This week marks the 69th anniversary of the 1954 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Puerto Rican nationalists. The shooting injured five members of Congress, and the four Puerto Ricans —Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodríguez— were sentenced to decades of imprisonment for seditious conspiracy, a little-known charge used almost exclusively against Puerto Rican independentistas.
Recently, the same charge has been leveled against several members of the American far-right anti-government militia known as the Oath Keepers and others that took part in the insurrection on January 6, 2021, at least one of whom has now been convicted.
It would be a mistake, however, for people to lump together the Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of conspiracy decades ago with the far-right rioters being charged for their actions following the 2020 election. These are men (and women) whose aims and political circumstances could not have been more different: on one hand, election-denying white supremacists who stormed the U.S. Capitol at Donald Trump’s behest, and on the other, Puerto Ricans determined to pursue, by any means necessary, their national liberation.
It would also be a mistake not to stop and consider why Puerto Ricans resorted to violence in the first place, and why their actions were understandable, if not outright admirable, in the context of the still unfinished struggle to end the world’s oldest colonial relationship.
Readers may find it preposterous to suggest that such violence deserves anything but condemnation. There is a strong taboo against political violence—in most cases, rightfully so. The taboo intensifies when a movement fails or has not yet succeeded. The old adages, oversimplified as they are, are nonetheless true: History is indeed written by the victors, and one man’s hero can be another man’s terrorist.
But that’s a poor framework for moral and political thought. Our endorsement of a certain method of struggle should not depend on whether it achieves its aims, especially when success or failure is often a consequence of how cruelly and effectively the struggle is repressed. And while nonviolence has won important victories around the world, from India to the American South, we tend to forget the role of violence in movements we prefer to remember as peaceful.
The British suffragettes, for example, bombed and burned their way to the right to vote. And the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress, founded by Nelson Mandela, played its part in eventually ending apartheid.
In both those cases, as well as countless other armed movements of anticolonial resistance or independence, violence was necessitated by political structures that systematically excluded oppressed people. Violence may not have been their only option, but it was one of few alternatives to redress grievances and effect change given a lack of voting power, representation, or equal rights under the law.
The militants may have been “seditious conspirators” against their government —as the American colonists were, once upon a time, against the British Empire— but those governments conspired first to place them in a state of political subordination.
The January 6th insurrectionists can make no such claim. While some may believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, leaving them no choice but to resort to violence, that is nothing but falsehoods and fantasies. The Oath Keepers and their brethren had, and continue to have, every conceivable right under the American legal and political system, and every available avenue to pursue change nonviolently within the bounds of that system.
Some might imagine the same is true of the Puerto Ricans who have resorted to violence, both on the island and in the United States, in pursuit of independence. After all, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens with rights under the U.S. Constitution. We have a duly elected local government, a representative in Congress —though non-voting— and have held multiple plebiscites on Puerto Rico’s status. Why the need for violence when other political pathways exist?
But the reality is that Puerto Ricans have much more in common with the disenfranchised colonial subjects who have taken up arms around the world. Yes, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens—but with no voting rights in federal elections and no voting representation in Congress. Yes, we have our own government—but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Puerto Rico’s government does not have sovereignty and exists only thanks to, and under the authority of, the U.S. Congress. The only rights Puerto Ricans have under the U.S. Constitution are those that the federal government decides they get to enjoy.
The legal and political pathways to decolonization have turned out to be mere mirages. Yes, Puerto Ricans have voted six times in the past 55 years on a potential status change, but Congress has refused to make any of those votes binding before or after the fact. The Supreme Court has spent more than a century using the racist Insular Cases as the legal foundation for the colonial status of all U.S. “territories,” and refused again just a few months ago to hear a case that might lead them to overturn it.
And American politicians, who are often deaf to the demands of even their voters and constituents, ignore the appeals of Puerto Ricans who have no political power even more easily.
The Puerto Rican nationalists who attacked Congress and others who have attempted armed insurrection ever since turned to violence because they foresaw the continued U.S. domination of Puerto Rico and the failure of peaceful, political means to achieve decolonization. The last 70 years have, unfortunately, proven them right.
They were not right, of course, that their own armed efforts would do much better, at least not immediately and directly. But we cannot wholly condemn political violence until and unless we know that nonviolent methods can succeed. Otherwise, we risk leaving people fighting for rights and freedoms without any tools in their toolboxes.
In Puerto Rico’s case, whether political advocacy and nonviolent activism will work is still an open question. It’s the path that I remain committed to. Neither I nor hardly any Puerto Ricans support using violence to advance the cause of independence. But, at least in my case, it’s because I believe violence would be ineffective and counterproductive, nor am I sure that it would be entirely illegitimate.
It’s not up to Puerto Ricans, or to any oppressed people, to denounce or renounce political violence—it is up to the people and institutions doing the oppressing to make such violence unnecessary by addressing the moral demands for justice and equal rights. That has not yet happened in 123 years of U.S. rule over Puerto Rico.
Two years ago, seditious conspirators attacked the U.S. Capitol, committing a crime against their own government. Sixty-seven years before that, Puerto Rican nationalists attacked the same building to denounce a crime —colonialism— committed by a government in which they had no meaningful rights or representation.
The people of Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised to this day, and the fact that that crime continues is the most violent conspiracy of all.
Alberto Medina is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. He tweets at @AlbertoMedinaPR