‘Mubarak On Our Mind’: The Popular Uprising in Puerto Rico [Part II]

In Part I of the interview, we discussed the motivations, factors, and historical context for the Puerto Rico uprising. They broke down the different demands on the table following Ricky’s July 24th resignation announcement and explained the movement’s conscious decision to step back from the status question. 

JunteGente and other initiatives support demands which include: auditing the debt, declaring a gender-based violence state of emergency, the resignation of Wanda Vasquez, strengthening unions, guaranteeing job security, releasing all those previously arrested for political protests, considering climate debt, electoral reform, restitution of stolen public funds, criminally prosecuting corrupt officials, and the creation of popular assemblies. While mind-blowing and sobering, Juanqui and Bernat reminded us that the hardest organizing is still to come. 

Part II of the interview covers climate justice, the role of unions, Arab Spring reflections, and openings for international solidarity. 

Science for the People: It’s been over a week since Ricky Rosselló announced he would resign. In that time, Wanda Vásquez has proclaimed she doesn’t “want” to replace Rosselló, in what can only be described as a recognition of the movement’s power. With your Arab Spring reflections in mind, what has the past week looked like politically?

Juanqui: Well, the challenge is for this not to become a “seasonal change” but an epochal change, and since the spring is turning into summer… The PNP is fighting among itself for the leftovers of power. In the meantime, several asambleas auto-convocadas (self-organized assemblies) have been happening and organizing around the Island-archipelago. 

Whatever happens in the next hours (which is a “mystery” for everyone), needs to have its contrary in the street and in the organization of the people. We (progressive and Left forces) are now in an aggressive organizing phase while simultaneously trying to keep the protests in the street and analysing the situation as we go… Difficult yet hopeful times indeed. There is a possibility that things could take a turn for the worse in terms of who holds power—but not in terms of broadening the radicalization of the public sphere and of organizing efforts.

Science for the People:  By all estimates, Puerto Rico will continue to experience increasingly polarized climate patterns. What role has climate change occupied in the uprising’s political discussions?

Juanqui: The political situation hasn’t allowed us to talk about it as much, but we need to tackle this planetary struggle. In the Caribbean, hurricanes, floods, and droughts are going to be stronger and we are going to continue living with them. The issue of climate debt has to be brought to the struggle. Yes, that implies the relationship with the US but how can we begin to weigh in on different struggles in the US? How can we radicalize the idea of the Green New Deal, including what it means for Puerto Rico? The Green New Deal is going to impact Puerto Rico so how we guarantee we have a say in how it plays out? 

And then there’s the important issue of our relationship to the diaspora. Because we have been through so much. We are 8.5 million Puerto Ricans in the world but only 3 million in the island archipelago. How do we keep that relationship going? That’s one of the reasons we went to the Socialism Conference in Chicago and to meet with Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez [alderwoman in Chicago’s 33rd ward]. 

Bernat: There are real organizing challenges here. The demands have been very simple: Ricky Resign, end the Junta, etc. But when you enter the topic of climate change and climate justice, it’s a very complex discussion even just to distinguish: should Puerto Rico care about climate change? On the one hand, even if Puerto Rico went 100 percent green tomorrow, it would have no effect on tomorrow’s global greenhouse gas emissions. We wouldn’t be able to contribute to the conversation in that sense. We don’t sit at the table in any of the G8 meetings, of course, and we don’t have the international power to strike deals for green energy, etc. 

On the other hand, we are suffering the effects of the consumption of the First World, the industrial corporations, and the military complex. So we should turn our gears towards demands for a Just Transition. We need to train workers for new sectors and stop pushing for tourism given our coast will be increasingly flooded– and because in the near future, it’s just not a sustainable industry anyhow for Puerto Rico. It’s a hard conversation to have.

Science for the People: We agree that if the US is going to pass a Green New Deal, Left forces must seriously consider its international dimensions, including Puerto Rico and beyond. I know you’re still thinking through these complex topics, but what would you say are some of the demands coming from Puerto Rico for a Green New Deal? What should organizations like ours be pushing for within a People’s Green New Deal regarding Puerto Rico?

Juanqui: In JunteGente, we have different sorts of working groups. Currently one of them is organizing an international meeting around climate change. Those encounters are intended to gather people- from farmers, pescadores, scientists- to listen to each other, collect information and based on that, JuneGente can develop a platform. So I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘this is what we want” because we haven’t had that meeting yet. 

Bernat: Our political logic is that we gather the people who actually do the agroecological and environmental work and ask them- have a convening- to collectively set the agenda. 

Juanqui: But to answer your question, in general we need support around Just Transition, climate debt, the debt crisis. I mean,  The colonial process and the transformation of Puerto Rico has been imposed by a US-focused development. So naturally, our ecological issues are directly related to that. In the past we’ve had the sudden transformation of a diverse archipelago to a sugar monoculture with ecological devastation. Add to that the imposition of the US suburbanization and urbanization models. The car model is the main form of transportation. Puerto Rico has one of the largest concentrations of roads and motor vehicles, and the urban sprawl is just insane. These are all US models. Fordism transformed our landscape. I mention all this because, yes, there is an ecological and climate debt that we have to talk about regarding the US. But these are just general notions. 

Science for the People: You are organizing a conference. Can you tell us a little bit about it and why people should attend? [We will link to the conference site here as soon as it goes up.]

Juanqui: Yes, we are trying to bring together social movements, community organizations, scientists, people in public policy, and other sectors to reflect on our planetary crisis but specifically within the context of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico in terms of political ecology, of bringing the political dimension to the ecological reality. Two JunteGente members are leading the organizing of the two-day conference.

We think that we are in a different country. I mean, as Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades occur. These two weeks have been decades and decades of happenings. We are in a different country and I think this conference is important given the current political juncture. We want to take advantage of the fact that perhaps we can inspire other people to rise up, reflect, and mobilize. Hopefully in the US as well, because Trump is an embodiment of these chats.

Bernat: He’s a walking chat.

Juanqui: I think people in the US can also rise up and get inspired by the “colony down here”.

Artwork by Colectivo La Puerta

Science for the People: Definitely. I got chills with your mention of asambleas populares and the state of emergency against gender-based violence. A recent NACLA piece argued that these protests are quite literally about life and death, as you have mentioned. Quoting the article, “the rhetoric and attitudes of the Governor and his closest allies captured in the chat are ones that promote harm and death in a number of ways, from the outright incitement of violence to the promotion of a neoliberal politics of deadly neglect.” What does the “deadly neglect” of neoliberal politics mean to you?

Bernat: One of the things I find most striking, a catalyzing factor in people showing up, is not only the blatant disregard for Puerto Rican life and well-being but the actual ineptitude and neglect for governance. The administration has neither the capacity nor the inclination, nor the vocation for governance. It makes you– I say this very cautiously– it almost makes you yearn for decent right-wing people.

Juanqui: Oh shit—

Bernat: But you know what I’m saying. They would govern in a direction I disagree with and they would have a different view of what society should be but at least it’s a political debate. This is like blatant egoistic greed. Regarding “deadly neglect,” I would stress that, yes, they took on a task without being up to the challenge but the worst part (though hopeful) is knowing that literally anyone could do a better job. If we learn something from the chat, it is that anyone can govern, that we can govern ourselves. If these were the people who were supposedly the experts on governance, then we know that we can do it, that anyone can do it. Pick someone at random and say, “what do you think should be the direction in which we should administer the Puerto Rican well-being?” —and anyone would do a better job.

