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Remember the Loizazo: Racial Violence and Police Brutality Against Afro-Puerto Ricans  

Remember the Loizazo: Racial Violence and Police Brutality Against Afro-Puerto Ricans  

By William Garcia

Señor policía recuerde lo de Loiza

Hablo del Cumpleaños convertido en noticia

No se hagan los locos muchos menos asombrado

Porque eso yo lo llamo un criminal uniformado

Baby Rasta Y Gringo

Imagine a black family in a predominantly black city celebrating a simple birthday amongst family members in an indoor facility called Centro Vacacional de la Unión Independiente Autentica (UIA). The sun is out. One can hear the laughter and joking while good vibes are in the air. It is a memorable moment for the birthday kid. Then all of a sudden a fight breaks out. The administrator of the (UIA) calls the police and summons the Fuerza de Choque (SWAT team). When the militarized cops arrive they relentlessly start swinging their clubs at the employees and everything that moves. The smell of burnt candles is replaced by the smell of blood and fear. While calling the cops seemed like the best option, it made things worse.

Two of the militarized cops, Javier Hernandez Velez and Luis E. Rivera Rojas were never convicted. That family is devastated and will never be the same. You’re probably wondering: “Did this nefarious racist act of violence occur in Baltimore? Ferguson, perhaps?” The answer is no. This racist and barbaric act happened in the city of Loiza in Puerto Rico on June 17, 2001. This mendacious historical act of racist hatred and ignorance is also known as the Loizazo. Over the past several years, Puerto Rico has refused to acknowledge the connection between police and racial violence against Afro-Puerto Ricans. An article “Alegan Racismo en Uniformada” published on November 92001 by Primera Hora a few months after the incident stated: “En Loiza en que agentes de la unidad de Operaciones Tácticas terminaron una fiesta de cumpleaños a macanazos también es muestra de la persecución contra los negros por parte de la policía según la ACLU”.

The Loizazo wasn’t just police violence; it was also a visceral racist attack against Afro-Puerto Ricans. Loiza, amongst other metropolitan cities that have black communities, has a history of lacking socio-economic mobility, drugs and mistrustful of the police because of police brutality and a lack of accountability. Loiza is regarded by most Puerto Ricans as an exceptional zone in Puerto Rico with exceptional blacks who withstood notions of “mestizaje”. Loiza often gets visited for its rich African music of bomba and plena and food while also being distanced from the population. Herb Boyd’s recent article “Are the Nation Cops Out of Control?” published by New York Amsterdam News (June 11, 2015) remarks:

Call it “bluemania”. That is, the excessive use of force by cops across the nation. And there’s no better evidence of these pervasive attacks on unarmed African Americans than Tuesday’s New York Times in which a full page is devoted to four major recent cases.

The Loizazo is simply a microcosm of a global problem of anti-blackness and racial violence. This is obviously not the way news in Puerto Rico documents police abuse and anti-black racial violence. In terms of law, the courts have ignored the imperative of civil justice for the Loizazo case. In 2007, the appeals court revoked the sentence that was imposed by Carolina’s trial court against two ex fuerza de choques police officers involved in the Loizazo: Luis Rivera Gómez and Warner O. Barahona Gaetán. The officers were sentenced to six years of probation due to weapons violation and aggravated assault but relieved of any justice. According to the appeals court: “No hubo, ni en los testimonios ni en la evidencia documental prueba suficiente para implicar a Barahona Gaetán y Rivera Gómez como los agresores”.

While the population forgot the Loizazo case and never mobilized a demand for justice against racism and police brutality, a central figure would take issue with this continued savagery. In 2002, the year after the Loizazo, Tego Calderon, an Afro-Puerto Rican considered one of the most successful hip-hop and reggaetón artist, had reached the limelight and made a hit with his album El Abayarde. Tego Calderon was amongst one of the first black artists in Puerto Rico to speak against the racial violence in Puerto Rico. Based on the albums release date, it is not unlikely that the Loizazo had an impact on his political views of blackness and Puerto Rican identity.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.16.42 PM
Tego Calderon’s album El Abayarde was originally released in 2002 through White Lion Records selling over 75,000 copies its first week between Puerto Rico and the United States. The album was released a year after the Loizazo attack that occurred in 2001.

