Oscar López Rivera. The Puerto Rican Day Parade. Y Nosotros.
I first wrote a shorter version of this for an unsolicited NY Times Op-Ed which I submitted 24 May 2017. It was not accepted. Almost immediately though it was soon eclipsed by rapidly moving events: more sponsors dropping out, more BS from politicos. And finally, Oscar’s “Enough.” So, I’m updating and expanding here.
The second Sunday of June. As every New Yorker knows that means, The Ricans are coming! The Ricans are coming! (from 1958 through 1960, the Parade was in April). This year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade is probably the most controversial yet. Because Parade organizers at first chose to honor Oscar López Rivera as its first “National Freedom Hero.” Within days, Goya Foods dropped its sponsorship of the Parade. That seemed to signal both talk about some Latinos boycotting Goya (a company whose founding family is from Spain, though even many Latins believe it’s from one of the Islands); and, other American businesses going, “Well if Goya’s out…” providing cover for corporations like the New York Yankees and JetBlue (though each will continue scholarships for Puerto Rican students) and AT&T and Coca-Cola. Then came those giants of free speech, Univision and Telemundo, followed by the departures of politicos like Gov. Cuomo. Plus several law enforcement organizations, including the NYPD, and the Fire Department’s unions. In addition, musician Willie Colón who is also a Sheriff Sergeant with Westchester’s Department of Public Safety, has blasted the decision.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio whose senior advisor Lorraine Cortés-Vásquez is also Chair of the Parade Committee, had been outwardly trying to appear “pro” López Rivera while everyone knew he was growing increasingly nervous with every defection leaving him more “exposed” to charges of supporting “terror.” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had been outfront for some time calling for López Rivera’s release from prison, and was a major supporter of honoring him at the Parade. But since she is hitting term limits this year, her political status is different than the Mayor’s. He’s up for re-election, and though the front runner, is hoping for a wide victory margin to boost whatever move he makes after City Hall. Without the taint of having “supported a terrorist.”
Finally, López Rivera graciously gave everybody breathing room, saying he would decline “the honor” and just march like every other “humble Puerto Rican.” A couple of weeks out of prison after 36 years, no wonder Oscar decided, Who needs this mess? No one profited more from Oscar’s “thanks but no thanks” than de Blasio. Which of course now has even casual observers wondering who was twisting what arms behind the scenes. Like, de Blasio also threatening to pull out unless López Rivera stepped back.
Stir in to this Parade controvérsia the “debate” regarding López fueled by corporations, mainstream media, individuals, and associations that also happen to absolutely hate the notion of Puerto Rican independence. Not just as affirmed by the FALN. But, by anyone. My former Young Lords colleague Juan Gonzalez wrote in a Daily News op-ed on June 4th “The boycott campaign was quietly organized by a right-wing conservative group in Washington, D.C., the Media Research Center, that receives major funding from donors close to both President Trump and to Breitbart News.” Gonzalez is a master at research. I will bet most people still have not connected those dots. It reminds me of when I was in Federal prison because I was a Young Lord, and my two organized crime connected uncles passed the word to “look out for the kid.” After wise guys asked if I was all right or needed cigarettes (I’m not a smoker) somebody would say, “Ay, what’s the matter with you? This is a great country!” “Maybe for you!” So, this is not really about Oscar López Rivera for this bunch. It is about stopping ALL the damn open-minded or proud or inquisitive Puerto Ricans. Who might also ask, Just what is all this history between PR and the United States? Is Puerto Rico really a colony? Who else besides Oscar López and the FALN ever stood up for independence? Just how free are we? No, those are not questions some folks want Puerto Ricans to ask.
Frankly, the only people with a legitimate animosity, in my view, to López Rivera in the Parade are the families of those killed or injured in FALN bombings. And the comrades of police officers injured. That, I understand. The fact that López Rivera was not charged for example with the January 24, 1975 Fraunces Tavern bombing near Wall Street which killed four innocent people and wounded fifty-three others is, understandably, a moot point to them.
That bomb went off about 1:20 on a Friday afternoon. Lunch time. My mother worked nearby. And was nearly hit by debris, including broken glass. She got to a phone and called her son. My phone. My tapped-five-ways-from-Sunday phone. Though I had recently left the Young Lords and was still on parole. “You tell your friends I could have been killed!” “MOM!” “We are innocent people! It’s lunchtime! Do you know how crowded it is?!” “MOM WE CAN’T TALK ON THE PHONE!” “You listen to your mother! I’m all for our people, I was with you at the Church, I was at your trial, but this is not right!” “MomIloveyougottago.” First time I ever hung up on my mother.
That the FALN took credit had not been widely known yet. But boy, she knew.
At the time, I had been looking desperately for work. Any time it seemed I might catch a break, like once with the phone company, the FBI would show up and scare off prospective employers. A couple of days after that call with my mother, I trudged back home to my Bronx apartment, tired from the job search. I came back to life when I saw my door was a bit open. Inside was Detective Joe Wiscovitch, who had been assigned to “liason” a few years earlier with us. Actually, he could be pretty funny. He went on to become a VP at Banco Popular, and then set up his own firm.
