Puerto Rico Civil Rights Leaders Want Investigations Into Police Using Tear Gas On Protesters
"Show me where in the constitution it says that at 10 o'clock people lose the right to protest," said ACLU of Puerto Rico director William Ramirez.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Civil rights groups in Puerto Rico are calling for federal authorities to investigate the police using tear gas, pepper spray, and allegedly rubber bullets against demonstrators, as the island braces for an eleventh consecutive night of protests calling for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign.
Police have fired tear gas at mostly peaceful protesters every night for more than a week, according to the ACLU of Puerto Rico and Amnesty International Puerto Rico, which have both had observers at the protests in San Juan. They said police have also used rubber bullets on some nights.
"This is a police force that is acting more like a protective squad for the governor, what we call in Español the 'Squadron de Rosselló,'" said William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico.
The ACLU and Amnesty are calling for the federal Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division to investigate the police response, in addition to the Puerto Rican Department of Justice, which they said has remained silent.
Ramirez said the ACLU of Puerto Rico also wants Puerto Rico's police chief, Henry Escalera, to step down over his handling of the protests. Last week, Escalera defended the department's actions, and when asked if police were prepared for more protests, said they would "defend democracy until the final consequences, until the last drop of blood."
"He said that he is going to defend democracy to the last drop of blood. The protesting is democracy," said Ramirez.
The US Department of Justice declined to comment. The Puerto Rico Police Department and the Puerto Rico Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Protesters gathered for a tenth consecutive night outside the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, on Monday, continuing on from a daytime protest of hundreds of thousands, one of the largest in Puerto Rico’s history.
Police gave protesters a series of warnings to disperse from the area in front of La Fortaleza before firing tear gas and pepper spray at 11 p.m., despite the protests continuing to be peaceful. Protesters and observers told BuzzFeed News that it was a similar timing and tactic police have been using for several days, and that it amounts to a curfew on protests.
After police began to fire tear gas Monday, some protesters threw the empty canisters, bottles, and trash cans back at them.
Karina Ramirez, 26, went to the protest on Monday night but left when she heard the first warning from police. She said she didn't support the protesters who later began to throw things at police, but that she also feels the police response is violating Puerto Ricans' constitutional right to protest.
"The police should not dictate our constitution," she said.
"What we’re living in Puerto Rico right now is a de facto curfew declared by the police chief, who does not have the power to declare curfew," said the ACLU's Ramirez. "They just automatically, at 9 o'clock, start warning people that by 10 they want those streets cleared. Show me where in the constitution it says that at 10 o'clock people lose the right to protest."
Liza Gallardo Martín, executive director of Amnesty International Puerto Rico, said there's also a concern that someone could be seriously injured by the tear gas canisters in the narrow streets of Old San Juan where the nightly protests take place. On Monday night, a police officer was caught on video throwing a tear gas canister that went through the window of a parked car, shattering the glass and setting the car on fire.
She added that families with children who live in Old San Juan are also suffering from tear gas exposure as it infiltrates their homes each night.
"It’s the same story every single night. Last night it went a little further," said Ramirez, adding, "Obviously, this is not going to good places. This is not going to end well, unless the District Court steps in, unless the Justice Department steps in."
In Washington, New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez last week wrote to the federal DOJ's Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband asking that the department deploy observers to Puerto Rico to monitor police action as long as the protests continue.
Puerto Rico's Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia also called Monday for police to explain the "arbitrariness" of their use of tear gas, saying in a statement that the use of the gas over the past few nights has been at the exact same time, suggesting a pre-meditated pattern rather than a response to an immediate threat.
Protest organizers planned on Tuesday to hold demonstrations that are intended to be clearly pacifist, including a read-in and a bike ride, in response to the police use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of ACLU of Puerto Rico director William Ramirez.