Juanqui: In Puerto Rico at least, the government is an institution to hire, contract, and accumulate a maximum profit. These people are thinking as a group- not even a company, “how can we get rich?” These wealthy families are casta criolla [homegrown caste] but they’re also just the natural product this logic– in a colonial framework. It’s a competition for who gets the money: the gringo or the criollo.

Bernat: The neoliberal state has deteriorated or made almost extinct an entire class of public servant experts. There were career public servants who knew the nooks and crannies of how things got done. And suddenly we don’t have that in our utilities. That puts the government in a position of hiring”experts” who do not have public service as their goal, but just profit.

Science for the People: One of the counterforces to this rampant privatization have been the unions. What role have the unions played in the uprising?

Juanqui: First, a little context. Since at least the late 1990s after the Telefonica Strike in 1997-98, unions became really fragmented and lost a lot of power under neoliberalism. This is partly why unions have not been a big organizing force. This is not to say that there aren’t militant unions active in today’s processes. Militant unions like UTIER and others have been involved in the mobilizations and in resisting utilities privatization. They have contributed to the moment with their knowledge on the logistics of marching in massive numbers. They have also offered their offices to different movements so we can have our political meetings, reflect on what’s happening, and organize actions.

Bernat: There have been unions in the meetings and on the streets. As we mentioned, one of the demands of the mobilizations was to repeal the new labor reform, strengthen unions, and fight for job security. Something beautiful that would have happened on Monday [had Ricky not announced his resignation] – is that the union of truckers, instead of simply going on strike, put out a public statement saying “we are going to have a meeting to propose a strike but we want to know that the Puerto Rican public are ready to withstand the effects, the consequences of our striking, because if we strike there won’t be gas in the stations, there won’t be food in the stores, nor basic medicine in pharmacies. This was planned to be an indefinite strike to pressure Ricky. So they did a democratic social media referendum and people were saying, “yeah, of course, let’s do it, we are ready.” It was one of the most beautiful demonstrations of participatory democracy.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Science for the People: Let’s talk about the Right.  What has been its response to the uprising and to Ricky’s resignation? 

Juanqui: You have a very wealthy elite of criollos that really don’t know shit about el pueblo in Puerto Rico; and yet they make all the decisions, living in their own class bubble. At this time yesterday even the most conservative, pro-capitalist organizations, were like “ok, Ricky Renuncia” because we were affecting them. All the biggest malls in Puerto Rico, which are part of the political party of the governor, agreed he had to step down. The malls closed today and in previous days. Those are millions of dollars that they lost. So the economic pressure was real.

Bernat: There is something peculiar about this context though. Some people are referring to the chats as “the David Sanes of the uprising”. David Sanes was a Puerto Rican employee of the US Navy who was killed in one of the bombing practices in Vieques. His death was the catalyzing agent for the struggle to close the Navy Base in Vieques. People are calling these chats the David Sanes – i.e. the catalyzing agent- of the uprising. But there is a peculiarity. As soon as Sanes was killed, it was the organized Left that led the struggle to close the base. They were a very ecumenical, rigorous, and extremely organized part of the Left.

But in this case, an FBI intervention was among the catalyzing events. The FBI arrested Julia Keleher, the now-former Secretary of Education and five other people [on charges of steering federal money to politically connected and unqualified contractors]. So we have to be cautious because the catalytic agents were from the Right, from the colonial powers. On one side we have the FBI arrests and on the other, we have the leaked chats which came from inside the ruling party. The latter was a political fight that got blown out of proportion— I’m sure they didn’t intend for this to play out the way it did. Right now, the Party is rumbling. Right now I’m sure they’re lamenting having put that out. Those two occurrences provide context for the struggle.

Now that we have the struggle, how is the Right going to react? The sad part is that they don’t have to mobilize much for their agenda to work because Wanda Vasquéz is going to replace Ricky as interim Governor, Wanda has already been singled out for having done illegal contracts, etc. So they already put in place another corrupt figure. So she won’t change much. The sad part is that the Right doesn’t have to do that much to gain control of the political opening. That’s why we have to continue fighting and struggling. 

Juanqui: Yea, this plays well for the US Right. A part of our challenge is precisely to show, bring forward, that Trump and Ricardo Rosselló are the same in their hatred towards poor people, black people, women, all sorts of minorities, immigrants, etc, etc. This is part of the struggle: how can we unite #RickyRenuncia, #TrumpRenuncia? One sector of the Right will want a stronger Junta, with an expansion of IMF-type neoliberal policies around Puerto Rico. Some rich Puerto Ricans will benefit from that. There is another sector of the Right that wants their own sphere of autonomy over the economy. In that context, how do we move the conversation towards more radical democracy? That’s one of our great tasks.

Science for the People: Some people have called the recent uprising in Puerto Rico, the Puertorrican Summer, making a direct comparison with the Arab Spring. Do you agree with this assessment, that implies desires for longterm regime change in Puerto Rico? 

Bernat: Not only are we honored as a country by the analogy, because honestly Tahrir Square and everything that happened in the Arab Spring was inspiring to us but also because that was the first thing that popped into our minds as soon as the protests started saying “Ricky Reununcia” we said: “Ok, what happened after Mubarak? Nothing” That was very present in people’s minds.

The day after they got Mubarak out, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood took the better part of the political moment and there was no real or radical regime change. If you go to Spain, and the Occupy Movement, what they have in common is that since the Arab Spring we’ve been very good at appearing in masses everywhere, coming out hardcore in multitudes.  But then there has to be a program of political organizing after the fact, after the protests, and we have to be ready for the next step of radicalizing, for the next step of political organizing in the direction of true participatory democracy.

So this is what we’re going to see from today onwards: if we’re going to stay at that level of the Arab Spring or if we are going to take it to the next level or what we think should be the next steps in the international people’s struggles. 

Science for the People: With that in mind, what are some immediate next steps? 

Juanqui: We are calling for immediate extraordinary elections outside of the old electoral system. We mentioned some of the electoral reform demands. 

Bernat: It would be very interesting if the different sectors that have been protesting could sit at the table and, for example, with Victoria Ciudadana and actually negotiate. OK, we’re going to back you up. But not to cross our arms and say “okay, let’s see what you do”. No, the basis is to continue mobilizing. The power of the people that we have seen through the demonstrations is what sparked the idea for the assemblies. So if have enough feedback from what people want, you can sit down and say “OK, we’ll back you up but these are the demands we have”. That is the most actionable scenario that I see right now because of the way things are set. Not joining a party but putting our demands with a party who would have the possibility of gaining the support of the people who have been manifesting.

Science for the People: Do you have any advice to US-based organizations like Science for the People who stand in solidarity with the Puerto Rican protests and struggle on how to best support the efforts following Ricky’s resignation? 

Juanqui: It’s important to recognize the victory. We have to understand that this is not a revolution in the sense of a radical transformation of the system but it is a revolution in the sense of the people changing at least their ways of recognizing their power.  

Bernat: the political zeitgeist has changed.  

Juanqui: That’s powerful. For me, the topic of solidarity is crucial and beautiful. One thing is to maintain the presence of Puerto Rico in the reflections that you have- political reflections and beyond. La importancia de mantener nuestra presencia en la ecuación. The other expression of effective solidarity is to also rise up and struggle against your own oppressions in the US against ICE, against Trump, against xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Wherever you are, join the struggles there. Let’s ensure we continue to see the connections between Puerto Rico and all other struggles. So, those two things: keep us alive in your conversations and be a part of the struggle against your oppressors– which are our same oppressors. 

