Efrain Ortiz Jr. has questions about a “post” Osama Bin Laden world and what that might mean to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.
“They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken. ”
– Bobby Sands
“It took seven of them to break my jaw but the whole American empire could not break my spirit.”
– Rafael Cancel Miranda
On the surface, at first glance, Ireland and Puerto Rico don’t seem to have much in common except maybe that they are both islands. Scratch at that surface and take a deeper look and you will see two island nations locked in a struggle to extricate themselves from the grips of imperial adventurism that has lasted for hundreds of years. In the case of Ireland it has struggled to have a united autonomous nation against British imperialism. In the case of Puerto Rico it has had to struggle for it’s sovereignty with Spain for 400 years and continues to do so now with the US. Look even further into their histories and you’ll find a commonality and solidarity between these struggles.
Pedro Albizu Campos, the founder of the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico, was an ardent supporter of Irish independence when he attended Harvard. It was there that he met Eamon De Valera the Irish independence freedom fighter. When Eamon negotiated the Irish Free State Constitution in 1922 he called upon Albizu to be one of his advisors. The Irish struggle for independence was a great influence on Albizu who patterned many of his strategies for Puerto Rican independence after the Irish struggle.
Albizu spent many years in prison for his beliefs. In 1950 Albizu and 3,000 other independence advocates were arrested after an armed insurrection in the mountain town of Jayuya on October 30th and an attempted assassination of President Truman on November 1st. Albizu was sentenced to 80 years in prison but in 1953 the first Puerto Rican governor to administer the colonial affairs of the US on the island, Luis Muñoz Marin, pardoned him.
On March 1st of 1954 four Puerto Rican Nationalists, Irving Flores Rodriguez, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Raphael Cancel Miranda and Lolita Lebron bought one way train tickets from New York City to Washington DC. When they arrived in Washington DC they went to the visitor’s balcony of the House of Congress brandishing revolvers and firing shots into the House of Congress. Lolita Lebron yelled out “Free Puerto Rico” as she fired. Five Congressmen were wounded in the shooting and the four were captured and convicted of the attack.
As the leader of the Nationalist Party, Albizu’s pardon was revoked after the attack and he served another twenty years in prison before radiation experiments conducted on him in prison deteriorated his health to certain death. He was released in 1964 only to die a few months later in 1965. The four Nationalists who attacked the House Of Congress served 25 years before being pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. At the time Lolita Lebron was the longest held female political prisoner in the world.
Bobby Sands a member of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was in prison serving a 14 year sentence for firearms possession. It was not his first time in prison but it would be his last. In July of 1972 the Provisional IRA negotiated Special Category Status for those prisoners who were serving sentences in the British prison system for fighting for Irish independence. The Special Category Status essentially allowed those prisoners to have Prisoners Of War status as laid out in the Geneva Convention. Prisoner Of War status meant not having to wear prison uniforms, not having to do prison work, and being held in separate areas of from the general population of the prison. On March 1st of 1976 the British announced that they would took away Special Category Status to the Irish POW’s. In response to the announcement the Irish POW’s refused to wear prison uniforms and took to covering themselves with blankets in what became known as the “Blanket Protests”.
The Blanket Protests it seemed were not enough and so in 1981, Bobby Sands organized a hunger strike to reinstate Prisoner Of War status. He suggested that the other prisoners who would take part in the hunger strike stagger their start times so that their physical deterioration would last months and more attention would be raised on their plight. They had five demands.
- The right not to wear a prison uniform
- The right not to do prison work
- The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits
- The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week
- Full restoration of remission lost through the protest
On March 1st of 1981, twenty-six years to the day, of the attack on the House Of Congress, Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. The hunger strike of Bobby Sands catapulted the cause of Irish independence on to the world stage. On May 5th after 66 days of going without food, Bobby Sands died. He was 27.
On April 4th of 1980, 11 members of a clandestine Puerto Rican separatist group fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – Armed Forces Of National Liberation) were arrested in Evanston, Illinois. Among the charges they were charged with was the charge of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. Like the Irish Republicans the FALN took the position that they were Prisoners Of War. The FALN refused to participate in any way in their trials refusing to recognize the US government as having any jurisidiction over them.
