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A Town Of Tents And Civil Disobedience


August 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

GUAYNABO – The groups that have taken sides over the Navy firing range on Vieques have more than their ideologies to mark their turf. In a twist on the idea of a political camp, they have set up a Hooverville with flags, tents, sleeping bags, field kitchens and outhouses.

A tent city that is home to several dozen people has taken root on the grassy knolls and sidewalks outside the federal prison here that is home to 15 of the protesters who have been arrested at the Navy firing range on Vieques. At least a half-dozen groups of different political beliefs have claimed their own small piece of land by the highways, exit ramps and roads that crisscross the area. They keep vigil while playing dominoes, chatting or chanting and waving to those imprisoned inside.

The groups include Navy supporters who have a lone, empty tent far from the main settlement on one side of the issue and church groups, students and advocates for Puerto Rican independence on the other. Some have elaborate setups, with resident artists, a stage and a library. Others, like the students, sleep in tents set on wooden pallets or huddle at tables or in hammocks under a leaky plastic tarp.

Many have been inside the prison themselves for civil disobedience. Now on the other side of a security fence topped by coils of razor wire, they vow to stay until the last protester is freed.

"We are not comfortable here, but that is not the purpose," said Carlos Pérez Figueroa, 36, who spends his time at the student camp. "We are here so when somebody inside looks out the prison windows, they see us. I was in there. You feel hopeless and miss your loved ones. But when you know there are people in the camps outside who are not comfortable and sometimes hungry, you do not feel alone."

Huge flags flap on the lampposts on surrounding streets and roads. It was the latest sign of the battle of the flags that had erupted in recent weeks as supporters and opponents of bombing in Vieques staked their positions.

A United States flag, planted by supporters of Puerto Rican statehood and guarded by police officers, is by the highway, set off by a buffer zone ringed by yellow police tape. An enormous Puerto Rican flag stands in front of the prison, near a small platform decorated with yellow ribbons.

Although there have been some incidents of flag stealing, the police said there were no serious disturbances at the camps. One officer, who would not give his name, said that as far as he was concerned people were free to be on public property. However, when asked who owned the sprawling patch of land outside the prison, he shrugged and said, "The independence party?"

His mistake might be understandable, since the independence group has been there the longest. Its first members arrived in May soon after their leader, Rubén Berríos, was sentenced to 120 days in prison. The independence camp includes a stage where bands play on weekends, an electric generator and a stocked kitchen where volunteers cook rice, beans and roasted pork.

"We are here for the long haul," said Heriberto Marín, a leader of the independence camp.

To the side, a church group has an open-air chapel for nightly prayer meetings. Nearby, another group has set up a long shack, which it is expanding to make room for friends and relatives who come to visit prisoners. Tents almost abut concrete barricades along the highway shoulder, next to an improvised shower stall.

"You have to take care of people day and night," said Disraelly Gutierrez, a teacher who has lived at the camp since mid-June. "Whoever comes here, we'll take care of them."

Many people here are emboldened by the recent referendum where a majority of Vieques residents voted to demand the Navy's immediate departure. They said that if bombing resumed this week, as expected, more people would be arrested. Young people camping along the fence near the women's wing of the prison said they were already learning about civil disobedience so they could protest.

On Monday night, members of the island's pro-commonwealth party, independence advocates and even a few statehood supporters gave speeches and waved arms and banners outside of the prison's women's wing. Several floors up, seven women in silhouette could be seen jumping, waving and blowing kisses.

Today, Zoraida Figueroa, one of those who had been at the prison's window on Monday night, was released after serving her 30-day sentence. The first thing she did was to visit one of the camps to thank those who had been out there every night.

"This camp causes me to feel such great emotion," Ms. Figueroa said. After savoring hugs and a hot lunch, Ms. Figueroa looked around the camp that she said would now be her home, perhaps one with a holdover from her previous one.

"I want to buy a uniform like I wore inside," she said. "That way, when the guard comes out, he can see me and know I'm still there."

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