Since the announcement that the National Puerto Rican Day Parade would be honoring Oscar López Rivera as a “National Freedom Hero,” a lot has been said about the man whom president Barack Obama had his sentence commuted (not pardoned, as councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito has said in various articles and instances since). To be clear, I supported López Rivera’s release since I transitioned into a Libertarian last year, and I still believe that he has a right to live out his days in peace. But this does not mean that the man was a political prisoner, nor that he is not a former terrorist.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a terrorist is an individual whom participates in terrorism, which it defines as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines terrorism “as (threats of) violent action for political purposes.”
According to the Justice Department of the United States, López Rivera was charged and found guilty in 1981 for “seditious conspiracy; interference with interstate commerce by threats or violence; possession of an unregistered firearm; carrying firearms during the commission of violent crimes; interstate transportation of firearms with the intent to commit violent crimes; interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle (four counts)” and in 1988 for “conspiracy to escape, to transport explosives with intent to kill and injure people, and to destroy government buildings and property; aiding and abetting travel in interstate commerce to carry on arson (two counts); using a telephone to carry on arson (two counts)”. So whenever you hear anyone, including López Rivera, say that he was only charged and found guilty of the non violent crime of “seditious conspiracy” please understand that they are omitting the rest of the charges for political reasons.
What is seditious conspiracy? According to the U.S. Legal Code 2384, seditious conspiracy is defined as “if two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.” Isn’t this the use of or threat of use of violent action as a means of coercion for political purposes, also known as terrorism?
In 1999, former Indiana congressman Danny Lee “Dan” Burton led the hearings for the clemency of the FALN members in 1999 in front of the Committee on Government Reform. In its first session, Congressman Burton gave a historical review of how the FALN member were arrested and for what specific charges: “One of the arguments for granting clemency is that these 16 people were not directly involved in any acts of violence. Well, I want to briefly review what they were convicted of. Most of these people were convicted of things like seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct interstate commerce. Let’s take a look at exactly what that means. Eight of these people were arrested together in Chicago. They were caught in a stolen van carrying illegal weapons. They were parked near the home of a wealthy businessman named Henry Crown. It is believed they were going to kidnap him. The only thing that stopped them was their arrest.”
The transcript continues to cite Burton, saying: “They were convicted in Federal court. As they were sentenced, they shouted threats to the judge. Here is what they said according to the court transcript: ‘;You are lucky we cannot take you right now. Our people will continue to use righteous violence. Revolutionary justice can be fierce, mark my words. We are going to fight, revolutionary justice will take care of you and everybody else.’ That is what they said to the judge. Now these are the people who were just granted clemency. Three other FALN members were planning to break one of their leaders out of Leavenworth Prison. They had two safe houses in Chicago where they had thousands of rounds of ammunition, blasting caps, detonating cord, dynamite and numerous weapons. They had a schematic diagram of the prison hidden under the floorboards in the kitchen of the house. The only thing that stopped them was their arrest. The FBI has a videotape of two of these people in one of their safe houses actually making a bomb. And I think we ought to show that to everyone who is in attendance here today. These are two of the members making a bomb. This is an official FBI tape.”
Now, you are probably thinking, “but he doesn’t mention Oscar López Rivera!” Well, read carefully. The leader they wanted to break out of Leavenworth was López Rivera. He has never denied being associated nor being a leader of the FALN, the armed Marxist revolutionary group that carried out terrorist attacks in Chicago, New York, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico throughout the mid and late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Addressing the case of López Rivera directly, Burton said: “He does not sound like a fellow who is going to renounce terrorism, does he? He also said that if the man who was going to sell them this equipment would not give them a fair price, they should murder him. He was convicted and received a new 15-year sentence. Did the President know about this man before he offered to let him out of prison? I want to read to you what his presentencing report said in 1986. This was by the court:
‘It was López who offered to obtain false identification, weapons and explosives. It was López who sent Jaime Delgado to Dallas to negotiate the purchase of weapons and explosives. It was López, moreover, who gave his approval for Cobb’s return visit to Leavenworth and for the murder of Michael Neece. Even behind the bars of a Federal penitentiary, Oscar López continued to lead his Chicago supporters in violent plans.’
He ordered a murder from behind bars. Fortunately the FBI prevented it from happening.”
Back in 1981, a United Press International article, from August 1 said the following: “Lopez-Rivera, 37, was convicted by a jury July 24 of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery and a variety of other charges stemming from a string of 28 bombings and other terrorist acts. Lopez-Rivera, arrested in late May near the Glenview Naval Air Station, admitted committing every act for which he was charged, but declared himself a political prisoner and refused to take part in most of his trial.”
By his own accord, López Rivera admitted that he was guilty of not only being a member of the FALN, but of actively participating in said terrorist attacks. During his trial a former member of the FALN, Mr. Alfredo Méndez, acting as a state witness after an agreement for a lighter sentence, testified in court the following which was published by the New York Times on July 25, 1981: “In testimony that ran for nearly an hour in the hushed courtroom, Mr. Mendez, 28 years old, recounted his induction into the terrorist organization by Jose Lopez, a former instructor at Northeastern Illinois University, who was the defendant’s brother. He also described how Mr. Lopez-Rivera taught him how to make bomb detonation devices and gun silencers. Mr. Mendez said the first bombing in which he was to have taken part was to have occurred in the Bismarck Hotel, where offices for the Democratic Party were located. The bombing was to have been one of several scheduled to go off simultaneously in New York City, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Mr. Mendez said that he and his confederates were unable to place the bomb because the offices had closed when they arrived.”
As it is clear, Oscar López Rivera was never imprisoned for his Marxist beliefs, nor for his belief in a socialist and independent Puerto Rico. He was imprisoned for being part of a conspiracy that used violent means to reach those goals. He was never a political prisoner, but rather as an active member of the FALN. True, he was never charged with any particular bombing, but that doesn’t absolve him of his guilt. If so, then Al Capone would never be remembered as a murdering mafioso, nor would Osama Bin Laden be a terrorist. After all, Bin Laden wasn’t piloting the planes on September 11, 2001. But, upon their orders, murders and terrorist attacks were perpetrated, and they aren’t celebrated as heroes by most of the world.
The particular example of Capone is López Rivera. Sure, the former was a mafioso and the latter a terrorist, but if we compare their lives, they are many parallels. Both centered their activities primarily in Chicago, neither was ever accused of being directly linked to murder or bombings, and both had been community leaders. For those of you who did not know, during the Great Depression, Al Capone and his fellow mafioso opened soup kitchens and fed the poor, which helped gain Capone good will with the citizens of Chicago. Oscar was a community leader too, helping out the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities of Chicago.
But the good will always be overshadowed by violent actions, and it was a wise decision on his part to reject the “honor” that was being conferred upon him by the NPRDP. Even though he has reiterated that he has “transcended violence,” his actions are not of a hero, but of an anti-hero or even a villain. Merriam Webster defines hero as: “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities, one who shows great courage.” It is neither noble, nor courageous, to target innocent civilians, like the victims of the Fraunces Tavern, with bombs to advance any struggle.
Oscar López Rivera has paid his dues. He is now a free citizen who may choose to participate in whichever legal activity he may wish.
However, as I finish this piece, I am reminded of what Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”
Edwin Jusino is the Editor-in-Chief of futbolboricua.net He is taking PhD courses in the History of the Americas with a focus on culture and sports history at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. He tweets from @erjusinoa.