Hunts Point chosen as protest site for history of Boricua activism
Chanting both in English and Spanish, several dozen women from the network 34 Mujeres NYC x Oscar gathered at Hunts Point Plaza on Sunday to demand the release of Puerto Rican prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera.
“Mujeres, mujeres, mujeres por Oscar! Un patriota encarcelado que tenemos que sacar,” the women shouted in Spanish, as they started the demonstration. “Women, women, women for Oscar! We must free our jailed compatriot.”
A few bystanders clapped in unison with the chants, while yelling “Oscar!” clearly agreeing with the message from the demonstrators.
A Puerto Rican nationalist, Rivera, who is now 72, was raised in Chicago and spent his early adult life as a community organizer, helping found a Puerto Rican cultural center and a public high school. His connections to the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), the Marxist paramilitary organization that sought to make Puerto Rico independent in the 1970s, led to his arrest and conviction in federal court for seditious conspiracy in 1981.
The organization was involved in dozens of bombings in New York and Chicago, including one in lower Manhattan in 1975 that killed four people. Rivera’s arrest came after police discovered an unoccupied apartment in Chicago, owned by Rivera, his wife and two others, that police called a bomb factory. After its discovery, Rivera and his wife fled, and he was apprehended several year later.
Initially, he was convicted and sentenced to 55 years, but was sentenced to an additional 15 years for plotting a prison escape in 1988. At the request of family and friends, Rivera applied for parole in 2011, but was denied. Rivera now holds the status of the longest held Puerto Rican political prisoner.
34 Mujeres NYC x Oscar is an offshoot of a group started in Puerto Rico to secure Rivera’s release. Using social media to communicate within their network, the women have been meeting the last Sunday of every month in a different location around the city since the beginning of 2014 to protest Rivera’s incarceration.
Co-founder Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan explained that the group’s purpose is to bring what it regards as the unjust imprisonment of Rivera to different communities around New York and increase awareness as well as hopefully drum up support. For this month, Hunts Point was selected because of the long history of Puerto Rican activism here.
“Oscar should not be in prison this long because of his political beliefs and ideologies,” said Bannan. “I am here to help visualize his struggle.”
Other local groups joined the protest as well.
“We are here today in solidarity with the women who seek liberty for Oscar Rivera,” said Edwin Figueroa, a representative of South Bronx Community Congress.
Ramon Jimenez, a Bronx based lawyer, poet, activist and 2014 Green Party candidate for New York State Attorney General, said he read all the legal documents involving Rivera’s case. In a controversial decision, President Clinton granted clemency to 16 FALN members in 1999, on the condition that they renounce violence. Rivera and one other rejected the offer. Jimenez suggests Rivera’s decision to stay in prison was based on principle.
“He would not agree to being given clemency when some of the others were not given the same condition as to freedom,” Jimenez explained.
The demonstration started at 4 pm and ended at 4:34 pm to acknowledge the 34 years Rivera has been in prison.
The women also collected petition signatures from supporters and passersby, both on foot and by car. The petition is a part of a national campaign aimed to reach the White House, the National Boricua Human Rights Network.
“We will continue to have a rally until Oscar is released,” said Bannan, who added that the group rallies no matter the weather. “To reach the White House, we need 100,000 signatures.”
Near the closing of the gathering, the women sang “La Borinqueña,” the official anthem of Puerto Rico since it was declared a commonwealth of the United States in 1952. Co-founder Melissa Montero then handed a plaque to Jimenez, who she says has helped them by constantly showing up to their gatherings and assisting them whenever they encounter police officers. Jimenez was in tears as he accepted his award.
In his speech, he thanked the women of 34 Mujeres for the work they have been doing and will continue to do, and expressed his hopes that the group could be successful in the next year. Montero said the group’s next target location will be Times Square.
“I believe the amount of pressure being put on by the Puerto Rican community, there’s a good chance that perhaps towards the very end of his administration, Obama will free Oscar Rivera,” said Jimenez.