Peaceful May Day marchers in Puerto Rico tear-gassed by police

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Daylong rallies of large numbers of teachers, social workers, students and activists culminated in law enforcement using aggressive tactics to disperse crowds.

The downtown district of San Juan filled with thousands of Puerto Ricans marching to address the dire living conditions on May Day 2018. It ended in mayhem, injuries, and arrests when local police began tear-gassing participants, indiscriminately.

Before protestors were met with police hostilities, marchers from four major rallies converged at Milla de Oro, a section of the island’s capital that houses international banks and financial companies.

Mercedes Martinez, the president of Puerto Rico’s Teachers’ Union, posted photos of demonstrators that she defined as “thousands who gave [the island back their] dignity.”

“It was very so like a party atmosphere,” said Jennifer Wager, a New Jersey professor who has been covering education in Puerto Rico. During the demonstrations, she followed two major rallies — one with mostly teachers, and the other with students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).

“People were selling food. There were speakers and music. Teachers brought their children. There were pensioners and retired teachers and there were old people, and old people in walkers.”

According to Wager, “within the last 10 minutes of the last speaker finishing, the police began to get into formation.” She noticed that police quickly cordoned crowds from leaving.

“This was a military-style operation,” said Wager. “There were people in military uniforms instructing the police. The police were in riot gear blocking off all of the exits of the area. You literally could not get out.”

After the crowds were confined, Wager said that police began to throw tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Then law enforcement chased students into university dorms. In total, 19 students were arrested.

Martinez posted a photo of police dousing a woman with pepper spray on social media.

In a Tweet, Afro-Boriqua activist Rosa Clemente showed children who were pepper sprayed. She called the Puerto Rican governor, Rosselló Nevares, “a criminal.” Clemente traveled to Puerto Rico with a handful of journalists and activists following Hurricane Maria in 2017 to provide aid and assess the post-hurricane crisis on the island.

“I am disgusted by those who look the other way and remain silent.”

For the past several years, May Day participants have focused on the growing socio-economic problems in the US territory.

This year, protestors voiced their disdain for the island’s unstable economy, looming austerity measures, and poor quality of life. The severities have become increasingly difficult due to the territory’s sluggish recovery from two devastating hurricanes last summer.

Read how Puerto Ricans push back against the privatization of schools

To date, a significant amount of the island is still without power and there has been a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland.

Read how power in Puerto Rico shuts down at power plants

Protesters rallied against the government for defunding pensions, the threat of closing 400 schools then privatizing the remainder, and making major cuts to the university system.

“Pharmaceutical companies have been making billions for decades, but are here tax free,” said Wager. “PR is used as a tax loophole.”

With billions of dollars in tax abatements and the decline of manufacturing industries, there has been a growing divide between the Puerto Rican government and its citizens.

Following the protest, Martinez shared this message:

I am disgusted by the government of Puerto Rico.
I am disgusted by the corporate media.
I am disgusted by the austerity measures imposed on our people by the Fiscal Board and our governor.
I am disgusted by those who look the other way and remain silent.
I am disgusted by those that justify the excessive use of force or ANY force against protesters.
But I am ready…..
Ready to continue fighting with those that have chosen the right side of history. We will not be silent!
 We will NOT be silenced!

Headline photo provided by Facebook post of Jennifer Wager.

Kaia Shivers contributed to this article.
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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.
Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, politics, policy and Latinidad.


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