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Story Publication logo October 10, 2019

'They Believe We're Criminals': Black Puerto Ricans Say They're a Police Target

Natasha Alford

In the midst of Puerto Rico's political crisis, its black communities fight for justice to address...

Police in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in July 2019, during protests against the then governor. Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images. United States, 2019.
Police in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in July 2019, during protests against the then governor. Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images. United States, 2019.

When Nina Figueroa, 25, protested with fellow Puerto Ricans this summer to oust the then governor, Ricardo Rosselló, she believed she stood out to police. Figueroa, a college student studying comparative literature, had been arrested multiple times while in the streets and was starting to notice a pattern.

"I have been arrested in protests three times and all three times I was doing nothing," says Figueroa. "I asked myself: 'Why do the police arrest me so much?' And obviously it wasn't until I understood that I'm an easy target for the police because I'm a black woman."

Figueroa is one of many vocal activists, scholars, legal advocates and residents, who say Puerto Rican police racially profile black and predominantly low-income communities, despite frequently held beliefs that the island is a racial melting pot without explicit racial problems.

"I've seen black people being policed at the entrance of the shops, how they follow me and they don't do anything to my friends or to white people," said Figueroa.

"The police in Puerto Rico are very racist and also have a lot of social stigmas because they believe that black people come from the hood, come to steal … that we are criminals.

"The police are the same as in the United States, the only difference is that here they don't kill us," said Figueroa.

Puerto Rico's police department has been under federally mandated reform since 2012, after accusations of unlawful searches, excessive force, corruption and other failures of leadership. One of the areas of compliance for the department includes non-discrimination and equal protection under the law.

Sacha Antonetty-Lebron, a writer and founder of Revista Étnica, a new magazine dedicated to celebrating Afro-Latino issues in Puerto Rico, said she too experienced racial profiling from law enforcement, but at a federal level.

"About nine years ago I had a situation in Hato Rey, where an Ice customs agent intervened with me and started asking me, 'Who are you, and are you from here, give me your license.' And I told him, 'I'm Puerto Rican. I'm from here,' and he kept asking," recalled Antonetty-Lebron.

Antonetty-Lebron believes the customs agent assumed she was Dominican because of her dark brown skin.

"I remember that day I went back to work and I was crying, shaking. I shared it with some of my classmates, but it wasn't a big deal for them," she says.

What complicates broader investigations about racism and police brutality in Puerto Rico is a lack of data. The department doesn't track the race of victims of officer-involved homicides or excessive force complaints.

"There's a lot of resistance because people say 'That's a US thing, that doesn't apply here,' or 'It has nothing to do with us,'" said Dr Bárbara I Abadía-Rexach, an anthropology professor at the University of Puerto Rico. "There are no statistics that say the amount of black people that have been accused or charged with certain crimes."

Abadía-Rexach highlights the 2017 the case of Alma Yariela Cruz, an 11-year-old schoolgirl whose school principal called police to arrest her, after she fought against bullies who taunted her with racial slurs.

Cruz's case became a rallying point for her community as they protested against criminal charges filed against the child and a lack of institutional support for the racism she endured.

"That's one example of criminalization and persecution of black people since infancy," said Abadía-Rexach. "After that case, there was another of a kid … who recorded a video for social media threatening his friends at the school with a firearm. He wasn't arrested, he wasn't handcuffed. The difference? He was a white, rich 16-year-old from a private school."

Even black police officers themselves have reported being subject to racism. In 2015, Yolanda Carrasquillo settled with the Puerto Rico police department after making claims that she and other dark-skinned police employees were regularly subjected to racial slurs by a civilian co-worker.

Despite a history of racial mixing on the island, nearly 80% of Puerto Ricans identified as white on the 2010 census, something many experts critiqued as both impossible and inaccurate. However, a growing number of Puerto Ricans are now identifying as Afro-Latino or Afro-Latinx. The term Afro-LatinX or Afro-descendiente (African descendant) is embraced by some as a form of cultural pride and acknowledgment of African ancestry, which undergirds many aspects of Puerto Rican culture, from food to salsa music.

But others regard the term Afro-Latinx or identifying as "black" as unnecessary. To them it's divisive and a trend that mimics the segregated mindset of the US mainland.

"I call myself Puerto Rican," says "Junior" Eliezer Pizarro, a local musician from the predominantly black town of Loiza on the north-east coast. Pizarro teaches traditional African-inspired music called bomba and says he's proud of his African heritage. "We are descendants of Africa most of us. But I can't say that I'm African."

Pizarro says that if Puerto Rican police treat his mostly black community differently, it's mainly through neglect.

"There is a lack of police. An accident is happening right now and the police may not come until the next day. You know, it's lack of security."

Recent political events have thrust the issue into the island's politics.

After leaked private chats showed top officials using sexist, homophobic and offensive language, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican protestors successfully pressured the resignation of both Rosselló and his appointed successor as governor, Pedro Pierluisi.

Now with a broad coalition of support for civic change on the island, activists like Nina Figueroa have a sense that racist policing in Puerto Rico can be addressed.

"I can tell you that this is the first time I've seen a movement or a group of people take the streets that is so diverse," says Figueroa. "Normally you went to these spaces and most of the people were middle-class men, who had access to academia, politicians, unions or to labor groups."

"I had been feeling very disappointed and pessimistic in the last year. But I have been changing my opinion because I have seen many black people, many people from the LGBT community, many women coming out …"

"The conversation is opening up and space is being given – not just a movement against the government [but] for an anti-racist movement to begin. I have hope and confidence for a change."