Bernat:  And I would not hesitate to call this an international movement in the sense that you mentioned the Arab Spring. For example, the feminist movement that we were inspired by Argentina and Spain, we’re in an international movement, we need to solidify those points. This is internationalism at work: we have to own that, we have to believe that it is an international movement. These are not just separate accidental international struggles. This is a global fight against neoliberalism, against capitalism, and against a process that denies climate change and denies that we need to mobilize now to transform in order to save the habitability of our planet.  

Juanqui: What Bernat says is crucial. I mean, yes, there is a particular political and colonial context for Puerto Rico but this is also a global struggle for radical democracy. That’s why we talk about the Arab Spring, the Puerto Rican Summer with a Caribbean taste and whatnot but this is a struggle for radical democracy and it should be everywhere. Cause otherwise—they will keep winning and nobody will be safe. 

The good news is we have the momentum. People have the power. This is democracy in practice. This is sovereignty in practice. This is decolonization in practice because, at the end of the day, colonialism is also about not identifying yourself as a human being capable of transforming the world, right? So if you’re a colonial subject you think you cannot change the world, etc. But here we as a people we toppled a fucking government. So hey, we can do this. This is self-determination.

 

 

“You Don’t Fuck With Our Dead”: The Popular Uprising in Puerto Rico [Part I]

Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, July 9, eleven pages of encrypted messages between Rosselló and high-ranking officials were released. Thousands of Puerto Ricans filled the streets in San Juan. On Saturday, the Center for Investigative Journalism released nearly 900 additional pages of leaked documents, reiterating what Puerto Ricans already know from colonial rule, disaster capitalism, neoliberalism, and repression of popular uprising: the ruling elite of the Island have no regard for the life and dignity of Puerto Ricans.  Shortly before midnight on July 24th, Governor Ricky Rosselló announced his resignation (scheduled for August 2nd). Inspired by the Arab Spring and other uprisings, sectors of the mobilizations have since increased their demands, calling for further resignations and envisioning a reorganization of Puerto Rican society along “anti-chat” lines (discussed below) and beyond.

On July 25th, Science for the People’s Puerto Rico Working Group (Science for Puerto Rico) sat down with two members of the coalition JunteGente to talk about the popular uprising, its significance, next steps, and what we can do from outside Puerto Rico to support this historic moment and its escalating demands.

Bernat Tort is a Philosophy of Science professor and a performance artist. JuanCarlos “Juanqui” Rivera Ramos is a sociologist and activist from San Juan.  Their science activism focuses on popularizing scientific ideas while fighting against pseudoscience and the oppressive uses of science. Both are active organizers in JunteGente.

Founded in 2018, JunteGente is a space for the convening of community organizations working against austerity, neoliberalIsm, and disaster capitalism towards a just, sustainable and solidary Puerto Rico. Their work is motivated by the question: what can we do together that we cannot do alone? As Bernat describes, “it is a gathering to think of the country we want, like a leftist wish-list. One of our aims is to mobilize in order to be prepared for moments of uprising precisely like the one we are living. When these openings occur, we want to be prepared to mobilize towards realizing our ideas.”

Please note that the complete video-recorded interview can be found below, at the end of the transcription.

Photo: Courtesy of Aliana Bigio

Science for the People: Congratulations on Rick Rosselló’s resignation announcement last night after 14 days of continuous protesting. What was it like to receive that news, shortly before midnight? I imagine you are both sleep-deprived! What did the streets look and feel like last night in Viejo San Juan?

Bernat: Yesterday was Juanqui’s birthday so we really upped the celebration. Now every meeting with friends is a political meeting. Everyone is pumped about what we’re going to do afterward, with ideas of where we are going to go from here. At around 10 or 11 pm I went home, thinking it wasn’t going to happen. When I get home, I hear honking on the streets. I say “Shit! He did it!” and I started watching the announcement on TV. I got in the car with my partner and we went straight to Old San Juan. We were in a traffic jam of people honking their cars with the Puerto Rican flags all over and people running through the streets. It was the feeling that people got used to the fact that the streets are ours. People were walking in the middle of the main highways as if it were normal because we had non-stop protesting for two weeks. When we got to Old San Juan, people were singing and chanting. Everyone was happy and congratulating one another. It was a very festive feeling of true accomplishment. It was beautiful. We got back home at around 4 am.

Juanqui: You know, yesterday was a very strange day because the news outlets had announced that the Governor was going to resign and deliver a message to the people before noon. This was not just rumors but the main newspapers began to announce this. Outlets in the US were also saying this. Everyone was expecting the Governor to resign before noon. There was even a press conference convened at 11 am. The international news teams were physically there, waiting for the announcement. Some news even said the governor had left Puerto Rico on a plane the night before. It was a very strange day. We were tense because we thought this was yet another example of “cogernos de pendejos” [take us for fools/idiots]. We thought ‘this is horrible. We’re gonna be MORE mad now and tomorrow we’re gonna fight this even stronger.”

Bernat: And actually, they knew [an escalation] was the probable effect because they tripled the number of fuerzas de choque (riot police) in San Juan. They thought “Ok if this guy doesn’t announce something, there is going to be a huge riot.”

Juanqui: It was just before midnight that the Governor decided to resign. Once that happened, around 11:55 pm, it was like a permanent echo of yelling, chanting, screaming. The city was alive. People were throwing fireworks and, curiously, this coincided with a perreo combativo. The creativity of the protests have been amazing. Yesterday, in front of La Fortaleza (Governor’s House) and in front of the Cathedral, there was a National Perreo Combativo. I mean the party was amazing. When the Governor resigned, it was like a carnival. July 24/25 will be definitely be remembered.

Actually, July 25 is already an important day for us because of the US Invasion and the foundation of the Estado Liberal Asociado beginning in 1952. July 25 also marks the anniversary of the police assassination in 1978 of two young independentista militants in Cerro Maravilla, in the mountains of Puerto Rico. They were set-up by the police and killed. The fact Ricky resigned on July 24th and 25th is interesting because it gives another layer of symbolism and meaning to popular struggle in Puerto Rico. 

Science for the People:  Before discussing next steps the causes of the protests. News outlets in the US had a hard time explaining the causes and timing of these protests in a contextualized way. What are the different elements motivating people from different backgrounds to protest? What brought people out of their homes and into the streets for 14 days?

Juanqui: There are many answers to this question and honestly we will have to answer it on a continuous basis. That said, the leaked chats synthesized a great deal of the structural violence that Puerto Ricans have experienced at least- at least– since 2006. I say “at least” because we can go back to 1898 or before, of course. But since 2006 we have experienced an economic depression in Puerto Rico which deepened with the 2008 economic crash in the US and around the world. Since then, we have had a demographic hemorrhage. Hundreds of thousands have left the island archipelago. Next year we’re going to begin the Population Census which, in Puerto Rico and in the US, is gathered every 10 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have less than 3 million people at this point. Last decade we were 3.8 million. So we have the economic crisis, followed by the fiscal crisis, followed by the PROMESA Law which forced us to have a Junta.

Bernat: The official name is the Fiscal Oversight Board but everyone in Puerto Rico calls it the Fiscal Control Board. In Spanish, la Junta de Control but the official name is the Junta de Supervisión.

Juanqui: Right. So this Junta is imposed by Congress, with members that are not elected by anyone. It’s like we have our own IMF– but just for Puerto Rico through Congress. It basically pushes an IMF structural adjustment agenda on Puerto Rico. On top of that, you have two hurricanes: Maria and the incredible corruption in the two parties that have ruled Puerto Rico for the past 70 years. These are all variables that motivated people onto the streets.

