Journalists, Protesters Attacked by Police at LUMA Protest in Puerto Rico

Aug 26, 2022
2:20 PM

Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco, an independent journalist and regular contributor for Latino Rebels, crouches in pain after being sprayed in the face by police while covering a protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, August 25, 2022. (Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco/Latino Rebels)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico  After a string of blackouts that left many without electricity throughout August, Puerto Ricans came together on Thursday to protest LUMA Energy and Gov. Pedro Pierluisi in Old San Juan. The protest ended with the streets thick with tear gas and multiple journalists and protesters wounded by police.

More than a thousand protesters showed up in Old San Juan to protest LUMA Energy, the public-private American-Canadian company that controls the distribution and maintenance of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. Like most Puerto Rican protests, the atmosphere was more block party than direct action for most of the day. Multiple speakers, ranging from labor leaders to politicians, addressed the crowd and reaffirmed their commitment to making LUMA leave the archipelago.

Activist and stuntman Alberto de Jesús Mercado, better known as “Tito Kayak,” told the crowd he was going to cross the police barricade and get himself peacefully arrested. When he crossed, he was taken down by three police officers.

De Jesús Mercado’s arrest momentarily dampened the mood of the crowd, but protesters soon returned to dancing and singing for the rest of the day until night fell.

At approximately 9 p.m., after the sound trucks had left, protesters began pushing on the mostly permanent barricade police had set up since at least the anti-Rossello protests in the summer of 2019. Police officers, who had tripled the amount of personnel at their riot line since the sound trucks had left, responded by launching a wave of pepper spray at both protesters and journalists who were covering the interaction from the sidelines.

A police officer shot directly at me while I wore my laminated press pass and a helmet that read “PRESS” in big block letters across the front. In the video below, you can see a police officer shoot directly at my phone and face.

The incident left me blind and on the ground for a few minutes before activists poured water over my eyes.

At least four other journalists were also attacked by police throughout the night, including NotiCel’s Juan R. Costa, who was hit by tear gas, and one student journalist from Pulso Estudiantil, who was hit by a police baton.

Rep. Mariana Nogales of the Citizen’s Victory Movement was shoved by a police officer while filming the riot line.

As the night progressed, riot police moved out from their original barricade line, covering the street in thick clouds of smoke and tear gas, all while pushing protesters out of the center of Old San Juan.

When the police expanded their perimeter, many people were trapped behind the riot line. These included peaceful protesters, residents of Old San Juan, and diners eating at nearby restaurants. Some holed themselves up inside restaurants to avoid the riot munitions. Others were herded past the riot line with their hands up.

Protesters created makeshift barricades to impede police from moving forward and arresting them.

According to a police press conference earlier on Friday, four people were arrested at the protest. Two of them will be charged for “attacking a police officer.”

Police Col. Antonio López Figueroa claims protesters threw bottles and rocks at police —which is true— but added that the protesters also launched a “series of chemicals.” That claim has not been independently verified so far.

The only “series of chemicals” deployed throughout the night were those issued by the police themselves in the form of tear gas and pepper spray. These munitions, often called “non-lethal” by police, are actually just “less-lethal” than traditional firearms, and have been banned in warfare since 1925 under the Geneva Conventions.

Even when Puerto Rico police used impact munitions, such as the Defense Technology Stinger Rubber Ball, they shot directly at protesters’ center mass instead of at the lower body, which is the method suggested by Geneva Guidelines. Many critics of riot munitions also recommend “skip-shooting,” or shooting at the ground to allow the projectile to slow down and thereby cause less bodily harm. But the Geneva Guidelines also recommend against this method as well.

One protester claims they were hit directly in the face multiple times. Another, an elderly man who was playing his trumpet in the crowd, was hit multiple times in the leg and covered in tear gas and had to be taken to the hospital via ambulance.

Police claim they are “investigating” their use of force on both journalists and protesters.

Gov. Pierluisi gave “his respect” to protesters who peacefully protested during the early afternoon, but condemned those that “looked to create chaos.”

Gov. Pierluisi is among the many politicians who recently changed their stance on LUMA Energy after a series of blackouts this year enraged many Puerto Ricans.

“LUMA, go to hell!” Puerto Rican music artist Bad Bunny told the crowd at a concert in San Juan at the end of July. “Pierluisi, all the other c–ksuckers, go to hell!”

“I’m not satisfied with LUMA’s performance,” Pierluisi said in a statement on August 18. He had previously minimized the blackouts and repeatedly defended LUMA Energy, the company he initially contracted to take control of the island’s electricity distribution system.

LUMA Energy, a consortium made up of Quanta Services and ATCO, assumed management of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid last year. Since then, Puerto Ricans have experienced a string of blackouts that has earned the company widespread resentment among Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the Diaspora.

While LUMA says that blackouts have improved since they took over distribution, maintenance, and repair of the electrical grid, a recent report by the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (PREB) shows that blackouts have actually worsened.

The electricity crisis has left Puerto Ricans in limbo, not knowing when and where the next blackout will occur. The blackouts have damaged appliances that in turn have sparked fires that destroyed homes. A family recently lost their home after a generator exploded as they attempted to start it during a blackout. Multiple hospitals have been left in darkness after their generators malfunctioned.

Meanwhile, the Office of Public-Private Partnerships, which controls LUMA’s contract, has said that the company is “not breaching” its contract even with its lack of maintenance.

Nevertheless, every protester Latino Rebels spoke to after police began deploying riot munitions assured me that they would return for as long as it takes to force LUMA out.

There is another protest scheduled for later on Friday and on Saturday.


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is a freelance journalist, mostly focused on civil unrest, extremism, and political corruption. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL