November 23, 2013 and the Growing Campaign for the Release of Oscar López Rivera.
By: Andre Lee Muñiz
Oscar López Rivera is a 70-year old Vietnam veteran, Chicago-based community organizer, human rights activist, and Puerto Rican independence fighter. Arrested in 1981 after five years evading an FBI witch-hunt, then charged with seditious conspiracy, he has now been in prison for more than 32 years, with over 12 years spent in solitary. He was not convicted of killing or harming anyone.
After Puerto Rico’s two leading organizations in support of Oscar’s release, 32 x Oscar and El Comité Pro Derechos Humanos, made a joint call to march from Hato Rey to San Juan on November 23, the Community Coalition for the Freedom of Oscar López Rivera was formed in New York City with the goal of organizing a unity march to be held the same day, also in support of Oscar’s release and in solidarity with Puerto Rico.
This call for unified action comes just over a year after support for Oscar’s release increased dramatically. In Puerto Rico, activist Tito Kayak was received after completing a canoe journey that began in Venezuela; athlete activists biked across Vieques, through the big island to Oscar’s San Sebastián hometown, then through several U.S. cities to Chicago; El Morro was occupied in an act of civil disobedience; FCI-Guaynabo was blocked by protestors; and groups of women have held monthly demonstrations in San Juan. On May 29 of this year, five island cities saw the pro-commonwealth mayor of San Juan, the pro-statehood mayor of Ponce, singer Andy Montañez, music group Calle 13, retired baseball player Carlos Delgado, and thousands others across the entire political, social, economic, and religious spectrum, gather together as they lined up to take turns spending 15 minutes in a makeshift cell as an act of support for Oscar’s release.
The November 23 unity march in New York City turned out to be a timely development in the Puerto Rican diaspora community. In order to influence U.S. President Barack Obama into releasing Oscar, his administration at the White House has to see widespread and consistent support for such. The march, held in 30-degree winds, produced a significant display of broad support for a cause that is uniting the entire Puerto Rican nation.
Individual speakers at the demonstration included Community Coalition coordinator Samuel Sanchez, community activist Maisha Morales, District Leader Carlina Rivera, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Reverend Samuel Cruz, René Pérez/Residente from Calle 13, El Puente founder Luis Garden Acosta, Williamsburg community activist Juan Ramos, Councilmember-elect Antonio Reynoso, and long-time Williamsburg activist Evelyn Cruz who is also a representative for Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. Performers included Iris Colon Dipini, who opened and closed the day singing La Borinqueña; the cultural group Bomba Yo, who played plenas throughout the day; Sery Colon, Eric Acevedo, and Eric Aviles, who each recited poems; in addition to Zero Prophet and Spirit Child, who performed a song together as the gathered crowd clapped the rhythm of the clave. Finally, organizations that were represented by speakers included the New York Coordinator to Free Oscar López Rivera, the National Boricua Human Rights Network, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Sekou Odinga Defense Committee, El Maestro, and the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico-New York Junta. Media coverage of the unity march includes NY1, El Nuevo Día, El Diario La Prensa, Latino Rebels, Primera Hora, writer Ed Morales, Counterpunch, 80 grados, Global Voices Online, and the Militant.
Other organizational supporters of the march included 1199SEIU, 32BJSEIU, DC37, Universal Zulu Nation Chapter 9-Brooklyn, the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, the International Concerned Friends & Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), ProLibertad, and La Respuesta.
While Oscar’s imprisonment is directly related to the colonial relationship the U.S. government maintains with Puerto Rico, the unity march in NYC being an expression of resistance to the effects of this relationship, the march had an added local significance. This significance is based on the two communities it connected: the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, two early destination points for the waves of Puerto Rican migrations to New York City after the U.S. took over the island in 1898 and granted islanders citizenship in 1917. Furthermore, the march also connected two Puerto Rican-inspired institutions by beginning in the parking lot of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center and ending inside El Puente Academy. What is left of the Puerto Rican community in these neighborhoods is currently under the pressure of the effects of gentrification. By taking to the streets—by taking over the space of the Williamsburg Bridge, and then the streets of Williamsburg itself—the November 23 march in NYC can therefore be seen as a public demonstration that continued and added to the long history of the Puerto Rican use of these neighborhood spaces.
The effort to gentrify Williamsburg in particular is exemplified by the attempt at renaming Graham Avenue/Avenue of Puerto Rico by people who “don’t want [the neighborhood] to be known as a Puerto Rican or Spanish area anymore.” The November 23 march, by having a strong presence in Williamsburg, reaffirmed these spaces as having an important and active presence of Puerto Rican social life.
There is no doubt that the activities of November 23, 2013 in support of the demand for Oscar’s release were of great significance. The march in NYC was attended by upwards of 250 people. The march in Puerto Rico was attended by tens of thousands more. Another street demonstration was organized in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn by the New York State Chapter of the Asociacion ProDerecho del Confinado-Ñetas. And finally, other activities also took place in Washington DC in front of the White House, in Spain’s capital of Madrid, and during a professional boxing match in China (for images from these last three see Latino Rebels’ article).
Nevertheless, until Oscar is free, the movement for his release will no doubt continue. With public support essentially achieved across the board, and a number of ongoing petition drives, mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience will likely continue to be considered. Oscar is a community leader that deserves to be free. He should be able to mentor young people so that future generations can grow with what they need to continue the struggle for a better and more free world.
Free Oscar Now!
Councilmember Rosie Mendez speaking at rally in the LES, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Jose ‘Dr. Drum’ Ortiz starting a plena coro to inspire people to march, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Marching in the LES towards the Williamsburg bridge, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Switching lanes on the Williamsburg bridge, by Rosa Rios
Bomba Yo and friends playing plena on the Williamsburg Bridge, by Rosa Rios
Reaching the Williamsburg side of the bridge, by Rosa Rios
Marching through the streets of Williamsburg, by David Galarza Santa
Gathering for park rally in Williamsburg, by Xmental, inc.
Rene Perez/Calle 13 speaking at park rally in Williamsburg, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Poetry performance by Eric Aviles at park rally in Williamsburg, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Gathering outside El Puente Headquarters after park rally, by Marina Ortiz, VirtualBoricua.org
Gathering inside El Puente Headquarters after park rally, by Xmental, inc.