-wing government of Luis A. Ferré on what little autonomy the University enjoyed had encountered a tenacious response by the UPR community. This resistance was becoming more militant and organized every time.

To add to the tension, various leaders of the Puerto Rico Independence Party had just been incarcerated for camping out in a US military firing range in the Puerto Rican island of Culebra as an act of peaceful protest. The protesters, which included the now senator Rub�n Berr�os, spent months in the infamous Oso Blanco prison for their patriotism.

A year earlier, on March 4 1970, the students responded to the provocations of right-wing students, ROTC cadets and the University's Security Force by laying siege to the ROTC building for several hours.

The Fuerza de Choque (an innovative cross between an American riot squad and a South American-style urban warfare force) smashed its way into the campus and carried out an extremely forceful and brutal evacuation of everyone inside. The troops broke then into a violent stampede all over downtown Rio Piedras. It was in the middle of this fascist attack that a policeman murdered 21 year-old student Antonia Mart�nez right in the corner between Ponce de Leon avenue and G�ndara street.

So, in March 1971 it was evident that a bloody confrontation between the UPR community and the brownshirts was just around the corner.

And what happened on March 11 1971? At 9 a.m. of that day a group of ROTC cadets, some of them waving American flags entered the Student Center's cafeteria with a defiant and hostile attitude. Inevitably, a fight broke out. Now, this kind of thing had already happened many times before in the previous years, but this day it was different.

After speaking to several people who were there that day (there were no neutral, detached witnesses, everyone was a participant), I've realized no one was ever the same after that day.

The cadets, outnumbered and beaten badly, ran to take refuge in their fortress, with angry students stepping on their heels. Both sides began throwing rocks at each other, and several cadets and students were wounded.

The UPR Security Force, in full riot gear, appeared on the scene, to 'reestablish order', and placed itself between the beleaguered fortress and the students. Student leaders negotiated with the chief of the Security Force and so were able to persuade the students to return to class and the cadets to remain for a while in their building.

However, after the students dispersed screams and calls for help were heard from the Student Center. The cadets had broken the truce and were attacking the Center with rocks, BB guns and live bullets from the roof of their fortress. The students responded by erecting barricades with the cafeteria chairs and tables and switching to full-battle mode. The cadets then stormed out of their fortress and charged at the Student Center. Far from restraining the ROTC horde, the Security Force joined them in their barbarous attack.

The fascists had really done it this time. From that moment on, everything that would happen to them, they had asked for it.

Thousands of students came from all over campus to join the battle. Antonia's death would yet be avenged. The students were not about flee the men in blue this time. They were not going to let UPR become another Kent State, another Jackson State. One abuse too many. It was payback time. If students were going to die that day, they weren't about to do so while engaging in humble non-violent civil disobedience. They would die fighting, and they would take some fascist thugs with them.

Some of the students had handguns...and some turned out to be pretty good shots that day.

The Security Force, used to having its way with the unruly mob, the unthinking herd (that's how they viewed the UPR community), used everything it had in its battle: guns, batons, tear gas. But it was no use. They were almost completely surrounded by the students. At eleven a.m. their discipline broke down and they ran in an unorganized retreat towards Barbosa Avenue, which marks the eastern edge of the campus.

For the first time, students took over the Rio Piedras campus. Without brute force to back them up, ultraconservative professors and administrators trembled in horror.

The cadets ran back to the safety of their fortress, and were besieged once more, just like the previous year. Students and cadets fired guns at each other. Molotovs, rocks and BB pellets flew from one side to the other. Fighters on either side were wounded, this time more seriously than earlier in the morning. ROTC cadet Jacinto Guti�rrez died from a bullet wound. He wasn't the only one to die that day.

It was around this time that the first undercover cops were seen on campus, firing at the students. We are pretty certain that some of them were CIA-trained, battle-hardened Cuban exiles. These counterrevolutionary so-called 'freedom fighters' would later form the death squads that terrorized Puerto Rican progressives in the seventies.

At 12:30 the Fuerza de Choque arrived. They were expected. Two detachments came, one from Barbosa avenue and another one from Ponce de Leon avenue, which marks the western edge of the campus. The troopers expected to take the Student Center in a pincerlike movement from both sides and fully expected the whole thing to be a repeat of March 4 of the previous year. They instead got themselves a deadly surprise.

The troops that came in from Ponce de Leon avenue, led by commander Juan Mercado, stopped in front of the Student Center. As Mercado gave instructions to his men for a forceful seizure of the Center, shots rang out and they all ducked. One of them didn't get up again. Mercado was dead.