And then you have the youth and their motivations. First, the sheer number of young people that have participated in the protests is just amazing. These are teenagers. We’re talking about 14 year-olds, 16 year-olds, 18-year olds, as well as, of course, youth in their 20s. These are folks that were born and grew up in a place where they see no future for themselves and where their parents have had to work 2-3 jobs for them to have education, food on the table, and a roof. Some of them don’t even have a roof- some have blue tarps because they lost their home to the Hurricane or they are sharing homes with their relatives.

Bernat: The lifestyle of Puerto Ricans in this past decade and a half has been transformed. And for those growing up in Puerto Rico, there is just a different consciousness. Even those who have been doing political work for a long time are finding that this moment is a revelation.

Juanqui: If someone tells you that they know what is happening, they are lying to you. If someone tells you that there is someone leading this process,  that there is an organization leading the mobilizations, they are also lying to you. We are all trying to understand what’s happening even as we are actively participating.

That’s one aspect. Then you have communications. It’s true that people are suffering economically but most people have access to cell phones and they are informed in their own way, through their own mechanisms of communication.   Honestly, that is a very important aspect of the mobilization.

Perreo memes!


Bernat: I mean— the meme production! The number of memes that have been produced is absurd.

Juanqui: Our lack of political representation means that our popular representatives are often our musicians, social leaders, media personalities, etc. I don’t know about other societies but here popular influencers have a massive symbolic capital. I’m not even talking about very famous people like Ricky Martin who were very involved as well. I’m talking about people like Rey Charlie– someone who all of a sudden became a leader of los barrios. This is a guy who mobilized thousands of motorcyclists from the working-class barrios, from the projects. Did you see this? I’m talking about thousands of motorcycles in the night rumbling.

Bernat: —like four thousand motorcycles! When I saw the image I said, “holy shit we have a cavalry!” Last Wednesday, July 17th, we were having a political meeting in one of the plazas. Suddenly we see people running away from tear gas, and some 50 motorcycles going towards the tear gas. We were like “Hell yeah, ok these people got our back”.

Juanqui: So, this was a popular rebellion full of creativity, democratic, and without a single death. The police shot a ton of rubber bullets and there were injuries but there was not one recorded death.

Bernat: But back to context because it was one thing after another. In 2009, under Governor Luis Fortuño Law 7 was the first hard blow to the working class. It was a law that permitted, under a fiscal state of emergency, mass lay-offs of career government employees who until that day had known job security. We’re talking about 35,000 families who were suddenly facing unemployment. In some families, both parents were government employees. That started a huge migration. Families faced the real roughness of the inability to pay rent and utilities– there was a spike in utilities, in particular, electricity. That was the context BEFORE Promesa. So when you get PROMESA it’s like “Oh Cmon”.

The austerity measures included pensions, healthcare plans, the university budget that got cut in half, the closing of schools, the passing of a $4.25 minimum wage. So when Juanqui says these kids were born in a country with no future, it’s in a literal sense. They’re not going to have free and quality education like the UPR has the potential to provide, they’re not going to have well-paying jobs. Law after law was engineering Puerto Rico to be a service society for tourism, millionaires, and tax evaders. Law 20 and 22 are designed to attract millionaires to come and establish their businesses here. As long as they create at least two jobs and live here for six months, they gain access to this fiscal paradise. Law 20 and 22 were both passed in 2012 under Governor Luis Fortuño.

Bernat: And it’s about more than being poor. Four generations ago, people were poor but there was some social mobility through public education, etc. This is a generation that knows they’re going to be worse off than their parents. And their parents are impoverished and losing whatever labor conditions and job security they had. Those are the kids we’re talking about. Those are the kids on the streets.

Juanqui: It’s very important to understand the way these laws were experienced and lived. People started to see all these billionaires moving into Puerto Rico–mostly white Americans buying a lot of land, amassing properties, and gentrifying working-class neighborhoods including via AirBnB like these barrios are some tourist commune.

Bernat: We sustained the weight of all this. So what was the breaking point? In what sense were the chats the straw that broke the camel’s back? People in Puerto Rico are so used to corruption– during elections, we would argue, “Hey, why vote for these people who are from the party of members arrested for corruption?”. They reply, “well but at least they do things…they spread around the crumbs”. What the chat revealed is that not only are these politicians corrupt, they are morally corrupt. I think there was a lot of moral outcry in the sense that it was against the dignity of Puerto Ricans. What do I mean? An example was when they said “cogemos de pendejo hasta los nuestros” ….which means “we fool even our own” although “fool” doesn’t begin to capture the strength of the word pendejo. Another chat message said “I see the future for Puerto Rico. It’s beautiful- it has no Puerto Ricans”.

The beauty of the chat was that it offended everyone. There was misogyny, violence against women, violence against obesity, homophobia, disdain for the dead. That went right into the heart of Puerto Ricans. You don’t fuck with our dead. People who had to bury their own dead during Maria, some had been silent because they said ‘well, the whole country was under strain, it was a disaster’. But they carried that hurt. When the chats were published they said, “Ok, this is too much”.

Science for the People: That said, there has been no shortage of outrageous moments in Puerto Rico even just in the past few months. What factors led to sustained protesting and what can be learned from them?

Bernat: There is a lot of contingency surrounding future planning because, as Juanqui said, there were no specific leaders. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of sustained protests for years. For example, one of the demands being called for by some organizations is amnesty for all the protestors since the PROMESA protests began. The memes are saying: “you see? the pelús [hairy communists] were right! Everything they protested for was right. It’s all there in the chat– now you know it’s true and that it wasn’t just leftist paranoia”. So we cannot underestimate that effect of sustained protests for years.

To give you one example, the Colectiva Feminista had a plantón in December 2018. They said, “we’re gonna sit here in front of Fortaleza [the Governor’s Mansion] and we’re not going to move until you declare a state of emergency for gender-based violence”. Even though it didn’t work in terms of beginning a dialogue with the government, it did get coverage in the news and people all over started speaking about feminicide. There was a very horrible case of a teenager who lit his ex-girlfriend on fire. He poured gasoline on her and well, suddenly this time it became a national topic. The same thing happened with the pensions and with the dead bodies movement. These movements have been doing very important and untiring work and now their demands are part of peoples’ vocabulary. You cannot underestimate that bricklaying work. But that’s not to say this is the reason why these particular chats led to unending protest for two weeks. I have no answer. We’re all just as surprised as you are. We’re living that history but we’re trying to understand it just as you are.

Juanqui: There’s another thing. This may sound stupid but it’s the summer. Most people are working but the youth are out of school. I say most people are working but it doesn’t mean they have formal jobs. They work in the informal economy and many people have several jobs para ganarse la vida. On the other hand, some of these jobs, although precarious, are more flexible. The Center for Investigative Journalism did a great job because they didn’t just publish the leaked chats to people and media outlets, they also wrote documents analyzing the chats. Every day you had new material analyzing different aspects of the chats. Jay Fonseca is another figure that, while not a radical or intellectual, is a figure some people listen to on the radio and every day he reported on a different piece of the chat.

You have to understand that this was a really fun struggle. There is just something about el goce [the joy] that has been absolutely incredible! I mean, las convocatorias [calls to action]! This is what I mean when I say that this was not planned. People were literally inventing convocatorias like “tomorrow we’re gonna be in perreo militante!” —and people just went. Organizing an action was as easy as making a social media post and that’s it. Mira, our biggest mobilization EVER in Puerto Rican history: it was convened by some person and folks just ran with it. There were six different posters made for the same activity. We didn’t even know the route of the march. Nobody knew cómo carajo we were marching but it worked! It’s really interesting. But it all has to do with el goce. And there are lots of examples like this: one action was to do yoga in front of La Fortaleza at 6am. Hundreds of men, women, and children doing yoga to protest!

