The announcement that the 2017 Puerto Rican Day Parade would honor seditionist and Puerto Rican independentista Oscar López Rivera as a “National Freedom Hero” has led several sponsors of the parade to withdraw their endorsements. López Rivera was a leader of FALN, which conducted a campaign of deadly bombings around New York City and Chicago in the 1970s, and he was recently released from prison after having his 75-year sentence commuted by President Obama. Goya Foods, a significant backer of the parade for its entire 60-year history, has backed out, as have the NYPD Hispanic Society, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and the other police unions representing the NYPD senior ranks. NYPD commissioner James O’Neill announced this afternoon that he will not march in the parade because he deems Lopez Rivera a “terrorist.”
In response, city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito today held a “rally to defend the parade,” though the parade itself is not in need of defense, its only sticking point being the inclusion of a convicted terrorist as guest of honor. About 50 ardent supporters of Rivera assembled in a meeting hall at the headquarters of 32BJ, the building-service workers local of labor powerhouse SEIU, where they displayed banners and chanted, “We stand with the Puerto Rican Parade/Oscar López is our hero today!”
A number of speakers addressed the press and the few supporters of the rally who were not already on the dais. Estela Vazquez, executive vice president of SEIU 1199 (the nation’s largest union local), explained that “George Washington fought for his country, and Oscar López Rivera fought for his country. He should be celebrated just as George Washington is celebrated.” This parallel might hold up if López Rivera were being celebrated in his homeland of Puerto Rico, but it stretches credulity to demand that New York City celebrate the man who actually blew up Fraunces Tavern (where George Washington bade his officers farewell), and who in fact murdered and mutilated New Yorkers.
Much of the rally consisted of similarly flaccid historical comparisons. Supporters chanted, “Oscar López Rivera/Puerto Rico’s Mandela,” and speakers drew a connection between the fight against apartheid and Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence. The trouble with this parallel, however embarrassing it may be for the Puerto Ricans, is that black South Africans voted overwhelmingly to overturn the apartheid system, while the independence movement in Puerto Rico has virtually zero support. In four referenda held since Oscar Lopez Rivera went to prison, the “Independence” line has received between 2 percent to 5 percent of the vote.
The quaint rhetoric of the López Rivera faction also overlooks the fact that the United States gains nothing from its supposed colonial domination of Puerto Rico. Were Puerto Rico to decide to go its own way and pursue nationhood, would any non-Puerto Rican Americans wish them anything but the best?
Mark-Viverito spoke angrily about the “lies” that have been “peddled” about López Rivera by “people who wish to undermine the significance of who Oscar López Rivera is,” but she would not go into specifics about what those lies were, or the motivations of the liars. But she insisted that his conviction for “seditious conspiracy,” as opposed to murder, demonstrates that he was a political prisoner jailed for his beliefs, and that he remains “a symbol for the fight for justice.” When a reporter asked her why López Rivera had dynamite, blasting caps, and bomb-making diagrams in his apartment when he was arrested, Mark-Viverito said, “in regard to the specifics of that situation you are talking about, I don’t know everything that was presented in the court proceedings.”
Just for clarity’s sake: the FALN claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings, including the one at Fraunces Tavern that killed four people and injured 50. At his trial, Lopez Rivera refused to participate in his defense on the grounds that he was a combatant in an anti-colonial war against the United States and thus a prisoner of war; he demanded to be tried by an international tribunal. He was tried in open court and convicted of “seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles.” López Rivera refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of his acts, nor has he renounced violence, conceding only that other means are “more effective.” When asked about the surviving family of his victims, he told an interviewer in 2011, “If you don’t respect me, why should I reciprocate? I wasn’t there to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, I’m sorry.’ That’s not me.”
Leaving the rally, I found myself face to face with Mark-Viverito in the elevator going downstairs. I asked her, “Speaker, will you take Oscar López Rivera to Fraunces Tavern to eat after the parade?” She and one of her aides gasped at the impertinence of my question, and her entourage closed ranks around her as she stared at her cell phone. Apparently it is not in bad taste to parade a terrorist murderer through the streets of New York City and hail him as a hero; the scandal is to be reminded of his victims.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images