The hunger strike of Bobby Sands was closely followed by the FALN and other supporters of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Bobby Sands hunger strike began while the FALN were in the midst of their trials. Among those arrested FALN members were Dylcia Pagan and Carmen Valentine who were serving sentences in state prison. When word reached them that Bobby Sands had died for his freedom on that May 5th of 1981 Dylcia Pagan and Carmen Valentine immediately organized a gathering in the prison to honor him. In keeping with the defiance and autonomy that both the Irish and Puerto Rican people have demonstrated in their struggles for freedom the gathering was organized without permission from prison authorities. Dylcia and Carmen gathered with other prisoners in a circle and they remembered the life of Bobby Sands.
Nine other Irish prisoners also died in the hunger strike that Bobby Sands organized. Their names were Francis Hughes 59 days, Raymond Mc Creesh 61 days, Patsy O’Hara 61 days, Joe McDonnell 61 days, Martin Hurson 46 days, Kevin Lynch 71 days, Kieran Doherty 73 days, Thomas McElwell 62 days, Michael Devine 60 days. Officially it was said that they died of bodily starvation but unofficially many will tell you that it was a spiritual starvation for freedom that killed them…
¡Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
Erin Go Bragh!
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”
– George Orwell
With the reported discovery, attempted capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden being announced last night questions that have been lingering in the shadows since the terrorist attacks on the US on 9/11/2001 have stepped into the light. Questions like what lead to the US 9/11 attacks. The exploration of those questions leads to questions of American foreign policy and hegemony. Those questions lead to who and how are the terms “terrorism” and “terrorists” reshaped and to whose benefit. Those questions open up a new round of examination and each level of inquiry seems to only lead further down the rabbit hole.
i was living in Harlem when the attacks took place. i watched the television news cameras trained to the aftermath of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and thought it to be a horrible accident. When the second plane hit it became clear that this was an attack of epic proportions. Whoever planned this knew that with the first plane hitting there would speculation as to what happened, judgement would be withheld on whether or not it was an attack or an accident. In the process of trying to figure out what happened, every available camera would be trained on the World Trade Center and when that second plane hit all the hope of a horrible accident would be drained from us and there would be no doubt that this was an attack. The second plane hitting the World Trade Center just a few minutes after the first would change the world. In the moment that second plane hit the US would experience the fear, vulnerability and insecurity that the US has not felt since it announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to the European powers and backed up with its imperial adventure in 1898 with the Spanish-American War.
In the years following those attacks i struggled with the questions of defining “terrorism” and “terrorists” and how those terms are defined and by who and to what benefit. This is the question that you chase into the rabbit hole. It was something that would not leave me alone because these were terms that i was already wrestling with in terms of the way US political prisoners and prisoners of war (PP & POW) are treated. People like Oscar Lopez Rivera, Russell Maroon Schoatz, Leonard Peltier, Sundiata Acoli, Herman Bell, Marshall Eddie Conway and David Gilbert, who had decided that they couldn’t stand by and allow US hegemony to exercise its will over Puerto Rican, African-American and Native American Peoples. They stood up in defiance to US empire within its own “borders” and in doing so their actions were often labeled as “terrorism” and they were often labeled as “terrorists”. With this recent terrorist attack on the US how did these words “terrorism” and “terrorist” change?
Within the zeitgeist of 1970 – 1980 the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” didn’t hold the same kind of weight that they do in a post US 9/11 world. The US government and corporate media had refined and redefined “terrorism” and “terrorist” to now encompass anyone who disagreed with the American empire. The US was drawing a line in the sand and it couldn’t be more clear than when President Bush declared “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. The US government and the corporate media had now found a way to compress all dissent to American Empire by expanding the definition of “terrorism” and “terrorists”. As an added bonus this new refinement of the definition of “terrorism” and “terrorist” now seemed to remove any doubt that the actions that US PP & POW’s were accused of, convicted of and were serving incredibly long sentences for, were anything but terrorist actions and that they couldn’t be anything but terrorists.
