All my life, my family has said all it takes to become a police officer in Puerto Rico is to be grande y bruto (big and dumb). Seeing the sickening images of police brutality during the May 1 Labor Day protest was proof that my family was right. While maybe not every officer fits this stereotype, Puerto Rico’s police force has a systemic racism problem that we have to talk about.
The two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last September devastated the island and scarred every Puerto Rican in one way or another. It’s been one of the most traumatic collective experiences for every Boricua. Even worse is the trauma suffered from the federal government’s anemic response, the longest blackout in American history and Wall Street vultures standing over the carnage collecting their money. To add insult to injury, Puerto Rico’s elected governor, Ricardo Rosselló, smiles brightly for the cameras while handing the island over to the gentrifiers.
Given all that has happened, it’s no surprise then to see La Policía de Puerto Rico, which is known as one of the most corrupt and brutal police forces in America, oppressing its own people.
In June 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force,” which described the 17,000 member police force’s institutional dysfunction.
One of my sisters in the movement, Ana María Archila, recorded the tear gassing and discomfort that marchers were subjected to on May 1. She wrote alongside the video: “Some people are saying on social media that there were people throwing stones at the cops. I certainly didn’t see that or any sign of violence. But even if that were the case, the police, I am sure, have other tactics at their disposal. Tear gassing thousands of people is not a proportionate response. It’s is simply a ferocious attack on people. And on democracy.”
In his book Influence, author Robert Cialdini wrote that “When opportunities become scarce, we desire them more. This is why revolutions tend to happen when living conditions deteriorate sharply rather than when they are consistently low.”
And when people gather in the streets to collectively say “Enough is enough!” they are met with la fuerza de choque–police units that are notorious for using aggressive tactics that are violent, humiliating and totally unnecessary. This is salt in a very raw wound. The police response in Puerto Rico shows that “whiteness” comes in all colors.
UC Berkeley professor john a. powell defines “whiteness” as a middle stratum that identifies with the elites and polices non-whites.
Just like Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Steven, the house slave who defended his white master at all costs in the movie Django Unchained, the police in Puerto Rico turned their weapons against their own people to defend the powers that be. The Policía de Puerto Rico was founded in 1898 when the U.S. won possession of the island of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. Much like the early slave patrols in the U.S., the police were used to crush the spirit of resistors, to put down the Puerto Rican independence movement and maintain the social order which kept elites and colonizers on top.
Part of what is so troubling about this situation is that the officers themselves are also Puerto Rican. So their Black and Brown bodies are being used to oppose their own people. This is how “whiteness” works. Even though police officers themselves are being oppressed by austerity measures that are causing them to lose their pensions, and many of them have yet to be paid for their overtime worked during the Hurricane Maria response, they do not see their fates as being intertwined with the people who are protesting. Instead, they are playing their whiteness role of policing the non-elites. Governor Roselló and Public Safety Commissioner Héctor Pesquera –who are neither big or stupid– are responsible for what the police did.
Imagine what it would have looked like if the Puerto Rican leaders and police officers would have said, “No, we will not gas our own people.” What if every single one of us used our leadership to defeat the big lie that some people’s lives matter more than others? It will take decades to repair the damage that’s been done to the island of Puerto Rico and our psyche as Puerto Ricans. Some things will never be the same. But until the Governor, and then fellow officials, start looking at themselves in the mirror and asking, “How am I reinforcing this system that benefits the elites and hates my Brown self?” nothing will ever change.
Denise Padín Collazo is a U.S. social justice leader, mentor of powerful women of color and Family Work Integration Innovator. She is chief of staff of Faith in Action (formerly PICO National Network), a national, faith-based community organizing network consisting of 54 local and state federations in 21 states.