On May Day in 2018, Puerto Rican citizens marched the streets of their capital city San Juan to protest the closure of schools and the implementation of a new austerity plan that puts strain on the archipelago’s most vulnerable populations. Protesters were met with a violent police reaction, including the firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
Days before this year’s May Day rallies in San Juan, a coalition of grassroots groups led by Decolonize This Place dedicated the sixth installment of their Nine Weeks of Art and Action at the Whitney Museum to the plight of Puerto Ricans.
The same Safariland branded tear gas used at the US-Mexico border, Ferguson, Baltimore, North Dakota, the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Kashmir, and several other conflict zones, was used against protesters in Puerto Rico, the activists say. Safariland Group is a global defense manufacturer owned by Warren B. Kanders, a vice chair on the Whitney’s board of trustees. As in past weeks, the activists called for the removal of Kanders from the museum’s board, but for the first time, they also carried banners demanding the ousting of the Whitney’s director Adam Weinberg.
New banners also called upon Chairman Emeritus of the Whitney board Leonard Lauder and Chairman of the Executive Committee Robert J. Hurst to interfere in the crises.
Members of the Puerto Rican activist group Comité Boricua En La Diaspora, who choreographed the event, delivered on their promise to hold a party at the Whitney. The museum’s lobby was transformed into a dance floor as Puerto Rican club hits blasted from a loudspeaker. Several protestors donned masks to protect their identities from law enforcement cameras, and most of the speakers in the event refrained from disclosing their full names.
“I come from a colonized land. I don’t have a nation. It was stripped away from me by force,” said Andres Rodriguez, an organizer with Comité Boricua, in a speech delivered in Spanish. “As a Puerto Rican, I don’t have power over myself. I don’t have power of my land,” he said.
Rodriguez spoke about The Financial Oversight and Management Board, a body formed by Congress in 2016 to reconstruct the archipelago’s $72 billion public debt. “They have full control over Puerto Rico’s economy and transportation,” Rodriguez said. “Out of elitism and privilege, they close our schools, overprice our university studies, drive our doctors out of the country to find work elsewhere, and force patients to travel long distances to get treatment.”
Shortly into Rodriguez’s address, a small group of museumgoers was heard complaining to staffers about the noisiness of the protest, which only drew a louder response by the protestors.
Two of the perturbed visitors shared their feelings with Hyperallergic. “I feel disgusted and threatened,” said Deane, a former corporate executive. Her friend Gail, a retired educator, interjected, “I do feel threatened because if I were to yell anything contradictory to what [the protestors] are saying, they’d be up in my face. It’s scary.”
“The Whitney is not a public institution, we have to pay to get in here,” added Deane. “I don’t come in here to listen to propaganda. I come in here to look at artwork. This is not artwork,” she said. Regarding the subject of the protest, Deane said, “I don’t really care. If they want independence, go become independent. It’s not my problem.” The two women remained present at the lobby through the entirety of the protest and voiced their concerns to different museum workers.
Timothy, a member of Comité Boricua, paid tribute to political prisoners in Puerto Rico including Nina Alejandra Droz Franco, Ana Belén Montes, and Noel Cruz Torres. “We are all held captive by the United States government. We are all political prisoners,” he said.
According to the ACLU chapter in Puerto Rico, police officers disproportionately used violence against demonstrators, reporters, and legal observers during the last year’s May Day protests, and continued with “warrantless arrests of protesters in their homes and university dorms.” Ahead of the May Day protests next week, the local police announced that its preparations for the rallies do not include any changes to what they did last year.
“Borinquen was under violence since 1492. We were passed from one colonizer to the next. We suffered from sterilization and exploitation of our land and our people,” a member of the Bronx-based group Hydropunk said. Activist Hamez Barbosa described the history between the United States’s and Puerto Rico as an “abusive relationship.” Barbosa also asked to reject claims that Puerto Ricans are responsible for the crippling debt that their local government fell into.
“To be Puerto Rican means to be a warrior. We’re in this war, whether we asked to be in it or not. We want our peace. That’s why we are here,” said another protester after speaking about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the 1960s and the “disproportionate” drafting of Boricuas in American wars. “The Whitney is being funded by the war waged on our homeland,” he said.
“Does [American] captainship mean being abandoned after Hurricane Maria?” Andres Rodriguez added, “Citizenship is the whitewashing of our colonial realty.”
“I’m sure the Whitney will make a documentary about us in 20 years,” said an artist who preferred to remain anonymous. “There’s a real big issue when it comes to art and gentrification, displacement, and whiteness,” she added. “You [artists] want to be with the people of New York when you move in here, but you’re displacing us at the same time. You want to be with the Black, brown and Indigenous people of New York, but you laugh at us when we tell you that we can’t survive.”
“We’ve been coming here for six consecutive weeks. At this point, I’m not sure if the staff loves or hates us anymore,” said Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx. “We are only following your lead,” she said to staffers, referencing the public letter that was signed by more than 100 of their peers. “We don’t want to put you in a place where have to jeopardize yourself, but we are suggesting that you use the momentum from this as leverage. We are doing the heavy lifting here. Push on your end,” Rodriguez pleaded.
To close the night, the protesters broke into a final dance with their banners in their hands.