By: Marisol LeBrón
Can we transform the broad-based support for Oscar López Rivera’s release into a movement that rejects the notion of incarceration as a solution to social problems?
May 29, 2014 marked the thirty-third year that Oscar López Rivera has spent imprisoned for his role in the struggle to end the United States’ occupation and colonization of Puerto Rico. López Rivera was arrested in 1981 and subsequently sentenced to seventy-five years in prison for “seditious conspiracy” related to his participation in the FALN, a nationalist group responsible for a series of bombings during the 1970s and 1980s. López Rivera served a number of years in control units in USP Marion and ADX Florence, where he was subjected to extreme isolation and sensory deprivation meant to discourage his connections with other prisoners. López Rivera himself describes these torturous conditions as ubiquitous and argues that they are an explicit tactic of political suppression within and beyond prison walls:
“The U.S. government categorically denies it has political prisoners in its gulags. It does it primarily to cover up the nefarious, barbaric and even criminal acts and practices it carries out against us and other regular prisoners, and to do it with impunity… It does it to perpetuate the lie that it’s the ultimate defender of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights in the world. And it uses it at times to further criminalize the political prisoners and/ or our families and to disconnect us from our families, communities, supporters and the just and noble causes we served and try to continue serving.”
López Rivera, the longest held Puerto Rican political prisoner in U.S. history, is now at the center of a massive international effort to secure his release. The reasons cited for his release are numerous, ranging from the claim that López Rivera received a disproportionately high sentence for his alleged crimes, to suggestions that in the twilight of his life López Rivera poses no serious threat to United States security, to less common position that armed struggle in the pursuit of independence is not a crime or act of terror. For these reasons, López Rivera’s case has garnered the support of a range of Puerto Rican activists and allies both on the island and in the Diaspora, including high-profile political figures, celebrities, and journalists. This past summer saw an incredible ground swell of support for López Rivera’s release with the newly revamped National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City dedicating the festivities to raising awareness about his case and calling for his release.
As many of López Rivera’s supporters have noted, his case illustrates the deeply flawed nature of our criminal justice system and the ways in which Puerto Ricans, along with African Americans and other people of color, are disproportionately represented among the prison population. Further, people of color are overrepresented among individuals incarcerated for political reasons. Part of why support for Oscar López Rivera cuts across the political spectrum is precisely because he represents an extreme case of what many of us already know – there is no such thing as a fair day in court for Puerto Ricans accused of criminal acts or even criminal thoughts as we witnessed in the case of alleged enemy combatant José Padilla.1 In this way, the continued work to free López Rivera must also interrogate the very logics and practices of a legal system and prison apparatus that keeps López Rivera and so many other Puerto Ricans locked up in cages. In other words, can we translate our support for Oscar López’s freedom into a broad-based movement for prison abolition?
Prison abolition demands a radical reconfiguration of society and our relationships with one another. As activist scholar and former political prisoner Angela Davis notes, “Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.”2
The prison industrial complex (PIC), or “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems,” functions to shore up uneven power relations that further disadvantage those who are already marginalized by the dominant structure.3 Prisons, policing, surveillance, and other forms of punishment and deterrence, as is made clear in the case of López Rivera, do nothing to improve our lives or make society safer in a holistic sense. Instead, the PIC ravages already vulnerable communities while leaving intact systems of oppression that often determine what is criminal and who is a threat. We see this with the case of López Rivera, who, after witnessing the devastating effects of racism, colonialism, and poverty in Puerto Rican communities, was punished for advocating Puerto Rican independence by any means necessary. López Rivera remains locked up as many Puerto Ricans continue to feel the effects of racism, colonialism, and poverty on their everyday lives and in their communities.
The logic of the PIC is rooted in a racist and capitalist social order that sees people like López Rivera as impediments that need to be removed. That is one of the central functions of the PIC – to exile and incapacitate those agitating for a change to the repressive and hierarchical way in which society is structured. As historian Dan Berger notes, “The prison can be seen as an extension of the repression that drove many of these people to undertake militant action in the first place. It is part of the government’s arsenal to destroy revolutionaries.”3
In some ways, Oscar López is a sympathetic figure – an aging militant who wants to be reunited with his family and see the ocean again – and as a result, it becomes difficult for us to extend our desire for his freedom to others currently languishing in jails and prisons. It is easy for many to argue that López Rivera “deserves” his freedom while others “deserve” to lose theirs. The notion that some people are undeserving of their liberty is precisely what fuels our current era of mass incarceration and its attendant myth that some people must live in captivity in order for the rest of us to feel truly free. These categories of deserving and undeserving are very much indebted to histories of enslavement, genocide, and imperialism, which reanimate hierarchies of difference in the present by marking some populations as not-quite-citizens whose freedom can be circumscribed.
López Rivera’s incarceration for the crime of anti-colonial resistance makes particularly clear the ways in which imprisonment has always functioned to guarantee the freedom of some through the violent exclusion of those constructed as outside the bounds of normative citizenship. The work of prison abolition asks us to expand our thinking beyond categories of deserving and undeserving and instead acknowledge that prisons cause more harm than good and ultimately do not solve the social, economic, and political crises that create the conditions that push people to engage in criminalized activities in the first place. Ultimately, abolitionist thinking challenges us to recognize that if we want a more just world we must work towards dismantling institutions that quite literally cement inequality and create a terrain of uneven freedom.
As we continue to exert pressure on the United States government to free Oscar López Rivera we must also undertake the difficult work of reconsidering how we think about prisons and punishment within the Puerto Rican community. We must ask ourselves, particularly as people who have routinely been denied our right to self-determination, if we are comfortable allowing others to have their personal freedom denied or limited. What would it take for us to not just advocate for the freedom of Oscar López Rivera – to recognize and affirm his dignity, humanity, and right to exist within society – but to work towards the freedom of all our brothers and sisters locked in cages away from their family, friends, and communities? Oscar López’s principled refusal to stop resisting from the inside should inspire those of us on the outside to fight in solidarity with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to free all and not just some of us.
4. Dan Berger, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (Oakland: PM Press, 2014), 83.
Marisol LeBrón, Ph.D. is a queer nuyorican scholar from the Bronx. She is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Dickinson College. Her research explores issues of policing, violence, and race-making in Puerto Rican and Latina/o communities.