“Why are you here?”
“They think you leaving the Lords was a smokescreen. That you’re really joining the leadership of the FALN.”
I wondered if Joe really thought that himself while he was feeling me out.
Oscar López Rivera was awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam. For years, he did the hard work of community organizing in Chicago. Creating educational and health spaces, and protesting police brutality. If you’ve never done it: it IS work. You can’t fake it or half-step. He had a life of service BEFORE the FALN connection. So, he had a history. For his country. And, for his community. Clearly, something happened. But just what, most of us on the outside don’t fully know.
Oscar López Rivera was convicted — for “seditious conspiracy” — primarily on the word of an informant. And the mostly circumstantial evidence the FBI and police in Chicago and New York presented. Anyone with even casual knowledge of the use of informants in mob cases, Black Panther trials, or drug takedowns knows these informants will say anything to make a deal or get a buck or inflate their worth. Alfredo Mendez, originally an FALN defendant, got his sentence reduced from 75 years to 20 and was put in witness protection.
What the government did manage to do was build a sense that Oscar was up to something. That may have involved transporting weapons. Perhaps explosives. That, maybe, he showed people how to build a bomb. I’m not belittling that. Those are quite serious charges. And if true, hard to defend. Yes: I know the comparisons to everyone who has FOUGHT for freedom. Whether Mandela, or Begin. Over time, and depending on whom you support, things have a tendency to be cast in a different light. There is mucho truth in “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”
And if my father, my daughter, was killed by a bomb for Puerto Rican independence. That would bring me up short. If my mother had lost an eye or a leg outside Fraunces Tavern…I’d be frozen for more than a little bit.
Yes. I would prefer Puerto Rico to be free. Most folks want their country free. Why the hell not? If you think a million Puerto Rican flags are waving on Fifth Avenue because people are mainly expressing Am I glad to be Americanyet not also shouting I love being Puerto Rican; or because the desire for independence is some Stateside romance that is not consistent with Island reality; you are either insane, or the Latino equivalent of Ben “Poverty is a state of mind” Carson. Anyone who raises that nonsense about “independence has never had a strong showing in a vote in Puerto Rico” — do you also run three card monte games to put your kids through school? First, none of these plebiscites (including the one taking place this second Sunday of June) is BINDING on the U.S. Congress. They don’t mean squat.So, they’re not taken seriously. By the voters or anyone. And, Congress will NEVER approve Statehood for Puerto Rico. Get real. Years ago, most of the Statehood people were really, false pride people. “We’re as good as they are” “We’ve proven ourselves.” Now, more people going for Statehood are motivated by fear. Fear that the empty truth about “Commonwealth” has been exposed. Fear that the Great White U.S. Father will “abandon” us. That we have to cement our status quickly. Before a window that was never really open for us closes.
Quite honestly, many Puerto Ricans are scared about Independence. What the hell is out there? Maybe the world is flat. Maybe we can’t build creative, sustaining, businesses and an economy. Maybe we can’t shrink corruption. Maybe these are the only politicians around.
I don’t believe any of that. And I don’t think most Puerto Ricans do.
I was born and raised “here;” my parents, “here.” Three of my grandparents, “there.” And one from Cuba. Somehow, at 18, I became a founder and leader of a Puerto Rican radical group. The Young Lords Party. We built an organization still talked-about and — I say this as humbly and as honestly as I can — still admired. Around two main organizing principles. Equality for Puerto Ricans within the United States. And, Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre. Oh yeah: and if we had to, we’d fight for it. The government soon made it pretty clear, You spics gotta fight for every. Damn. Thing.
You want respect? Fight for it. You want a claim to the laws that are already on the books? Fight for it. You want a future for your kids? Fight for it. Hell, you live in those stinkin’ neighborhoods with so much crime and health problems and bad food and no services and failing schools because YOU PEOPLE want to live that way!
Our Young Lord compadres in Chicago were a year ahead of us in wising up and already knew, asking for reforms wasn’t going to cut it. As we got started in New York, just going to a local Sanitation office to get brooms to clean up the block was met with “You spics get the fuck outta here.” We had to fight for every inch. Free breakfast programs, Puerto Rican studies, lead poison tests, TB tests, a new hospital, clean streets, no heroin sales near schools, representation on city agencies, cops busting any Puerto Rican’s head just because they could, airplay for Latin music, safety for welfare mothers marching, even flying the Puerto Rican flag — speaking out about all those things whether major or minor, were met with waves of police swinging clubs at us, or infiltrating us.
We were militant, certainly, If hit, we fought back. That alone got us branded. Who do you think you ARE, fighting back?! Lie down and take it! I know for many of you this is strong stuff. Shocking, perhaps. But I am not exaggerating. The greatest compliment I ever got about the Young Lords were from folks from a generation before us: “You did what we should have done.” That also meant, the crap thrown at us did not begin when we started in 1969.
We were called “terrorists” and “a gang.” “Thugs.” “Crooks.” Spanish media said we wore Afros because we were really “Black” not “Hispanic.” One Spanish-language newspaper said we raped young women as we brainwashed them to become members. That we got checks from Fidel Castro.
