Should The Protests Continue?

by John Marino

April 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIn what has become a tradition since the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodríguez three years ago during a botched bombing run, the resumption of Navy maneuvers this week was met with protests in Vieques and the arrests of five people who ventured on to the restricted range.

But since Monday, things have been unusually quiet in this island town, and Navy war games have gone on without undue interference.

The death of Sanes Rodríguez energized local opposition to the Navy's presence here, and whipped it up into a protest movement that caught international attention. But that movement, which has relied on civil disobedience as its main weapon, appears to be at a crossroads.

National press reports have flatly stated that the movement has lost steam following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and there are far fewer protesters during this round of training than there was during training last spring, when dozens of trespassers, including such big names as the Rev. Al Sharpton and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., were arrested.

Most protests this week were attended by Vieques residents and a small group of supporters from the main island of Puerto Rico.

Protest groups say that the Navy has beefed up security, making it harder for groups to sneak through the fenced off Camp García military reservation that houses the bombing range. Learning from past exercises, the military force has invested heavily in illuminating certain areas and securing others, according to protesters. Navy Secretary Gordon England said recently that additional security on Vieques to combat the protests has cost the Navy $11 million.

The protest groups, who vow more people will enter the range this week, also say they are using their resources strategically, so that acts of civil disobedience will continue through April 22, when the maneuvers are slated to end. They also say civil disobedience will be timed to get the maximum exposure out of the acts.

One Popular Democratic Party lawmaker has said he will trespass on the range, and a delegation of prominent stateside Puerto Rican political and civic leaders are slated to visit the island on Saturday.

Hundreds of people, mostly Puerto Ricans, have been arrested since a federal raid swept the range clear of protest camps in May 2000. And it's an open question how many more Puerto Ricans are willing to be thrown in jail for the Vieques cause -- especially since federal judges have shown a loss of patience with the protesters and have been increasing sentences.

More importantly, however, is the question of how effective civil disobedience is in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Immediately following the attack, during a round of Navy training in late September and early October, protesters called a moratorium on civil disobedience - out of respect for the victims of the attacks and out of fears that increased security at military installations could endanger the lives of Vieques protesters.

But they immediately pledged to resume civil disobedience during the next round of Navy training -- which is just now taking place this week. A previous round of training in January was scuttled when a carrier group was set to train here was deployed early to the Persian Gulf.

It's not surprising that the Vieques protest movement, led by Mayor Damaso Serrano, who spent four months in jail for trespassing on Navy land, continues to embrace civil disobedience as "the only way to guarantee the exit of the Navy."

The protests, and the publicity they generated, were central to the gains that Vieques residents have won - from the Clinton-Rosselló accord calling for a vote to decide the future of the Navy to President Bush's pledge to order the military force off the island by May 2003.

But in the post-Sept. 11 world, civil disobedience against the U.S. Navy does not have the same effect as it once did. Protesters cannot expect the same sympathetic treatment - indeed they risk winning public scorn -- from the U.S. public, who see a need for military training as the Middle East situation continues to deteriorate.

A fistfight that broke out this week between a statehood supporter carrying an American flag and anti-Navy protesters has already given the protest movement a black eye.

New York labor leader Dennis Rivera, who served a month in jail for trespassing on Navy land last year, said after the attacks that anti-Navy protests could be counter-productive to the cause in light of the devastation in New York.

Last July, seven out of 10 Vieques residents asked the Navy to leave the island - not, as some commentators have suggested, because they are anti-American, but because they believe the Navy's presence has harmed their home.

If the vote were held today, the outcome would undoubtedly be the same, and the Navy has no one to blame but itself for it.

Few Vieques residents really believe the Navy will leave in a year, as Bush has promised. After all, the much celebrated federal referendum which would allow Vieques residents to decide the future of the Navy presence here was abruptly canceled after more than a year of promises that it would take place.

The central question in Vieques right now is should the protests continue?

The utility of a three-year civil disobedience movement may be wearing thin when the president says he will order the Navy off in a year.

Perhaps protest groups should consider extending the post-Sept. 11 civil disobedience moratorium until next May.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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