They also did Rogativas. La Rogativa is a legend based on a supposed attack on the British in the 18th century. In the legend, men, women, and children carried torches and scared away the British. In reality, in history, the attack was led by cimarrones who lived on the coast. But anyhow, people protested in all forms–from yoga to torch marches.

Photo: Willín Rodríguez


Bernat: To give you another example of how something outrageously offensive was turned into something positive: as you know, in the chats they called Melissa Mark-Viverito a whore. Suddenly there were lots of women with “PUTA” written on their bodies, going naked to the protests, with the PR flag painted on their body. There was a convening of strippers saying: Somos putas pero no corruptas (we are whores but not thieves) and they marched with their stripper clothes. It was beautiful. This was the creation of what Juanqui has called ‘the anti-chat’. The chat was the negative iteration of all these claims and people transformed their meaning via appropriations into the anti-chat, which is the positive and powerful appropriation of all the chats saying “we are here and you do not represent us”.

Juanqui: The streets reflected the diversity of our bodies, sexualities, gender identities, and even our ideas. To define the “dominant ideology” of this movement is very difficult. Maybe we can look towards the “anti-chat” to elaborate a platform of the people. Oh, you hate the poor? Well, carajo, yeah we’re poor and we need a political program that can help transform this reality and the conditions that created poverty in the first place. Oh, you hate fat people? Fat people organized and marched with shirts that read: “este gordito tu no lo coges de pendejo” and “éste no es el gordo que te perdonó.” That creativity is part of the reason the marches were sustained, although in a larger sense it really is a mystery how this all played out. We’re all still trying to understand while at the same time being involved in the everyday struggles because that’s where we have to be. You have to be there not just to understand but to have a political effect.

Science for the People: What are the most significant elements in the nearly 900 pages of leaked documents? 

Bernat: Two chat messages in particular sum up the others pretty well. The first one is: “we foresee a beautiful future for Puerto Rico, one without Puerto Ricans,” and the other is “cogemos de pendejos hasta los nuestros” [we fool even our own]. 

Juanqui: There’s another one where the Governor is making fun of poverty; of poor houses that were torn down by the hurricane. That is crucial. One that topped the glass was the mockery of the dead that said “don’t we have some cadavers we can toss to our vultures?” When they fuck with our dead, people really feel it. On the streets we try to ask people “Why brought you out here?” and many would say they have dead family and they’re making fun of our dead. They use the hurricane financial aid for their own political campaigns. Dignity has a lot to do with the power of this battle.

Bernat: Look at this meme. It says “our 4645 deads can rest in peace”. As if to say, “ok we did it. Now you can rest in peace because we kicked this bastard out.”

Juanqui: When Trump came to Puerto Rico after the Hurricane, the Governor told Trump that we had only 16 deaths. Trump said, ‘ah this isn’t a tragedy; Katrina was a tragedy’. Then came the Harvard study, where that number, 4645, comes from. Then, the government asked for a different study, and they came up with half of that number. Then the Harvard study said they had been very conservative in their estimate. In any case, the number that stayed was 4645 and you could see it everywhere in the protests: banners, graffiti, 4645 everywhere. 

Bernat: Maybe it didn’t get much international attention, but one of the most beautiful protests after Maria, involved people asking others to bring shoes of the dead ones to the Capitol buildings, in order to get 4645 shoe pairs. They wanted to collect their stories of the dead so they started doing interviews. It was very powerful. People really felt it. It was the most beautiful symbolic political protests after Maria. 

Juanqui: The government never officially did anything. They didn’t even recognize the number of deaths. They didn’t make a memorial, a tribute, nothing, nada, nothing.

Bernat: Something important to understand that you hear people saying frequently is, “yeah, I got mad about the chat but it’s not about the chat”. People have been very quick in making the jump from being offended by “puta” to saying “we have real problems. It’s not that you called me poor, it’s that I *am* poor, and it’s a systematic issue of mismanagement of funds.”

There’s a very famous, telling set of photographs side by side. One is during Hurricane Maria in Curacao, one of the hardest-hit towns, with people who spray-painted on the street “we need water- we are dying of thirst- HELP” so that helicopters could see them and bring water. Next to this image is another image of thousands of boxes of bottled water that was brought here via help from the diaspora and other international efforts. They had it in an empty, they never delivered them— purposely, so that people would go out and buy water. Everyone has seen those images, everyone knows. 

I know that Jean Baudrillard didn’t mean it this way when he said ‘the transparency of evil’ but here very literally evil was transparent. It was like “holy shit these people care NOTHING about us.”

Science for the People: Before diving into the uprising’s concrete demands, what does the organizational landscape look like? Who are some of the organized actors involved?

Bernat: Jornada: Se Acabaron las Promesas (sort of our black bloc in Puerto Rico);Colectiva Feminista; CAMs- Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (they’re huge because they don’t have a center, they’re decentralized, with different representations); some people from the independence party; IDEBAJO-Iniciativa De Ecodesarrollo De Bahia De Jobos (a regional community initiative especially active in the south around energy issues- they’re also the main organizers against the dumping of the ashes in the Bahía area); militant lawyers (who were on the streets 24/7 against police brutality and repression), Güakiá (the agro-ecological group that hosted your solidarity brigade last summer); Auditoría YA- Frente Amplio por la Auditoría de la Deuda (the debt auditing effort); Federación de Maestros; CasaPueblo; UTIER (the electricity union), and several others…

Science for the People: Ahora sí, what were the concrete demands of the protests and how they coalesce? What political openings did those demands create? Are there demands that were left out or that you personally think would have been important to include?

Bernat:  Beyond the Rosello resign, a popular one is “Ricky, renuncia y llévate a la Junta” (‘Ricky, resign and take the Oversight Committee with you’). The demands [speak to] a broader problem: we are living in an undemocratic and corrupt [society] by design. The PROMESA law has provisions that state committee members can be legally bribed. They can get benefits from doing different deals with different institutions. It’s legalized corruption. El colmo del descaro.

What some people are discussing is that if someone from Ricky’s own party substitutes him, nothing really changes. The changes we favor include electoral reform, that could go in the direction of referendos recursatorios to facilitate kicking someone out. We could also have two cycles of elections, allowing coalitions of minority parties so they can negotiate a shared government. Proportional voting as well, if a party gets 20% of the vote, they get 20% of the government and so on. 

 

Science for the People: Are these popular demands? How much support do these and other demands have? 

Bernat: The organizations we’ve been working with all agree to most of these demands. Today begins the hardest part of the organizing. Regarding elections, there are also demands to audit the debt, repeal the PROMESA law, and abolishing the Junta. There are also demands around the gender-violence emergency. There are very high numbers and there’s a high correlation between economic depression and gender violence. If the man is constructed under machismo as being the bread-winner and there are no jobs, you’re no longer a man. This correlation has been studied; when economic depression comes, a way of expressing masculinity is by submitting the other to your power. There’s a huge gender-based emergency in Puerto Rico. 

Another demand is to repeal the new labor reform, which enables employers to hire employees for a “trial period” of six months after which they can lay you off without any reason, benefits or compensation. This was one of the many neoliberal laws that were passed to supposedly revive the economy. One of the demands is to regain job security and to strengthen unions. 

The more radical groups are saying- and we agree- that even if it cannot happen now, we should at least throw the idea out there to create asambleas del pueblo, popular assemblies. This generation knows that they have political power. If we reach a critical mass, we can turn government towards us and negotiate. If people start popular assemblies, we can start thinking “can we do a provisional government?” “Can we do a transitional government?” Because we know it’s not enough that he resigns. We have to stop every contract that this corrupt government has made, and that we already know are illegal. Not only that, we need to make those people pay. We need to bring criminal charges against them and restitute all that money they’ve stolen. One of the demands is to restitute that money back to the public books, las arcas publicas.

