In February 2011, US congressman Luis V Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, addressed the House of Representatives:
"I want to talk to you today about a part of the world where the rights of citizens of all walks of life to protest and speak their minds is being denied, with clubs and pepper spray. A part of the world where a student strike led the university to ban student protests anywhere, anytime on campus, and where, when the students protested the crackdown on free speech, they were violently attacked by heavily armed riot police… What faraway land has seen student protests banned, union protesters beaten, and free speech advocates jailed? The United States of America's colony of Puerto Rico".
Gutierrez was referring to a period of intense crackdowns by Puerto Rican police on peaceful protests that began in response to fiscal austerity measures, the firing of 30,000 state employees, the suspension of collective bargaining rights, and a 50 per cent increase in tuition fees - rendering education prohibitively expensive for many students. Police violence has been amply documented in a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), titled "Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico's Outlaw Police Force".
According to the report, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD)'s rampant violations of human and constitutional rights range from beatings with batons and nightsticks to sexual harassment of female protesters, from the administration of pepper spray at point-blank range and potentially lethal rubber bullets to the indiscriminate use of chemical agents - including tear gas dispersed from helicopters and a highly toxic form of gas not used in the US in 50 years. Other protest management techniques are described in the report as follows:
"Officers have also used painful carotid holds and pressure point techniques intended to cause pain to passively resisting protesters by targeting pressure points on protesters' carotid arteries, under their jaws, near their necks, their ears, or directly on the eyeballs and eye sockets. Officers also dug their fingers deep underneath students' ears and above their jaws … Pressure point tactics not only cause excruciating pain but they also block normal blood flow to the brain and can be… fatal if misapplied."
A 2011 evaluation of the PRPD by the US Department of Justice reasonably concluded that the purpose of such tactics was to intimidate demonstrators rather than to address legitimate threats to public safety. As for other police pastimes not readily associable with the aim of protecting people, the ACLU notes:
"Over a five-year period from 2005 to 2010, over 1,700 police officers were arrested for criminal activity including assault, theft, domestic violence, drug trafficking, and murder. This figure amounts to ten per cent of the police force, or one arrest of a police officer every 30 hours."
Also on the PRPD resume are incidents such as the death of Jorge Luis Polaco Jimenez, an unarmed black man reportedly "shot seven times in the back while in police custody"; the death of Jose Alberto Vega Jorge, a 22-year-old witness to a Burger King robbery who was shot in the head by police while waiting to give his witness statement; and the fatal shooting of Luis L Perez Feliciano, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran. The police officers reportedly responsible for the shooting of Perez Feliciano were later awarded the Gold Medal of Valour by Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño and the superintendent of the PRPD.
According to the ACLU, the PRPD's failure to deal with police crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault has meanwhile contributed to Puerto Rico's possession of "the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners". The police have also exhibited systematic brutality against poor persons, black people, independence supporters, environmental activists, Dominican immigrants, and a variety of other demographics. The ACLU learned from a resident of a predominantly Dominican squatter community on the island that, "when a 20-year-old Dominican woman required medical treatment for an epileptic seizure, an officer who refused to call an ambulance said, ‘one Dominican less'".
In June 2011, Barack Obama travelled to Puerto Rico - the first visit by a US president since 1961 - to assure residents that "[t]he aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America" and that "I know that today a lot of folks are asking some of the same questions here on the island as they're asking in Indiana or California or in Texas: How do I make sure my kids get the kind of education that they need?"
The accuracy of the parallel was, of course, called into question by certain details. Obama's visit occurred not long after "struggles" consisted of bloody police repression of peaceful student protest and the PRPD's occupation of the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus. As the ACLU notes, a "ban on all First Amendment activity" was undertaken at the university and any expression of protest was limited "to small designated areas located outside the campus, called 'free speech zones'", also surrounded by police. It is safe to assume that parents beaten with nightsticks while attempting to deliver food to students striking against the commodification of education do not consider this sort of educational arrangement as something their kids "need".
The commonality of the American experience as suggested by Obama is furthermore disingenuous, given Puerto Rico's anachronistic colonial status and the fact that Puerto Ricans residing on the island are not permitted to vote in US presidential elections - despite being US citizens and despite being disproportionately represented in the US armed forces.
As for disproportionate police-to-resident ratios, the PRPD's employment of more than 17,000 officers for a population of 3.7 million is more than twice the national average. However, the expansion of both mainland policing activities and of a reality in which those tasked with the protection of civil rights are often the ones violating them - indicates that Puerto Rican struggles may indeed increasingly "mirror those across America".
Correction: An earlier published version of this article inferred that Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño was once superintendent of the PRPD. Apologies for any confusion.
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, AlterNet and many other publications.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.