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Protestors and Passersby: Notes on the Line at PROMESA

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The first PROMESA Conference, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, was recently held in an exclusive hotel in the affluent and touristy Condado sector of San Juan, just off the beautiful Dos Hermanos Bridge over the lagoon. Participants were to benefit from the guidance and insight of an array of expert speakers—including representatives of the U.S. government—that would help delineate a roadmap of sorts to ‘economic recovery’ for the Island and help identify new business opportunities for entrepreneurs under the Fiscal Oversight Board recently appointed by President Obama.

Expecting a considerable level of backlash from those sectors of the population most affected by the economic crisis and the corresponding austerity measures instituted by past and present governmental administrations, police officers were already lining the street and setting barricades early on the eve of the event. The next day, however, protestors easily managed to occupy the street in an effort to block access to the hotel. And while private and public security forces greatly outnumbered them, and in spite of the notorious practices of excessive force carried out by the Puerto Rican Police Department, protestors—through willfulness and cunning— were able to prevent the staging of the conference as planned.

My interest here however is not on protestors’ motivations nor on their tactics. I’m a fan of both. What I’m interested in are the motivations of the twenty plus conference participants who, upon setting foot on the bridge and seeing the lines of protestors and riot police, still insisted on gaining access to the hotel. And so, the [biggest and ‘baddest’] officers would get into an arrow-type formation around the groups of two, four and eight business men and women, who, briefcases over their heads, shuffled their feet to the rhythm set by police forcefully making their way through the human barricade. Some succeeded. Some not. Only a couple, however, gave up, abandoned their escort and looked to get away from the scene of confrontation. They were immediately doused with water. Some even had dollar bills rain down on them.

One could argue that it was money well spent.

As all this was going on, a thirty-something Condado resident stepped out of his condo on the lagoon to play with his Golden Retriever on the grassy knoll just to the side of the end of the bridge, some twenty feet from where protestors and police were facing off. Dog and man played catch for a good fifteen minutes. It seemed to be part of their daily routine. Similarly, throughout the day, several joggers—tourists and locals—would come up to the line, tap officers on the shoulder, the officers would step to the side and the joggers, in their shiny shirts and head bands, would gingerly make their way through the protesters, as if through an obstacle course. All part of their daily exercise routine, I guess: #beatyesterday [regardless of whether today threatens to change the terms on which tomorrow will come] and the such.

At the time, I could not help but consider these actions a product of the wickedness of certain individuals. After all, conference participants’ insistence on making it to the hotel put protestors’ bodies at risk and the business-as-usual demeanor of privileged passersby indicated a blatant disregard for the conditions that drive those bodies to assume the risks of occupying the street. But, as James Baldwin reminds us in The Fire Next Time, when it comes to the destruction of civilization, “it is not necessary that people be wicked, only that they be spineless.” The particular spinelessness, in this case, of choosing to act as if Puerto Rico really is the place to live where others vacation as opposed to the place where the majority of residents’ lives are ‘precariously held in the hands of others’ for profit.

One could argue then that there was a much greater chance of getting joggers—whether locals or tourists—to stop by throwing a few dollar bills in the air as they passed, than by holding tight to the person next to you in the line of protestors and swearing to never let them go. Still, one could hear these types of pledges being made all along the line, throughout the day. And in the end, the line held just enough for the conference to host less than a third of the expected participants, with organizers being forced to cancel several of the day’s scheduled events. Thus, when it comes to the longed-for dawning of new civilizations, it is not necessary that protests be perfect, only that protestors keep their pledge to each other.

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