Puerto Ricans Haven’t Stopped Organizing After Last Year’s Uprising

One year after Puerto Ricans ousted their governor in mass protests, the long-standing structures of political and economic oppression remain in place on the island. But the uprising proved the power of collective action — and Puerto Ricans have become more resolved to build democracy from below and challenge their colonial status.

Demonstrators walk down the Las Americas Expressway, the biggest highway in Puerto Rico as part of a massive march on July 22, 2019 in San Juan. (Angel Valentin / Getty Images)

Last summer, hundreds of thousands of people mobilized in Puerto Rico to oust Governor Ricardo Rosselló. For a moment, as Rosselló bowed to popular pressure and stepped down, far-reaching social and political change seemed within reach.

A year later, much remains the same.

But while corruption, disaster mismanagement, and the ruling party’s policy agenda have stayed constant, the 2019 summer uprising changed Puerto Ricans and their political imagination. It made clear the power of collective action.

The main lesson from the 2019 Puerto Rico protests is that mainstream politicians can come and go, but the structures that keep people from living a dignified life remain in place. Movements must take aim at these structures, rather than just the personalities that symbolize them, if they are to bring about lasting social change. Our indignation must be the fuel that propels broader transformative struggles.

The Protests

July 22, 2019. It was a hot and humid summer morning in Puerto Rico. Indignation had boiled over after Governor Rosselló’s Telegram chat revealed the unscrupulous inner workings of his administration. Calls to remove him from office dominated the airwaves and social media.

Popular anger was already high over the mishandling of the Hurricane María recovery, government neglect of the crisis of gender-based violence, various corruption cases, and the administration’s reliance on the blunt instrument of austerity in the face of economic crisis. The leaked Telegram chat was the last straw.

For months and years, movement organizations had the laid groundwork for an uprising. Groups like the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción had developed a script for ousting seemingly untouchable politicians, ending the political careers of powerful mayors facing sexual assault charges. They combined sit-ins and occupations with social media campaigns, news appearances, advocacy, assemblies, parties, and coalition building.

But no one expected the explosive magnitude of the #RickyRenuncia protests.

Ordinary citizens purchased gas masks, shared contact information for free legal assistance and childcare, changed their plans so they could attend a demonstration. They wrote protest chants, prepared signs, offered free rides to Old San Juan. Residents and business owners offered their houses and stores as refuge for protesters.

Later that day, the air became hard to breathe. Clouds of tear gas shrouded the historic Old San Juan islet, as the police unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets, and clubs. Exhaustion set in. The mass of protesters began their retreat. The Battle of San Juan seemed all but lost.

But then — reinforcements. Those of us in the diaspora held our mobile devices in shock as local Puerto Rico news outlets reported something that no one in our lifetimes had witnessed. Aerial images showed a tidal wave of motorcycle headlights speeding to Old San Juan. On their way, the mass of scooters and motorcycles stopped by multiple housing projects in the San Juan metropolitan region, calling more to join their legion.

As the mass of demonstrators retreated from the tear-gas-ridden streets surrounding the governor’s mansion, the wave of motorcyclists flew by police barricades. Their arrival was a breath of fresh air that protestors gasped amid the toxic cloud engulfing Old San Juan. Protesters cheered as this motorized unit of protestors joined their ranks.

That night, as protesters retook Old San Juan from riot police, it became apparent that Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s well-designed political career was coming to a screeching halt.

What has Changed?

Ever since Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans have reimagined their futures. They have resisted Trump’s depiction of them as helpless victims, insisting that the United States treat the island not as a colony but a body politic deserving of self-determination. They have also developed networks to distribute basic supplies among disaster and economic crisis-embattled communities, and then mobilized these same networks to join last year’s protests.

Upon ousting Rosselló, Puerto Ricans became more resolved to build democracy from below through mutual assistance projects, community assemblies, and new and renewed organizing. Participants of last summer’s protests are now involved in campaigns to defend public pensions, demand a just response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and act in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Discontent with long-standing political parties has grown. The ballot box is getting too small to hold the dreams of a changed Puerto Rican electorate. The colony’s electoral system is literally and metaphorically out of ballots.

Puerto Ricans no longer dwell upon the age-old quandary first voiced by the revolutionary Ramón Emeterio Betances: Why don’t Puerto Ricans rebel? The 2019 summer uprising made it evident that rebellion is possible. The questions now become: rebellion for what, for whom, and by what means?

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Fernando Tormos-Aponte is an assistant professor of public policy and political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a Kendall Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Political Science. He is from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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