Tego Calderon’s song “Loiza” was an aftermath of the Loizazo brutality that questioned the lack of solidarity for racial justice always ignored and in favor of other social issues such as Puerto Rico’s independence and the removal of the US Marines in the island of Vieques because of experimental bombings: “Todos con Vieques mi gente negra no padece o es que tu crees que se lo merecen”. Tego Calderon’s life experiences and witnessing of racial violence against Afro-Puerto Ricans influenced his understanding of oppressive realities and as a result interrogated the myth of racial trilogy that many Puerto Ricans love to cling to, while dancing to the sound of salsa, bomba, and plena. While everyone was dancing and singing to Tego Calderon’s songs, many skipped through the “Loiza” song the same way they skip through issues of racism and racial violence in our communities. Through their music, Tego Calderon and Don Omar, continue to create a black consciousness that is tied to their Puerto Rican identity expressed in their music with songs like “Chillin”, Robin Hood, and El Sitio. In this last song he expresses that all black people suffer the same racism regardless of the place, “las caras que sufren se parecen”.

Terrence Pitts argues that police abuse in Loiza is a persistent problem. A report from the ACLU reports that there has been and continues to be human rights violation at the hands of police and complaints by mainly black residents in Loiza. The recent acts of violence against Dominican residents in Villas del Sol in Toa Baja who were beaten and displaced from their homes is a reminder of what black bodies means in Puerto Rico: dispensable controlled bodies of exclusion. In the Youtube video, Brutalidad Policiaca en Loiza, shows the constant violence in Loiza synthesized with Baby Rasta and Gringo’s song which reveals the hypocrisy of society at large that has the habit of scapegoating reggaetón for the violence that occurs in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, In the documentary, “El Color de la justicia,” shows the constant racist violence that occurs in Loiza, Puerto Rico. A principal himself remarks on the cops harassing him and acting violently against him. This is clearly inconsistent with the false progressive belief of socio-economic mobility and whitening. The fantasy that economics makes you white has its limitations in a society that reminds that your color will always remain the same. Some Residents believe that having more cops around will actually help the community while others want more accountability. Jossiana Arroyo’s article “Por qué Ferguson” (2014) remarks:

En Puerto Rico no se estudia o se conoce muy poco la historia de la negritud y mulatismo cívico en todas sus vertientes políticas (radicales-obreros, autonomistas o pro-estadounidense) mientras que el miedo al otro alaba las virtudes de la “democracia racial” perpetua el privilegio blanco al dividir y jerarquizar el capital económico o los espacios sociales donde nos movemos.

Why is it that all we ever care to engage in is music? On May 24, 2015 in New York, the Loisaida Festivals were booming with people dancing and celebrating black music and the “cultural vitality” of Latino communities in the Lower East Side. While this is indeed something to be proud about I bet any attempt to discuss racism will result with an empty room. In Tato Laviera’s “Loisaida (Lower East Side) Streets: Latinas Sing” addresses the issue affecting bicultural women but also finishes the book which celebrates African Caribbean music. Addressing issues of racism in our communities is perhaps a better way to honor Tato Laviera. In his poem, ‘El Negrito’, he expresses his indignation of anti-black attitudes in our communities:

El Negrito vino a Nueva York

vio Milagros

en sus ojos

Su tía le pidió

Un abrazo y le dijo

No te juntes con los prietos, negrito

Even the Black Lives Matter movement is resonating in Latin American countries like Colombia while were dancing salsa and only use Black Lives Matter as a concept when it concerns ALL Latinos. The militarization of the police in Puerto Rico is very similar to the militarization of the police in the United States. Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.16.29 PM

Militarized police officer in beating up Betty Peña and her daughter Elisa Ramos in 2012 with a club in Puerto Rico: http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/policia-tribunales/nota/brutalidadpoliciacaratificada-661178/

In 2012 in Puerto Rico, Betty Peña ran to her daughter, Elisa Ramos, to protect her from getting beat up by the police. Because racism is never considered under the law or in peoples’ consciousness, those two innocent black women can’t demand racial justice. It’s obvious that there was a racial element to this act of police violence. In the article “Reclaman Acción por Crímenes de Brutalidad Policiaca,” (2014) the Dominican Commission for Human Rights criticized San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín-Cruz, for creating a commission for prevention against animal cruelty but not for people. It appears that dogs are more tantamount than black lives. Esteban Reyes, a member of the Dominican committee, stated: “Mientras hay policías de los suyos que golpean, persiguen y asesinan Dominicanos y eso nunca se ha investigado”. The recent murder of Jorge Luis Ortiz Jordán ,who was Afro-Puerto Rican married to an Afro-Dominican woman, accentuates how Afro-Puerto Ricans and Afro-Dominicans share a history of anti-black racial violence in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.16.51 PMAwilda Perez is holding her husband’s picture Jorge Luis Ortiz Jordán who became a widow when two agents Luis Hernandez Nieves, Carlos Román and Esteben Moreno killed Ortiz Jordán when he was outside unleashing his dog.

