Violence and Intimidation at the University of Puerto Rico

If it was not before, by now it should be more than evident to all observers that the core group of students and activists behind the continuing conflict at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) endorse and practice the use of violence and intimidation. This is made manifest by the tactics and actions of the protestors, which include wearing masks and hoods; carrying clubs and metal pipes; throwing smoke bombs into classrooms; physically removing students and professors from classrooms; assaulting upper-level university officials; shouting insults at anyone who disagrees with their ideology or methods; surrounding students who have differing opinions during student assemblies and making veiled and not-so-veiled threats on Internet sites against those who hold different views.

It has also been abundantly evident that the unarmed security force at the UPR possesses neither the numbers nor the capacity to deal with such activists, particularly when the latter activate their full repertoire of violent methods. However, the return of the state police force to the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico -- after a 30-year absence -- finally changed the equation.

The police have been able to restore order on campus by not allowing the activists to physically impede or intimidate those students and faculty who do not believe in the protesters' cause, or do not agree with their tactics. At the same time, this restoration of order has led to violent encounters between police and activists. In all the cases I have observed firsthand, the violence has always been provoked by the demonstrators.

The protestors have constantly argued that the mere presence of the police is provocation enough. With the police in control of the campus, and the demonstrators not able to deny the majority their rights to attend classes, give classes, go to work or do research, the activist movement is largely ineffective. Why? They just do not have the numbers to support their cause, nor the arguments to peacefully convince more people.

At this stage, most people -- both inside and outside the university community -- have grown weary of the constant harping, intimidation tactics, political motivations and inflexibility of the activists and have abandoned their support of the movement. As a result, the number of activists has been reduced to a relative handful at a single campus, i.e. a few hundred people, out of a University of Puerto Rico community of 11 campuses and over 70,000 students, faculty and staff.

So what's a failing revolution to do? Time to change tactics.

Recently, the protestors have been involved in activities such as sitting down in groups, locked arm-in-arm, in front of the vehicular entrances to the University. When police moved in to take them into custody, instead of willingly submitting to arrest or just going limp, some chose to actively resist by fighting to keep their arms locked together. This put police in the difficult position of having to use force to carry out the arrests. Selective video recordings of police exerting force against students were then widely distributed with allegations of police brutality. Despite many claims in the media of police brutality, to date I am not aware of any formal complaints or significant injuries that have been reported.

As the UPR finished up the semester during the months of December 2010 and January 2011, we were giving classes and exams with a significant police presence on campus. That didn't stop the activists, however, from making numerous attempts to interrupt these classes and exams by force.

We would always know these attacks were coming because the press and "observers" from sympathizer organizations such as the Puerto Rico Bar Association and the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) would arrive first. The "observers" claimed to be there to protect the civil rights of the protestors. Clearly, this was a set-up to confront the police and record any apparently "inappropriate" behavior by the police.

When the activists arrived with masks, shields, smoke bombs, etc., the "observers" only interest was to record the actions of the police towards those trying to violently disrupt ongoing classes. I am still waiting for these "champions" of the First Amendment to utter a single statement about the civil rights of the students and professors whose only crime has been to try to carry out their responsibilities in the classroom.

We finished the semester giving final exams with our buildings virtually surrounded by riot police in full gear. Nobody wants such a situation at a university -- it hardly provides a proper academic environment conducive to teaching and learning. The Governor of Puerto Rico recognized this as well, and twice, once in January and once in February, he removed the police from the campus, in the hope that the activists would find a way to express themselves without infringing upon the rights of others. In both instances, the activists almost immediately seized upon the chance to return to their violent and intimidating tactics, and in both cases, the police had to be summoned to return to campus in order to protect the rights of those who simply want to fulfill their responsibilities at the University.

One of the reasons the protestors' cause has received so much positive attention in Puerto Rican, national and international media is that the activist groups have worked hard at it. All of the strike leaders take turns being spokespersons, and all seem well-schooled in the task. They use multiple alternative websites, many linked to socialist ideology, to disseminate their version(s) of incidents. As they tell it, they are always peaceful and non-violent, and when confrontations occur, they are always innocent victims. As I have detailed here, my direct observations of the conflict run counter to such accounts.

Over the last few weeks, the activists have tried to find connections between their struggle and what is occurring throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In particular, they try to draw comparisons between Puerto Rico's current administration and Egypt's recently ousted dictatorship. I find these comparisons to be silly at best, as democracy is alive and well in Puerto Rico, with voter participation rates above 80%, and an election cycle that almost never stops.

Likewise, the activists try to see similarities with the protests in Wisconsin, claiming that real democracy exists in the Midwest since police are not cracking down on protestors there. The images coming out of Wisconsin, however, show people protesting passionately, but always respectful of others' rights.

This brings me to my fundamental point for writing this article. I have not addressed the alleged grievances about which the activists claim to be protesting. For me, that is not the issue. The issue -- my only issue -- is that they have every right to express themselves on whatever topic they so choose. And so does everybody else -- no group holds the exclusive right to freedom of expression.

As a veteran of many student and labor conflicts during my more than 20 years at the UPR, the current use of the state police at the University to guarantee everybody's civil rights represents a sea change. It is unfortunate that all the talk throughout the years about a non-confrontation policy at the university never amounted to anything more than talk. I say unfortunate because for all the discussion about peaceful and non-confrontational movements for students' and workers' rights, the bottom line is that it has always been about, and continues to be about, violence and intimidation.

Brad R. Weiner is Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.