The troopers panicked and started firing randomly towards the Student Center, riddling it with bullet holes. They weren't good enough. Several shooters in the building returned fire, wounding four of the troopers.

It was pandemonium. The quasi-military Fuerza de Choque was used to beating the crap out of peaceful student demonstrators� but this time the little bastards were fighting back at them! So they cowered behind their armored vehicle, pleading and whining for reinforcements. (But wait a minute, THEY were the reinforcements!)

Meanwhile, the troops that came in from Barbosa avenue, under the command of Margaro Cruz, were charged upon by students armed with stones, molotovs and guns. They were totally taken by surprise. It was taken as an article of faith that student demonstrators would flee at the sight of the Fuerza de Choque, and that if any resisted they could be easily be put in their place. "What the hell are we supposed to do if they fire back at us?", they probably asked themselves.

Cruz was wounded by a bullet, and one of the troopers next to him, Miguel Rosario, was fatally shot. Died on his way to the hospital.

As I said before, they asked for it.

I know what you are probably thinking right now. But, as Noam Chomsky always points out, there is a big difference between explaining something and justifying it. I hope you can tell the difference.

So, the two detachments of the much-feared and invincible Fuerza de Choque were paralyzed and on the defensive. This was the closest Puerto Rico ever came to a revolution in the second half of the twentieth century.

The stalemate was broken when reinforcements (for the reinforcements that were sent in the first place) appeared on the scene. These ones had AR-15 submachine guns. A new twist in intergenerational struggle.

Seeing that they were outgunned, the students beat a hasty retreat out of the Student Center and shot their way out to Rio Piedras. The repressive forces finally reestablished the old order on campus and went on to chase the students like enraged bulls. Those who didn't run fast enough were brutally beaten and taken to the police headquarters, where they were beaten even further for hours.

Civil rights crusader attorney Roberto José Maldonado went to the police building to represent the students, whom he could hear screaming from the lobby. The police told him to get lost. When he insisted, he was beaten for two hours into a bloody pulp. Maldonado got a cerebral injury and was confined to a wheelchair for weeks.

Later that evening other civil rights lawyers were allowed to see the students and were horrified to see tens of them beaten beyond recognition.

But the battle was far from over. By 2:30 p.m. the battle had spread to downtown Rio Piedras, where uniformed and undercover cops violently attacked whatever students they could find on the streets. After sundown the students put up barricades in Universidad Avenue and in the corner between Amalia Mar�n and Humacao streets, and defended themselves through the night with everything they had.

They fought in the finest anarchist tradition: an irregular fighting force, spontaneously formed for self-defense. That morning of March 11, many of those students, who never in their lives had considered throwing rocks at policemen, did not imagine that hours later they'be fighting back against fascism from improvised barricades like true urban guerrillas.

All over Puerto Rico that night, wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicos were hysterically making phone calls to anyone, anyone who might help them: "Is the revolution coming?", "Are the communists going to execute us?", "What's the next plane to the US?".

Wounded students and policemen, as well as the bodies of Mercado and Rosario, were taken to the Medical Center. The cops made a horrendous and morbid scene, as they beat the students, including the ones that were badly wounded. Not even doctors and nurses were spared by the batons. A similar scene took place at the Hospital del Maestro.

Miraculously, not a single student died that day. Only the fascists suffered losses. Antonia's death had indeed been avenged.

On the following day, the UPR administration closed down the campus for a month. It was reopened on April 12 with armed undercover cops in every corner, security cameras, and other repressive measures. All political activities were banned for the next 30 days, including the sale and posession of the socialist newspaper Claridad.

But the students would never revert back to their corteous, conformist mode after March 11. In the month of April they carried out no less than five massive protest demonstrations. The message was clear: "Ha, ha, ha! Those batons and bullets didn't hurt one bit! We're willing to do it over again if necessary!"

Riots happened again in 1973, 1976 and 1981, but never again like in March 11 1971. In the years following 1971, the ROTC left the campus, and the US government abolished the draft and left Vietnam in humiliation and defeat. The students' political space grew by leaps and bounds. Many of today's UPR students take for granted the fact that they can put up flyers, join and form organizations, and participate in marches and demonstrations without fear of being expelled or arrested.

Indeed, freedom and rights are won only through fire and blood.

In spite of all this, there are some fools in Puerto Rico who want to repeat the experience. Today, 27 years later, the ROTC wants back in campus. 1971 was so much fun that they want to do it over again.

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