The 60th annual New York City Puerto Rican Day parade steps off June 17 under a cloud of its own creation—the designation of Marxist bomber Oscar Lopez Rivera as the event’s first “National Freedom Hero.” The honorific is a rhetorical fantasy—to which nation, exactly, is he a hero?—but when it comes to politicized parades, facts take a backseat.
Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy—legalese for terrorism—in 1981. Sentenced to 55 years in federal prison, his term was extended by 15 years for plotting to use explosives in an escape attempt—only to be commuted by President Obama in January. Rivera will walk free this week; his presence at the parade is expected to be part of a national victory lap.
Rivera is an improbable role model. He was a founding member of the Puerto Rican separatist Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, which fancied itself a guerilla army but never numbered more than a handful of members—leftists who acted out their homicidal pipe-dreams on the sneak. Still, the FALN was dangerous: it committed at least 130 bombings between 1974 and 1983, mostly in New York City and Chicago. Its dynamite killed four and wounded 43 at Fraunces Tavern in 1975, a month after the maiming of four NYPD officers in bombings at One Police Plaza. (One of the wounded officers was a rookie patrolman of Puerto Rican descent, which raises this question: What do the department’s 8,700 officers of Hispanic heritage—one-quarter of the force—think about Rivera’s newly awarded “hero” status?)
Ethnic parades steeped in toxic politics have been a New York City fixture since just about forever. But these expressions have rarely won the unqualified support of responsible New Yorkers, particularly those holding significant elective office. Not so this time. City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, herself of Puerto Rican descent and as hard-left a pol as is likely to be found in mainstream New York politics, has long been a Rivera acolyte: “I’m really proud [that he] is returning to us,” she said. “It is really great to stand in solidarity with him.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio was also delighted by Rivera’s release, declaring that, after all, he wasn’t such a bad fellow: “I think he first of all was not personally involved in violence.” (This is preposterous. The mayor ought to look up the surviving Fraunces victims and the cops maimed by FALN and ask what they think.) De Blasio’s political views don’t veer far from Mark-Viverito’s (he did, after all, honeymoon in Havana), and likely not from Rivera’s—minus the bombs. And it is precisely the bombs that warrant an expression of mayoral disapproval of the honor given Rivera.
Contrast this sorry spectacle with the way prominent New Yorkers approached the 1983 St. Patrick’s Day parade, also rendered poisonous by its tolerance for terrorism. The parallels aren’t exact, but they’re close enough: organizers had named as grand marshal one Michael Flannery, a longtime advocate for the largely Catholic Provisional Irish Republican Army and before that a member of the original IRA. By 1983, an American citizen, Flannery had become an organizer of the Irish Northern Aid Committee—long suspected of funding gun-running to Ulster—and had himself been accused, though acquitted, of conspiring to smuggle arms to the PIRA.
The 1983 parade came at a difficult time for Northern Ireland: PIRA bombings sparked counterterrorism by Protestant-backed paramilitary organizations, street violence was heavy, and the British Army had effectively occupied the province. Ten PIRA members had recently starved themselves at Belfast’s Maze prison. The hunger strikes, in particular, energized Irish-Americans. Thus, Flannery’s designation as grand marshal of the parade enjoyed significant support.
But among the best-known Irish-American elected officials, whether in New York or elsewhere, the attitude was very different. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey of New York, along with Senator Edward Kennedy and House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts—known in Northern Ireland, and not always favorably, as the Four Horsemen of Irish America—would not truck with terrorism. Moynihan and Carey, joined by Terence Cardinal Cooke, refused to participate in the parade. The message was clear: terrorism, and support for terrorism, had no acceptable place in American life.
Truth be told, there never was much backing for PIRA violence in New York, never mind the rhetoric—just as, today, there’s little support for Puerto Rican nationalism and the hard-left politics of Rivera, Mark-Viverito, and de Blasio. That doesn’t make the refusal of Moynihan, Carey, and Cooke to excuse political violence any less admirable—or Mark-Viverito’s and de Blasio’s embrace of it any less deplorable.
Photo by Stephen Chernin/GettyImages