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tear gas

Police in Puerto Rico use tear gas on a May Day protester on May 1, 2018. (Photo: @JessedHagopian/Twitter)

Police Unleash 'Brutal Attacks' on Austerity Protesters in Storm-Ravaged Puerto Rico

While "inhumane and strikingly antidemocratic" budget cuts are imposed on the U.S. territory, outrage after law enforcement used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up May Day demonstrations

Jessica Corbett

Police in Puerto Rico deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets to shut down May Day protests as thousands of people took to the streets of the U.S. territory, which is still battling the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria—and a debt crisis that preceded the storm.

While people worldwide demonstrated Tuesday to demand improved labor conditions on International Workers Day, Puerto Ricans also turned out to protest the Trump administration's failed response to the humanitarian crisis that followed the hurricane as well as austerity measures imposed by the federal government both before and after the storm struck last September.

Journalist Naomi Klein has written and spoken at length about how the island's current crisis has been used push a "radical corporate agenda." On Twitter, she decried the "brutal attacks on Puerto Rico's teachers and students yesterday as they resisted disaster capitalism."

"They sent over 1,000 police to intimidate the protest. People are hurt and in the hospital. It was brutal. They chased students to their homes, entered without warrants, and arrested them. This is the class struggle."
Mercedes Martinez, Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico

Klein pointed to protest coverage by Jesse Hagopian, who collected photos and videos from teachers and community members who "went out on strike against mass school closures, layoffs, and the school privatization." Puerto Rico's Education Department provoked outrage last month when it unveiled plans to close nearly a third of the island's public schools.

Mercedes Martinez, the president of Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, told Hagopian on Tuesday that law enforcement's response to the demonstrations was "brutal."

"Today was a day of pure struggle," she said. "I just got home from going to the police stations to check on our people. They sent over 1,000 police to intimidate the protest. People are hurt and in the hospital. It was brutal. They chased students to their homes, entered without warrants, and arrested them. This is the class struggle."

Despite the violence, the mass protests garnered minimal attention from the U.S. corporate media, as journalist John Nichols noted on Twitter:

Writing for The Nation about the protests, the federal government's "brutal austerity" agenda, and Sen. Bernie Sanders' proposed alternative path, Nichols detailed the "inhumane and strikingly antidemocratic" moves that drove many Puerto Ricans to the streets on Tuesday. He writes:

Established in 2016 after enthusiastic lobbying by House Speaker Paul Ryan and his cronies on Wall Street and in Washington, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico was designed to address a debt crisis by overruling local democracy. And it is doing just that. This month, the board moved to cut pensions that sustain families across the islands, which were ravaged by hurricanes and tropical storms in 2017; to force the consolidation of agencies that are essential to rebuilding Puerto Rico; to reduce sick leave and vacation pay for the public workers who struggled to maintain civil society; to slash aid to Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities; and to cut funding for its largest public university.

Jocelyn Velázquez from the collective Promises Are Over, which organized one of Tuesday's marches in San Juan, the island's capital, listed some of the protesters' demands in an interview with Democracy Now! on Wednesday.

"We are demanding the repeal of the PROMESA Act," she declared, referring to the legislation that established the oversight board. "We demand eliminating the fiscal control board.

"We demand the creation of a democratic and participatory process to audit the debt, where we know in what the money was wasted on and how it was wasted, and, from there, begin to find a system that identifies what part of the debt is legal and what part is illegal," Velázquez added. "Then, the debt that is illegal needs to be removed, so that we can identify a plan to reconstruct the country and regain our economy."


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