By Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: May 21, 2012 - The Final Call¡Libertad Para Oscar López Rivera! Free Oscar López Rivera!
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) - Free Oscar López Rivera! That is the cry from supporters of the longest imprisoned freedom fighter for Puerto Rican independence. To make their point, friends and family of Mr. López Rivera along with community activists have sentenced themselves to “jail.”
His supporters said the continued imprisonment is unjust and starting April 29, 31 activists each began spending one day in a makeshift storefront prison cell with “guard” posted outside.
“All the campaign is saying is 31 years is a horrendous, disproportionate sentence for this man to have served when you have rapists, prisoners, pedophiles getting out in 12 to 15 years,” said Alejandro Luis Molina of the National Boricua Human Rights Network that along with Batey Urbano and Latin@Coalition are coordinating the exhibit and fighting on behalf of Mr. López Rivera.
Many Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and Puerto Rico view Mr. López Rivera, a Vietnam Veteran as a hero and servant of his people.
Mr. López Rivera was well-known as a community activist in Chicago, helping to fund a halfway house for convicted drug addicts, founder of a high school, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and other programs.
A vocal advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico, the U.S. government accused Mr. López Rivera and others of being behind a series of bombings in the 1970s in Chicago and New York, resulting in five deaths. Mr. López Rivera and the others were accused of belonging to Fuezas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), described as a Puerto Rican nationalist group. The group was accused of trying to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico.
However, according to reports, during his trial, Mr. López Rivera was not linked to specific bombings. Offered conditional clemency by then President Bill Clinton in 1999, Mr. López Rivera rejected the offer because it did not include two other political prisoners. His sister Zenaida reportedly said on parole Mr. López Rivera said he would be “in prison outside of prison.”
Shuffled around to several prisons around the country he is currently confined in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where he has been the past eight years and has a scheduled release date of July 27, 2027. Mr. López Rivera has had a perfect disciplinary record, although he spent a dozen years in solitary confinement his supporters point out.
The idea for the exhibit began six years ago said Mr. Molina. The concept for the symbolic cell was so young people, community residents, activists and family members of Mr. López Rivera could take one day staying in the mock cell to educate and familiarize the community about the freedom fighter he added.
Through the years the exhibit featured artwork and letters by Mr. López Rivera, art by former political prisoner Carlos Alberto and literature from the campaign to free others behind bars.
“The idea was that whoever walked in would be saturated in educational material as well as be able to walk out with reading material that addressed both the international legal aspects of the campaign as well as aspects of the campaign in Puerto Rico, Chicago and the Puerto Rican Diaspora,” said Mr. Molina.
“The project that we have here, 31 Days For 31 Years, is a way to build and learn upon historical memory. The reality of our youth in this community is they don’t know about their history because of the way CPS (Chicago Public Schools) history department is set up,” said Jessica Fuentes, director of Batey Urbano.
Ms. Fuentes said, as she began learning about her Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean history including the story of Mr. López Rivera, it moved her to become active in the community. Learning that Puerto Rico is a colonial property of the United States impacted her deeply, she added.
The 21-year-old activist spent day two in the mock cell and said young Puerto Ricans she comes into contact with go through a “culture shock” when they begin learning about their true history but become active once they learn.
“It’s a calling. You cannot learn about your history, understand the conditions that your people are in and not feel like you have to do something about that. Most of our young people feel that way. They feel like they have to be part of this transformative process,” said Ms. Fuentes.
Abel Muhammad is a student minister in the Nation of Islam and the National Latino Representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Muhammad spent day 4 in the exhibit and has met several former Puerto Rican political prisoners.
“I personally wanted to do whatever I could to bring attention to it because it’s really an unjust sentence that has been given to him. Not so much because I’m Mexican. My brothers are Puerto Rican, my sisters are Puerto Rican, Black, Indigenous, all those who fight and struggle for justice,” said Mr. Muhammad.
“Hopefully we can do something to get our brother home because he’s already sacrificed more than should have been sacrificed in terms of the time of his life, which he can’t get back and he should be home with his family so that we can give him the honor and respect that he’s due,” added Mr. Muhammad.
According to Mr. Molina there are two other Puerto Rican political prisoners, Avelino González-Claudio arrested four years ago and his brother Noberto arrested in 2011. Accused of being members of a Puerto Rican independence group, “Los Machetero,” the brothers were accused of participating in an armed robbery in 1983 of a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut. Avelino is scheduled to be released in October due to a medical issue.
The independence of Puerto Rico is an important crusade for many in the Puerto Rican community. Claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Tainos, the original indigenous inhabitants of Puerto Rico were enslaved by the Spaniards.
Now, a Commonwealth of the U.S., Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. They elect their own governor. The president of the U.S. is also over Puerto Rico though Puerto Ricans are not permitted to vote in U.S. elections.
A debate has raged for years on whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory, be granted statehood or be independent. Puerto Ricans are scheduled to vote on their fate again Nov. 6, later this year.
“It’s absolutely true the root cause of Oscar being in jail is that Puerto Rico is a colony. And it’s absolutely true there have been succeeding generations since the 1950s of Puerto Ricans who have been willing to fight for Puerto Rico’s freedom and that’s the reason they’re in prison,” said Mr. Molina.
“These people were not social criminals, they didn’t have criminal backgrounds. If anything, they were people who little by little became involved in the patriotic movement to decolonize Puerto Rico,” he added.
“Over the years representatives from every political strata in Puerto Rico, the Statehood party, the Commonwealth party, the Independence party have signed letters and openly and vocally supported Oscar’s freedom because his crime is that of wanting his country free,” said Mr. Molina.
May 29 will mark the 31st day of the exhibit. Organizers will hold a press conference that day along with his family and friends.
(For more information on “31 Days For 31 Years” and to visit the exhibit, visit www.boricuahumanrights.org or www.bateyurbano.net)