Juanqui: We have experienced a democratization process. We are talking of maybe a million people who took action or somehow participated throughout Puerto Rico. Imagine the proportions, almost 1 in 3 people. How can we keep this democratization process going? That’s where JunteGente wants to put its energy. We have to do that through direct democracy, like the assemblies, but also in making representative democratic processes more democratic and transparent. Pushing for those reforms while trying to expand those non-reformist reforms…

 

Science for the People: What about the status question? From the outside, it seems like the status question didn’t play a central role. Is that accurate?

Juanqui: that is totally accurate and it’s integral to many people’s political work including ours as JunteGente . The status question has been the black hole of radical politics in Puerto Rico. Our colonial relation to the United States is obviously crucial to our political context. That is crucial to recognize and not diminish that it but, as you just said, these protests were not about the status question. They were an intersectional popular uprising about race, class, gender, our bodies. Even though, yes, the Puerto Rican flag was everywhere in all its colors: the Resistance flag, the rainbow colors, the traditional colors, and so on.

Bernat: I think it [the non-centrality of the status question] was not instinctive or spontaneous but rather there was a conscious move towards that. The first big manifestation on Monday, July 8th was from the Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion. It was convened by Victoria Ciudadana, which is a new party for social justice that has no official position on the status question. In doing so, it is trying to disassociate radical politics from the status question because, as Juanqui says, there’s been a collapse between the independent movement and leftist politics as if they were the same thing—-which they’re not. There are very conservative people who are pro-Independence and by doing that collapse we are preventing ourselves from tapping into radical people who are pro-statehood or have other status ideologies. It is a black hole in the sense that radical social justice movements cannot grow beyond the traditional nationalist Left because of that collapse. So this party has been key in separating those aspects. Even though they were the convening voice in that specific manifestation, they did not bring ANY of their own party flags. They did not do a political hearing. When I arrived I saw about six flags of the independence party and my first reaction was: why do they do this? They did not convene it. This is a movement of the people. And people called them out, signaled it…and for the following manifestation, no one brought their flags. The organizations reached a consensus that this was simply not the time to bring out your organization flags. It was a march of the Puerto Rican people and I think that was KEY to your question of why people kept coming. This was different.

Juanqui: Victoria Ciudadana is just beginning. They’re not massive. Over the past decade, there have been different political attempts to go beyond the status question around social justice and bi-partisanism (which is actually a tri-partisanism) in which all parties are defined by their status position regarding the US. The problem with that is that people align according to status question and forget about all the policies that work against it.

One of the things we try to change is precisely the use of terms. For example, “soberanía”: the independence movement uses the term soberanÍa. We try to say “ok but let’s look at the different kinds of soberanías: food sovereignty, soberanías del pueblo, bodily sovereignty,  energy sovereignty, etc. This allows people, regardless of where they stand on the status question, to relate to food sovereignty: “I want to grow my own food, I want my community to be able to have food and not need to depend on a chain”. Likewise to be able to relate to the feminist movement based on discourses of bodily sovereignty, reproductive justice, sexual sovereignty, the right to safe abortions, etc.

What’s happening now is the people’s sovereignty: regardless if we are a colony or not, this is popular sovereignty. Yes, under US rule but we are making radical transformations even under the current circumstances. Part of the discourse is “oh first we have to be independent and then we can do other things”. People are tired of waiting.

 

Continue Reading: ‘Mubarak On Our Mind’: The Popular Uprising in Puerto Rico Part II 

View the complete video-recorded interview below.

 

 

Science for the People’s first Solidarity Brigade to Puerto Rico

After Hurricane Maria made shore on archipelago of Puerto Rico in the early hours of September 20, 2017, the island struggled to adapt to new realities. Maria’s Category 4 winds of over 150 mph shaped the landscape unlike any other natural phenomenon before. The storm shocked Puerto Rico. The Island was already weakened by divestment from public infrastructure and austerity programs far worse than those imposed on Greece and other European countries after debt crises caused by the US economic financial collapse in 2007. Similar to the Greek debt, the legality of some of the Puerto Rican debt is questionable.

Science for the People brigadiers join a rally in protest of the imposed debt and austerity measures and in demand of a citizen debt audit.

The people of Puerto Rico are US citizens residents of a US territory considered “foreign in a domestic sense”. This categorization amplifies inequalities on the Island and renders citizens practically helpless in the eyes of Congress. Nevertheless, this is not a story about helplessness but about resistance and organizing on the “island of enchantment”.

Many initiatives working under the flag of “recovery” for Puerto Rico follow a pattern of “disaster capitalism” well described by Naomi Klein in her book “The Battle for Paradise.” Much of the local government’s response to jump start the economy of the island was focused on attracting corporate magnates and crypto currency investors. A recovery plan that was very welcomed by the Trump administration which has repeatedly proven its disregard for the People of Puerto Rico and is well aligned with Puerto Rico’s colonial history of exploitation and subjugation of its citizens.

Amid this scenario, the Puerto Rico Working Group of Science for the People set out to support recovery efforts on Puerto Rico, organized by the people of Puerto Rico, whose aim is not only to oppose disaster capitalism but also create a different reality, a new social economy that is truly sustainable and beneficial to the people of Puerto Rico and the planet as a whole.

On July 19, 2018, our first Puerto Rico solidarity brigade traveled to the island with eight members of Science for the People from Ann Arbor, Atlanta, New York City, and the At-Large chapters, and were joined by a member of the Free Radicals. Our aim was not only to provide labor to tangibly contribute to building a resilient Puerto Rico for the people but also to deepen our understanding of the sociopolitical situation and further build the network of partners in the struggle for social justice and a decolonized Puerto Rico.

Collectivo Agroecologico Güakiá

The brigade’s efforts were focused primarily on supporting Güakiá, our host organization (watch a short documentary about Güakiá). On their eleven acre farm we camped near their recently built gazebo which became our base of operations for the following ten days, joining another solidarity brigade based out of New Orleans. We shared a week filled with rich conversations about agriculture, ecology, politics, and food justice as we got to know each other.

Campsite and gazebo where we convened to cook and brief about the daily work.

The Güakiá project is built on the principles of Agroecology, a new approach to agriculture that places the ecological sciences at its center and thus acknowledges the farm’s impact on its surroundings, and the deep interconnections of the farm and its environment. As such it promotes sustainable agricultural practices but also includes socio-political dimensions by considering food accessibility, farmer well-being, and the relationship between farmers and the community. The Güakiá collective takes this mission very seriously and is organizing with the neighboring community of San Carlos, one of many communities that struggled with food shortages after the hurricane, to pursue a self-sustainable future. Already before the farming they run a food composting project with the community. Watch a short news report featuring Güakiá members, a community member, and SftP brigadiers (el comunicado en español).

Science for the People activists David Hofmann (L), Chelsea Dunn (R), and Güakiá member Ricardo Diaz Soto (C) working on the setup of the composting lot at the farm.