In the days, weeks, months and years following those attacks the supporters of members of the Black Liberation Army, Weather Underground, American Indian Movement and Puerto Rican separatists groups languishing for three and four decades in the US now had to fight to keep them from being categorized in this new expanded definition of “terrorism” and terrorist”. We were saddled with the responsibility of having to explain that they were not terrorist’s, because their actions were not acts of terrorism. They were freedom fighters who fought against US oppression.
This issue of “grandfathering” in US PP & POW’s was one that led me to the writing of my film MACHETERO. It was this expansion of the terminology of “terrorism” and “terrorist” in the post US 9/11 attacks that inspired me to make a clear delineation that would exclude US PP & POW’s from the new “terrorism” and the new “terrorist” definition. The film takes a stand against including US PP & POW’s within this all-encompassing and ever-expanding terminology. In trying to get people to think about how and who defines these terms i needed to stay away from the US 9/11 attacks because they were so polarizing so i used a different approach to begin a dialogue that would get people to think outside of the parameters that were being defined within this post US 9/11 zeitgeist.
The issue of US imperialism in Puerto Rico is an issue that unfortunately most people don’t know about. Oddly enough it was the fact that many people didn’t know about the colonial relationship that the US has with Puerto Rico that allowed me to bring up the issues of how and who defines “terrorism” and “terrorist” in a kind of hermetically sealed bubble that could possibly circumvent post US 9/11 polarization.
Now the issues of terrorism and terrorist are on the minds of many once again and so i invite you to explore some of these issues through the prism of my film MACHETERO. Although the film has not yet been released on DVD. There is plenty to entice your thoughts on theses issue on the MACHETERO website, Facebook Page, YouTube clips and reviews from film festivals to get the wheels turning until the film is released later this year.
Check out the film’s trailer…
MACHETERO Mailing List (Join and get a free signed 24″x36″ Poster)
Our strength is greater than we imagine… These few who benefit so much from us, they strut and posture threat… The only real threat to us is the nightmare, dressed as a dream, dangled before us with their mantra… “One day you too will be one of us… the few, the wealthy, the powerful…”
The only threat to us is the one that we have willing accepted from the few who benefit from the many… If we only realized that we are too many to be threatened we could turn the world upside down and bring it right side up…
Our hubris blinds us and binds us… We think we are the masters of the world, while birds sing songs of freedom and flowers scream their beauty from between crevices in concrete and rain fertilizes the imagination of soil… We think we are so free in our superiority… unaware that there’s freedom for the taking…
“People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.”
– Oscar Wilde
i was born in Kings County NYC otherwise known as the Peoples Republic of Brooklyn NYC to a Jamaican father and a Puerto Rican mother. When i was two my parents bought a small two bedroom house in Cambria Heights Queens. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my mothers side still lived in Brooklyn and so i spent a lot of time between the boroughs of Kings and Queens. At 11 we moved again, this time to Jamaica Queens. It was around this time that i fell in love with comic books and started to take drawing seriously. i wanted to be a comic book artist. At 12 i took a test to get into a specialized High School in NYC, the High School Of Music & Art and got in.
When people ask me where i grew up i tell them i grew up in three out of the five boroughs of NYC, i was raised by Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The High School Of Music & Art was in Manhattan and at the tender age of 13 i took the subway from 179th Street in Jamaica Queens to 135th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem. It was 1982 and NYC was a very different place then. The city had been falling apart for years. City blocks were pock marked with abandon buildings and open lots. The paint on riveted steel elevated train track peeled as rust crept across the surface. Chunks of pavement from bridges crumbled and dropped into the East River. Strange liquids dripped from pipes coagulating in thick puddles on subway platforms. Landlords burned down apartment buildings, warehouses and factories for insurance money. The city went around marking the remains of those hulking shells with a boxed “X” as a symbol of condemnation. You could smell the city decaying around you. The disintegration was visceral it rubbed up against you even as you tried to avoid it.
The seeds of this collapse were sown in the 70’s with the bankruptcy of the city. In a last ditch effort in 1975 NYC looked to the Federal government for a bail out. President Ford at the time refused to do it prompting the infamous NY Daily News headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. In the aftermath of Ford’s refusal to help, and as the ink dried on the obituaries that were being written for NYC a chaotic and violent rebirth outside of financial concerns was taking place…
The idealism of the 60’s had given way to the militancy of the 70’s. The state responded to this militancy with the assassinations and the imprisonment of militants and radicals. The 80’s became a reactionist void of the previous twenty years. These assassinations and imprisonments were a warning and as the decade of the 80’s turned, radicals became reformers and agitators became activists. As the politics failed people turned to culture.