According to the article, Ortiz Jordan’s brothers recorded the whole thing but their phones were then snatched by the police officers and deleted the reccordings. His widowed, due to police brutality, alleges that a pistol was planted in his body because he claims he never had a handgun or was ever a “street thug”.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.16.57 PMRafael Rivera and another activist from Villa Cañona protesting police abuse http://pr.indymedia.org/news/2009/10/39477.php

Presently, all these horrendous crimes have something in common. Which is that they are based on the killings of marginalized black people and it never gets called for what it is: racism against black people. Why is it so hard to the say the word RACISM!!! Will it make some Puerto Ricans uncomfortable or cause trepidation? Absolutely. Should we care? Absolutely not. We shouldn’t view the extreme violence against African slaves and freed Blacks in Puerto Rico and more recent acts of racial violence as totally separate events, we should view it as an oppressive continuum. Before you scream “wepa” or “were all black inside because were all mixed” first consider Afro-Puerto Ricans and the importance of black lives.

We are not “kinesthetic” or “in the blood” we are here in the flesh and we say enough is enough. Either help us or stop playing salsa, bomba and plena, putting on Santeria beads, and eating food in Piñones. Anglo-Americans also love to “get boogie” to black music but went it comes down to addressing racial issues, gentrification, and inequality they are nowhere to be found. Most Puerto Ricans are the same way. Either address white supremacy and the existence of racial hierarchies or don’t talk about Puerto Rican blackness at all. A recent article published by Suset Laboy titled: “Honoring Afro-Puerto Ricans: P.R Parade Edition” (June 2015) prodigiously pays homage to many important Afro-Puerto Ricans who have been important intellectual and artistic figures that deserve admiration. Recognition of these illustrious figures is something that is much needed. However: What about the rest of the Afro-Puerto Ricans or Afro-Dominicans who weren’t bibliophiles and writers? It is to those that we have to pass the mic to. Why doesn’t this happen? Well, for starters, many of these alleged Afro-Puerto Rican initiatives are not even performed in collaboration with Afro-Puerto Ricans. Afro-Puerto Rican activist, scholar and co-founder of the AfroLatin@ Forum, Miriam Jimenez Román, remarks her experiences and thoughts about the Afro-Puerto Rican segment of the Puerto Rican Day Parade (June 2015):

Plenty of black folk among the throngs watching and marching at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, this year dedicated to the contributions of AfroBoricuas. BUT, not one of the TV announcers is black––at least not identifiably so. The Parade slogan, “One Nation, Many Voices” needs revising to “one nation, white voices”. And the next time we complain about about the lack of “Latin@s” in the dominant media, let’s also take issue with the lack of diversity in the Spanish-language outlets.

The lack of Afro-Puerto Ricans for these events and projects is probably because we have different agendas and issues to address that stem beyond visibility and music. Yes, I understand, it is easier to listen to a Tego Calderon song like “Loiza” or celebrate Santiago de Apóstol and ignore the conversation on white supremacy and racial hierarchies. It’s easier to get ‘Taino’ tattoos and claim that you got it because they where the “original” Puerto Ricans rather than getting an African tattoo because of our crazed obsession with mestizaje, racial hierarchies and foundational myths of the nation. Let’s not forget that mestizaje is a project of whiteness and because of this, it is not a stretch to discern that this is the reason racism has not decreased in our communities. White supremacy and racism are integrally linked. They are not artificial boundaries that can be isolated.

Before we push harder for the recognition of Afro-Puerto Ricans, we should all remember the Loizazo (June 17, 2001) and understand that what happens in Baltimore and Ferguson happens in Puerto Rico and other parts of the world. Where’s the talk on Puerto Ricans and white supremacy? The Loizazo and the Loisaida Festival deserve equal weight. If you’re not willing to speak to Latinos about white supremacy in our communities you should step down and stop making an academic career out of Afro-Latin@ struggles. Author of the book Racism Without Racists (2003) Eduardo Bonilla-Silva himself posited that although talk about racism is important: “But what is truly missing is a systematic analysis of the mechanisms and practices responsible for the systemic second-class positions of blacks in Puerto Rico”. Like Assata Shakur brilliantly states: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them”.

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William Garcia is an Afro-Nuyorican by way of Staten Island. He has a BA and a MA in History from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests are Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaeton in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican transnational migration. He is currently an MA student in Curriculum and Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @webdubois2014

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