ER '20

¿Cuanto más vamos a aguantar?

Puerto Rico has had enough of harsh U.S. policing practices.
By Lex Chilson

Lex Chilson (BFAW 2023) is a poet, filmmaker, and journalist hailing from the North Side of Chicago. You can find her trying not to fall asleep on the Red Line most mornings.

Illustration by Justine Guzman

The poison of police brutality has woven itself into Puerto Rico’s foundation. A systematic force built from colonial slave patrols is bound to raise concern for residents in America’s ‘last colony.’ The cobblestone streets on the island are just as American as your neighborhood pavement; and with that, so are the police. It is the same fight separated by 1,000 miles of water. The pain of residents on the island reflects the same concerns raised by residents on the mainland of America — we are both suffering from an unjust system defending the elite state and capital over the power of the people. 

Now, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) is the U.S.’s second-largest police force, and arguably the worst. With a history full of unlawful shootings, corruption, and impunity, islanders now refer to cops as puercos, meaning ‘dirty pigs.’

The plague of police brutality is nothing new. The killing of Afro-Latina woman Villanueva Osorio, a 34-year-old mother of six, dates back to February 6th, 1980. It is one of the island’s first documented stories of police brutality and has become a story passed down in families as a warning against the police. The story of Osorio and her family is told orally by those living in Loíza, with versions slightly varying. Despite a lack of public coverage, Osorio’s story has become a symbol of property ownership and the potential dangers of authority revoking your land. 

Sixteen Puerto Rican police officers and six sheriffs stormed Osorio’s family’s land and shot her to death over a land eviction. The PRPD pursued this eviction in order to save the plot of land for a Catholic cardinal’s summer home. The police terrorized her children, her husband, and then murdered her. No one was ever prosecuted, and the land owned by Osorio’s family for over a century was lost. 

Loíza is the heart of the island’s Afro-Caribbean community. The area is rich with indigenous Taino and Black history, and because of this influence, land in Loíza is passed down generation through generation. The land Osorio and her family resided on was rich with ancestral history, and now lies blank while condominium complexes tower above. The unlawful killing of Villanueva Osorio directly violates the cultural values and practices of Puerto Ricans and resulted in a community uprising against injustice.

And like both current and historical experiences with unjust police, the murder of Villanueva Osorio does not stand alone in its relevance. Amid recent protests over the murder of George Floyd, Loiza became one of the first Latin American cities to join the Black Lives Matter movement. The killings of Puerto Rican people do not attract much attention off the island, but the collective trauma and pain echo those of the mainland. Miguel Cáceres Cruz, a 43-year-old and father of three, was also murdered by PRPD in 2007. The PRPD targets any marginalized group on the island: low-income individuals, women, Dominicans, and Afro-Latinx people.

PRPD’s corruption is no secret; the Department of Justice released an investigation documenting problems in 2011. It reveals the use of excessive force, discrimination policies against Dominicans, civil rights violations, charges of theft, extortion, trafficking of drugs, bribe acceptance, and a lack of investigation in sex and domestic violence crimes. The following year, the ACLU released a report concluding that the PRPD is unjust and corrupt. Hundreds of PRPD officers have been arrested, equaling roughly ten percent of its total force. Despite the U.S. Justice Department and the Puerto Rican government entering a legally binding consent decree, little has changed.

When the Black and brown voices of America critique and call out this system, white Americans often call for ‘action’ at the polls. However, millions of Black Americans are ineligible to vote due to felony convictions. Voter ID laws and the hidden presence of police quotas only exacerbate this system. But these numbers don’t even include the predominantly Black and brown population of Puerto Rico. Despite having citizenship, the island’s three million people cannot vote in presidential elections. They have no senators and only one congressional representative, who has limited voting power. 

The loss of autonomy of this island’s citizens has fueled a racist police system. Once colonized by Spain only to be immediately swept under U.S. control,  Puerto Rico is a victim of a system that values the exploitation of its citizens, ecosystem, labor, and land. The slave patrols of 1800s Puerto Rico continue their colonialist legacy as police officers. 

The objective of these patrols focused on chasing down as many runaway slaves possible, deterring revolts, disciplining, and apprehending slave workers. In the mainland states, following abolition, these patrols evolved to police forces that enforced Jim Crow segregation laws. Years later, the systematic racism and inequality of America is still raging.

The killings of Puerto Rican people do not attract much attention off the island, but the collective trauma and pain echo those on the mainland.

For many, the modern police system represents the pervasive inequality within the justice system. The millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are predominantly people of color and are 100 percent excluded from any political or voting representation. The Insular Cases of the early 1900s were a series of Supreme Court decisions that denied constitutional protections and rights for American territories. Downes v. Bidwell served as a moment for the court to justify unequal constitutional guarantees for an island  “inhabited by alien races,” claiming that governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” A racist series of court cases is preventing Puerto Ricans from changing a racist police system over a hundred years later. 

Citizens in Puerto Rico are often left unheard on a number of issues directly impacting them: COVID-19, natural disasters, healthcare, education — police brutality is not left out of this list. The voices of Puerto Ricans shriek the same cries as overlooked citizens on the mainland fighting against racial inequality and police brutality. They are silenced, ignored, and often left out of the conversation. It is the same fight separated by 1,000 miles, the Atlantic ocean, and constitutional rights — but the policing system’s corruption persists. 

The seeds of racist policing are sewn into the groundwork of America and its colonies, and until we uproot this evil, the American police system does not serve to protect all of its citizens. f

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