Hip-hop in NYC was a response and a reaction of Black and Puerto Rican youth left in the void of the failed promises of 60’s idealism and 70’s militancy. In the remaining oxygen of that void the frustration of it all creates a friction that lights a spark and from that ignition the phoenix of Hip-hop rose. While the powers that be did their best to forget the suffering masses that clamored for change, a new cultural resistance was taking shape. With the city broke the first casualties of the financial crisis were, of course, poor and working class Black and Puerto Rican families. Hip-hop was the response that Black and Puerto Rican youth developed to keep from being ignored. It was the rallying cry that existed, not as a means of being recognized by the outside world, but as a means of defining themselves within the void.
NYC in the 70’s and 80’s was a dangerous place but like most dangerous places it had a shifting set of complex customs that teetered on the precipice of becoming street law. These malleable street laws moved with a fluidity to a kind of off time rhythm. If you kept your eyes and ears open, you could sense the changes coming and you could ride the rhythm, you could figure out how to navigate the danger and you could apply the corresponding customs that would lead you to safety. There were certain neighborhoods in NYC that were for all intents and purposes were stateless. Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, East New York, Harlem, Loisiada, El Barrio, Washington Heights, Jamaica were like these pockets of stateless territories. Nobody trusted the police and people would call a cab before they called an ambulance. The state had affectively cut off whole communities and left them to their own devices…
This isolation and poverty of the ghettos of NYC gave way to innovation and creativity. An autonomy developed in these blighted areas that refused to remain confined to the ghetto. The black out in the summer of 1977 created an opportunity for many a ghetto youth to liberate two turntables and a microphone, as well as a mixer, a PA system and a bunch of records. Graffiti artist created flyers for illegal park jams that stole electricity from street lights to power turntables and sound systems. The modern day graffiti explosion that left shrapnel on trains, buses, trucks and walls as reminder of who and what was left behind. It was a reminder both to those that who had grown out of their idealism and grown away from their militancy as well as those who wanted to further exile these problem communities, so that they could forget. B-Boys and B-girls took over street corner plaza train stations with cardboard mats or stolen pieces of linoleum flooring to break dance. Boomboxes went off on street corner park subway stations like portable protracted explosions.
NYC in the 80’s is where i grew up. The Nuyorican Poets had already rican-structed and rican-figured the written and spoken word and The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron smacked Hip-Hop in the ass in order to get it to takes it first breath. That cry was heard in the “outer” boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and in the “inner” borough of Money Makin’ Manhattan, Hip-hop was spreading to epidemic proportions. While the downtown Punk scene looked to Jazz and experimental music to lead it into a new form called No Wave, i opened my eyes to the possibilities. While the nouveau riche Wall Street money flooded the New York art scene making it possible for artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat to go from scrawling cryptic poetry in doorways to selling canvases at the Mary Boone Gallery in Soho, i was absorbing the vibe that anything could happen in New York Shitty…
This was the NYC i grew up in. This was the current of electricity that ran through my formative years. Looking back on it now NYC seemed stateless to me. No one called the police in NYC because the police were trusted less than the criminals. With the criminals you knew what you were getting with the cops it could go either way… In a strange way it was like living in a Dickens novel… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Between the art that people were living and the stateless state of NYC the seeds of anarchism were being sown.
Growing up in the NYC of Mayors Beame, Koch and Dinkins was like growing up in an autonomous playground. This city fostered anti-authoritarian thinking because you could only count on yourself, your family, your friends and your neighbors. The state was not something you looked to. It forced independence on you and the community around you. The reason Frank knew that you if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere was because in NYC you made your own rules, your made your own way. To reference Frank again, NYC is the reason Sid covered ‘My Way’. When i look back on it now it was the old school NYC that shaped me into anarchism. It was the artistic creative turbulence of those times that fertilized my antiauthoritarianism. It was the chaos of my youth that made me the anarchist i am today.