The FALN announced themselves just as an unfortunate combination of internal and external events culminated in the end of the Young Lords. As the Lords were fragmenting at the end of 1974, the FALN was getting started. The second known action police believed to be done by the FALN was on October 26, 1974. Five bombs placed outside five banks. A “communique” said it was both for the five Puerto Rican political prisoners held at the time (Oscar Collazo, Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores). And also to commemorate the October 30, 1950 independence uprising in Jayuya and other towns in Puerto Rico led by Albizu Campos’ Nationalist Party.
However, something about all this made many of us in the Lords suspicious, and we made those suspicions public. Flying glass does not discriminate. Bombs alone do not organize resistance; they scare people. Hurting innocent people only makes people stand with the innocent. As we should. Even though FALN “communiques” tried to link their actions to the Puerto Rican “cause” there was way too little “groundwork” done for the average person to go, “Oh, THAT was because of THIS” and throw up a clenched fist in support. The third known “attack” on December 11, 1974 sealed it for us. A phony 911 call to a booby trap at a building in Spanish Harlem. And the first officer inside “happened” to be a rookie Puerto Rican cop, Angelo Poggi, who lost an eye. Police later displayed a piece of the front door. The NY Times described “a crudely drawn hammer and sickle with the words ‘The W.A.S.P.S. own this country and we the minorities must change it.’ ”
Could anything BE more full of crap? No one talked that way. Certainly not in the movement. “The W.A.S.P.S.?” “Minorities?” A hammer and sickle?
The subsequent “communique” claimed the phony 911 call was retaliation for a suspicious death ten days earlier at the 25th Precinct in Spanish Harlem. Tito Perez, a member of the artistic collective Taller Boricua, had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” — playing congas at a subway station. Somehow, while two friends who had also been picked up were in the front of the station house, Tito was beaten in the back of the precinct; his larynx was broken. Police said he killed himself. Few believed that.
However, far more people learned about Officer Poggi in our community citywide than they did about Tito Perez, which was understandable. A bomb. A Puerto Rican cop. And NOT the cop who may have killed Tito Perez. Our community was rightfully indignant. And so were we. This smacked of J. Edgar Hoover’s subversive COINTELPRO program. Ultimately, we learned that there were a few within the FALN whom we had once considered honest supporters of independence. But we wondered if as well any law enforcement agencies had undercovers or informants stirring the pot.
Our own organization had such spies, and it was not uncommon. Every group had the virus. In fact, we had a slew of them from the very beginning: the New York Young Lords were the coming together of three smaller groups. One from the Lower East Side turned out to be composed primarily of cops who had been placed in the area that was long known for being a radical hotbed. Those cops accidentally hit the jackpot when they joined us.
Across the board, “things were different then.” Many African-American police officers, fed up with the racism in their own ranks, sometimes gave us tips. The NYPD “beat” the FBI because Hoover’s racism was such that the Bureau didn’t have enough Puerto Rican agents to blend in, and encouraged white agents with that “Italian” or “Mediterranean” look to grow mustaches and let their hair grow. But the NYPD had Latinos and Blacks in Narcotics, and transferred that crew to groups like ours, under the aegis of the Bureau of Special Services or, yes, BOSS. But that bunch were often cowboys, loose cannons and corrupt from their time in Narcotics. Many were more interested in sleeping with female members, getting a couple pregnant. But we were from the streets too, and were able to work drug circles and compare notes. Exposing this scum in particular was tricky: last thing we wanted to do was maim an undercover cop. However, if a sister slugged a guy on the way out…
We would all like simple, cut and dry stories. Bad guys and good guys. Black and white. Up. Down. Yes: there is no excuse for taking innocent lives to make a political point. There is no excuse for using a bomb to substitute for the work that should be done to organize more people on the side of “Enough!” But I am no naive dreamer. And critics of López Rivera’s presence at the Parade have to see the larger picture and not discard it. Understand being furious about the U.S. squeezing Puerto Rico till it is dry. Understand that those hedge funds got away with creating this debt without any watchdog screaming “Jail!” And corrupt or at best inept politicians were either on the take or clueless. Pardon us if we don’t expect relief at the ballot box. Pardon us if we don’t believe in “reforms” we’ve already seen do nothing. Pardon those of us who can disagree with López Rivera on lives taken or destroyed but who are also furious about how we are kept to a second class status. And if by some cataclysm of popular disgust eighty per cent, say, of the Puerto Ricans on the Island and in the States got so fed up we were all at the barricades demanding meaningful and thorough change — we would be met with bullets batons tear gas imprisonment without trial and assassination. We’ve seen all these things on a smaller scale. We know history. And we know the U.S. apparatus. It should not have to get to that point. Enlightened minds on all sides should create meaningful change. Should. And way overdue. But don’t harrumph and tsk and get all self-righteous when people rise up. Don’t be “shocked” if you did nothing to truly improve a situation. Don’t claim ignorance. Don’t put “trouble” on some small group of armed independentistas.
When a truly sizable group, armed or not but ticked off. Comes walking down the block.