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Orlando Sentinel

U.S. Flag Hits Nerve, Sparks Fight

BY Ivan Roman

July 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN -- On Tuesday, when a local senator got on a cherry picker and put a U.S. flag on lamppost across the street from Macy's, many laughed it off as another tidbit in the island's fervent, wacky political folklore.

Students then tore the flag down in the middle of the night and sent the senator pieces of it via FedEx.

By Thursday night, the flag war had gotten so ugly that it turned bloody. Flying rocks, bottles and wood found their way into the scuffle that topped off the daylong standoff between pro-statehooders defending the U.S. flag and activists decrying the U.S. Navy's presence on Vieques. Five people, including a police officer, were hurt.

This time, it wasn't the flag itself, but where they put it that caused the ruckus.

Members of the Pro-Statehood University Movement climbed the pole where the Vieques flag flew on the oceanside Hill of the Winds across from the Capitol. It was in front of a replica of a chapel built on the Vieques target range where protesters camped out for a year to block the Navy's bombing exercises.

These pro-statehood students were getting back at the students who had torn down the U.S. flag two days before. But they say now that they didn't realize putting the U.S. flag on grounds rented by religious leaders as a gathering place for Vieques peace activists would touch off such a firestorm.

By the time the 22-hour standoff was over, bottles had been thrown, a judge had ordered the angry crowd off the hill, and pro-statehood politicians who rejected the students' agreement early on to take the flag down had helped work the crowd into a frenzy.

"The young people haven't provoked these acts. Rather, there are those taking advantage of this to fight for their ideals," said Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, Archbishop of San Juan, addressing the livid crowd that called him "Judas."

"What's happened here shows once again how dangerously politicized our people are," he said.

With those words he lighted a fuse. Police had to escort him out of the chapel. The incident blew the lid off the fear from the New Progressive Party's conservative wing that the Vieques struggle masks the pro-independence activists' anti-American agenda, which hurts their chances to gain statehood.

The voices of the "silent majority" who value ties to the United States are not being heard, they said, and they've had enough.

"There is a hostile and anti-American environment that the governor has fostered here," said NPP President Leo Diaz. "We are not going to let a small group of people intimidate the Puerto Rican people."

But religious leaders and Vieques peace activists said putting the U.S. flag or Puerto Rican flag there divides a movement that had been united across ideological lines by the Vieques flag, which had flown on that mast. To them, the move was also an insult to those locked up in federal jail for civil disobedience in Vieques.

"The statehooders can put their flag up anywhere, but this isn't the place," said Julio Muriente, president of the New Independence Movement. "This is putting gas on the fire. If what they wanted to do was provoke people, this was a great place to do it."

The crowd dispersed about 12:30 a.m. Friday. There was finally agreement to put up the U.S. and Puerto Rico flags on new poles 100 meters from the chapel.

Many accuse the NPP of orchestrating the clash to stir people up in time for a July 4 rally designed to counter talk in Washington of Puerto Ricans being anti-American. (President Bush called Puerto Ricans "our friends and neighbors," a term usually reserved for foreign allies, not U.S. citizens.)

As Police Superintendent Pierre Vivoni pondered whether to call in SWAT teams to control the crowd on the hill, one protester yelled, "This gets solved by solving the status."

Vivoni just chuckled. "Right now, we can't wait for that one."

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