At the farm, we helped to clear the land, learning how to use machetes to cut tall grass.  We built a perimeter fence with posts and barbed wire. We built community compost bins and cleaned out rubbish accumulated from fields lying fallow for years. In addition, we commenced the construction of a composting toilet, an essential part of Güakiá’s integral sustainability plan. All tasks were laced with conversations about agroecology, food sovereignty, and the US’s colonial occupation of Puerto Rico. Güakiá members put a lot of efforts in explaining these concepts and how their projects contribute to building food sovereignty on an island-nation that today imports more than 90% of its produce, while a large part of its agricultural economy is devoted to lucrative cash-crops benefiting the big agriculture rather than the island’s population. During the hurricanes in 2017 the port of San Juan, the island’s only entry port, was blocked resulting in food shortages which made it even more clear that the current agricultural system is not resilient, is not build to help the island’s residents and must urgently be changed

(L-R) Esther Aviles, Francisco Díaz Ramos, and Ricardo Diaz Soto working on setting up the barbed wire fence surrounding the farm.

Our efforts contributed to preparing  the land for its first seeding which took place in the winter of 2018. The Science for the People working group has regular calls with the collective to keep strengthening the project with the resources and knowledge we can offer from afar. In the meanwhile we ramp up organizing for sending our next brigade in late 2019/early 2020. If you want to know more about what we are up to reach out to Bolívar Aponte.

The work bears fruits: view on a small patch of the farmland including the gazebo and fields with the first growing crops! Photo from February 2019.

El Hormiguero

Day 1: Universidad Sin Fronteras and Cine Hormiga

On Monday, July 23, the brigade visited El Hormiguero, a community center in the heart of Santurce, a barrio of the capital San Juan, to attend the workshop on PROMESA, climate change, and community efforts. Members of the organization Universidad Sin Fronteras conducted this workshop that consisted of two informative speeches about the topic and a breakout group brainstorming session on steps and strategies to take for the community to build resiliency. It also featured a kids space where our youngest could play but also collect their thoughts on the future of Puerto Rico.

PROMESA is a tastelessly sarcastic acronym given to a U.S. federal law of 2016 that was put in place to deal with the debt crisis by – as is unsurprising for disaster capitalist agenda – imposing austerity programs like the closure of several hundreds of public schools, major university funding cuts of one third of the annual budget that threatens to result in closure of up to seven campuses and resulted in a hike of student fees among other detrimental consequences to Puerto Rico’s education system. PROMESA established a fiscal control board that assures US government’s domination of Puerto Rico’s economy. Puerto Rico’s citizen aptly call it “La Junta”. It empowers a board of seven members appointed by the US president to decide on and dictate changes to fiscal plans put forth by the Puerto Rican government and has since enforced widespread austerity measures heavily affecting the education system, labor, and the islands energy infrastructure. Hundreds of schools have been closed across the island, major cuts to universities have been imposed. The working class see slashing of sick leave and vacation pay, the Christmas bonus has been cut and the workforce finds themselves pushed into tourism industry. Moreover it supports the privatization of Prepa, the island’s publicly owned power company.

El Hormiguero is a self-organized community center in a previously abandoned building. Before the hurricane, a group of activists and community members occupied the building; building equipped it with a workshop, library, and small garden, and started using the space for community meetings and education. After hurricane Maria, El Hormiguero (“ant’s nest” in Spanish), has been an integral part  of grassroots recovery efforts. On our first visit to the community center, we met with members of Universidad Sin Fronteras, an organization dedicated to decolonizing education and developing critical consciousness through emancipatory pedagogy in Puerto Rico and the continental US. Universidad Sin Fronteras works with social movements, organizations, and individuals. We had a formal conversation as a group about the the political situation in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria and how the natural hazard exacerbated the highlighted the political and economic disaster in Puerto Rico.

In the evening, member of El Hormiguero, community members and the SfTP brigade watched the documentary movie at their weekly movie forum Cine Hormiga.  The forum gave way to a  lively discussion on the failure of capitalism, the alternatives of anarchism and socialism, and the role of science in Puerto Rico. Participants discussed in English and Spanish, facilitated by translation by our members and participants.

Group photo with the local organizers from El Hormiguero and Universidad sin Fronteras after the political education workshop.

El Hormiguero

Day 2: Solar Brigade

On our second visit to El Hormiguero we participated in a solar brigade, where we learned about the technology of solar panels: from Ohm’s law to the wiring of the panels.

An activist with El Hormiguero and organizer of the solar brigade shares his self-taught expertise on solar cells with the brigadiers and community members.

Together with interested members of the surrounding San Juan community we assisted in installing and starting up solar panels on the El Hormiguero building. We were excited to witness the first time that the fans at El Hormiguero were powered by the sun! It is nothing short of astonishing that the organizers of El Hormiguero were able to arrange and install a rooftop solar system, powerful enough to run the appliances used in the building, with only roughly $1,500, the knowledge and know-how all self-taught: a prime example on how community can build resiliency by mutual support.

After the successful installation organizers, brigadiers, and community members joined for a reflective discussion on the situation of the energy infrastructure of the island. A community person pointed out how simple – and even cheap – it can be to install solar panels while thinking about the many deaths that could have been prevented if a resilient, decentralized solar infrastructure had been invested in by the authorities. Deaths that have been the consequence of the long lasting lack of electricity in many communities after the hurricane. Many had no current for months, some almost a year. The solar brigade was yet another great example of community self-organization and we are deeply grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend and share this learning experience.

The organizer of the solar brigade is about to connect the solar panels that the group just placed and oriented on the roof of El Hormiguero.

An excursion to the center of the island:

Casa Pueblo and Coffee Agroecology

Another opportunity to learn about sustainable energy and ways to build a resilient, autonomous Puerto Rico was our visit to Casa Pueblo, a long-standing community organization and center, which for a large number of residents became the only source of electrical energy after the hurricane destroyed the centralized energy grid on the entire island.

Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, the mountainous center of the island.

A two-hour drive from our campsite, Casa Pueblo is located in the town of Adjuntas in the central mountainous region of Puerto Rico. We were given a tour that introduced us to the history of the community organization and its ongoing projects. We met with Arturo Massol Deyá, professor of Biology and Associate Director of Casa Pueblo, who informed us about Casa Pueblo’s long standing commitment to sustainable forestry, rooted in environmental struggles against a copper mining project in the 1970s. Today, with electricity supplied by solar panels, Casa  Pueblo is completely self-sustaining and has spearheaded a debate on energy democracy and sustainable energy in Puerto Rico. We were joined by Heidi Morales, a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico and organizer for the Puerto Rico March for Science. Our visit coincided with a visit from a delegation of the US Congress to Casa Pueblo led by Nancy Pelosi. The delegation’s objective was to learn about Casa Pueblo’s response after Hurricane Maria and recognize their contributions to the community. In addressing the delegation, Massol Deyá highlighted the hypocrisy and incongruities of the current political system in Puerto Rico that perpetuate a colonial relationship with the US and contributes to energy dependency of the island.

Arturo Massol Deyá informing our brigade about the history of Casa Pueblo.

We want to express our deepest gratitude and honor the effort of Arturo Massol Deyá to join us and answer all the questions we had just half an hour before the US delegation of 14 Congress people visited Casa Pueblo. This kind of leadership that would pay equal attention to a grassroots organization as it does to members of the US Congress is quite rare in our experience.

Leadership like the one of Casa Pueblo is needed and needs to find solidarity and support, but local authorities provide the opposite: the same night of our visit, Arturo Massol was arrested by the police for false allegations of drunk driving. This kind of harassment is common for environmental activists who have faced prosecution for the past decades as their work often challenges capitalist exploitation of the natural habitat and resources of Puerto Rico.

Coffee Agroecology and the politics “el campo”

After Casa Pueblo we set out to explore some more of the island’s highlands and met with Science for the People members Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer of the Ann Arbor Chapter and their students at an experimental coffee farm where they are doing agroecological research on methods of pest control. Besides learning about the natural challenges coffee farmers face we also heard about the increased interest of multinational corporations – among them Coca Cola – in coffee farms and production on the island ruining the market for traditional farmers. Here you can read an analysis of the coffee farming situation in Puerto Rico.

At the coffee farm in the fields we learn from Ivette Perfecto (L) about the challenges faced by coffee farmers by an invasive ant species and what an agroecological treatment of the issue can look like.

Interviews

Throughout the course of our stay, members of the brigade arranged interviews with a dozen union and social movement leaders from diverse sectors, including education, health, the environment, energy, academia, and agriculture. Interviews focused on the history of anti-colonial resistance and the efforts within each sector to confront the challenges posed by austerity and disaster capitalism, namely the ongoing privatization offensive and its union-busting, dissent criminalizing tactics. The interviews allowed us  coalition-building process of identifying common adversaries, establishing collective demands and developing joint visions and alternatives between and across sectors of Puerto Rican society. Among the common themes was the tendency to draw inspiration from other anti-colonial struggles and climate justice movements in Latin America and beyond, emphasizing that, while the Puerto Rican example has geographic and historical specificities, there is nothing exceptional about the confrontation of repression and resistance on the Island. This tendency to look internationally for common histories was paired with the understanding that climate justice movements around the world are looking to Puerto Rico for lessons, warnings and inspiration. We hope to soon transcribe and publish the content of these interviews for our further political education and analysis. For this, we need your help! If you can help transcribe, edit, and/or translate interviews, please contact our point person Bolívar Aponte.

Left photo: (L-R) Ruth Arroyo Muñoz, feminist lawyer, labor union consultant, member of Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (PPT); Laura Peñaranda, SftP member who organized and conducted several interviews.
Right photo: (L-R) Laura Peñaranda, Angel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the labor union UTIER, one of the main unions representing workers of the national power company Prepa that currently faces privatization.

Conclusion

We thank our friends at Güakià for their hospitality and dedication and for being an inspiration as they face and overcome monumental challenges establishing their agroecological farm besides working in full-time jobs. Thanks also to our friends at Universidad Sin Fronteras for sharing with us their knowledge and analysis regarding PROMESA and the political situation in Puerto Rico. We also thank El Hormiguero for opening their doors to us and providing educational workshops.

Gracias a las y los compañeros de Güakià por su hospitalidad, dedicación y por ser una inspiración frente a los retos monumentales que implica fundar una finca agroecológica además de mantener trabajos de tiempo completo. Gracias también a nuestros compañeros y compañeras de la Universidad Sin Fronteras por compartir con nosotros su conocimiento y análisis sobre la ley PROMESA y la situación política en Puerto Rico. Agradecemos además a El Hormiguero por abrirnos sus puertas y auspiciar los talleres de educación política y de instalación de paneles solares.

Members of the SftP solidarity brigade to Puerto Rico, summer 2018:

Bolívar A. Aponte Rolón (co-coordinator – Ann Arbor, MI), David Hofmann (co-coordinator – Atlanta, GA), Sheila & Frank Rosenthal (West Lafayette, IN), Bethany Sumner (Atlanta, GA), Chelsea Dunn (Atlanta, GA), Amber Keller y niño Kumani (Atlanta, GA), Laura Peñaranda (NYC), and Esther Aviles (member of Free Radicals – NY).

Special thanks to Kathleen Baker for her financial support that allowed one member, Laura Peñaranda, to join the brigade, as well as cover expenses for a first aid kid and other needed tools.

Read more about Puerto Rico’s struggle and its socio-political situation in the 70’ies in the Science for the People magazine archives:

Help Us Launch “The Return of Radical Science”

 

Hey Science for the People!

We’re really excited to share that we’ve launched a fundraiser to return Science for the People magazine to print starting with our relaunch issue this May.

Donate to the fundraiser –  http://kck.st/2HrLcIP

From 1969 to 1989, Science for the People served as the forceful voice for a generation of scientists seeking to build justice within science and with science. Now, with scientists again under attack and science once again used to prop up the power structures that have failed us, we’re returning with new urgency to regular publication. Last year, we kicked off our publishing with a special collection on geoengineering and the dangerous claim that technology – rather than radically reshaping our society – will save us from climate disaster.

Our spring 2019 issue has the theme “The Return of Radical Science.” It’s not just about fighting fossil fueled capitalism – we’re wresting control of scientific inquiry from militarism and the surveillance state, we’re examining how to organize science workers to share the fruits of discovery within and outside of academia, and we’re confronting the colonial and patriarchal power structures within science to make sure that science truly is for the people. But we need your help.

If we meet our goal of $20,000, we’ll produce a special print run of our relaunch issue, alongside our geoengineering collection, and deliver it to our backers, and be able to continue digital publication of the new magazine indefinitely. If we meet our stretch goal of $30,000, we’ll return immediately to print publication, distributing two more issues this summer and fall on themes too be announced.

The fundraiser starts this Monday, March 18. We hope you can join us for a special teleconference call this Thursday, March 21at 9 p.m. Eastern time, to discuss what you can do to help spread the news of Science for the People’s return far and wide. Instructions for calling in are below. If you can’t make the launch call, please keep an eye on our FacebookTwitter,Instagram, or website for when the campaign goes live!

The teleconference will be held at 9pm Eastern Time on Thursday, March 21 over Zoom, a teleconferencing service you can join over your phone or on your computer.

ON YOUR COMPUTER: click this link (https://zoom.us/j/584761970)

ON YOUR PHONE: call one of the following numbers, then enter meeting ID 584 76 1970:
– For a faster connection in the Eastern US: +1 (646) 876-9923 
– For a faster connection in the Western US +1 (669) 900-6833 
– Callers in Mexico can call +52 229 910 0061 or +52 554 161 4288
– Those in other countries can click here for a list of local numbers (https://zoom.us/u/ad9TFnO5Cw)

LEARN MORE

You can read more about how different editorial collectives will gather perspectives for each issue of Science for the People on the magazine’s website, or explore the archives that countless volunteers have been working to digitize over the last year. Learn about the amazing work our chapters are doing to build power on the organization’s website, or learn how to get involved or start your own chapter by emailing sftp.revitalization@gmail.com.

We’re so inspired by the work that the revitalized Science for the People is doing. Will you join us in sharing this work with the world?

Donate to the fundraiser –  http://kck.st/2HrLcIP

In solidarity,

Christopher Dols, SftP Publisher
Emily Glaser, SftP Managing Editor
Benjamin Allen, SftP Secretary
Erik Hetzner, SftP Treasurer

Coca isn’t the Problem; Glyphosate isn’t the Solution: How the Debate around Aerial Fumigations Diverts Attention from Peace Agreement Alternatives

Coca cultivation in Briceño, Antioquia. Photo by Isabel Peñaranda

 

In Colombia, the herbicide glyphosate is once again making headlines after right-wing President Iván Duque urged Congress to overturn a 2015 ban on aerial fumigations intended to eradicate coca cultivations. This comes as the Duque administration seeks to back-out of the 2016 Peace Agreement by objecting to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a central component of the Agreements. While there is no scientific consensus on the health effects of glyphosate fumigations, contradictory results in major studies must lead us to employ the cautionary principle. By arguing that glyphosate is safe and effective, Duque and his allies are further justifying their de-facto annulment of the historic 2016 Peace Agreement, specifically points I and IV on land reform and illicit crop substitution respectively. It is important to engage with the health-based debate while maintaining sight of the larger structural issues, namely land reform.  

Glyphosate in Colombia

Since 1978, Colombia has used glyphosate in its aerial fumigations. Between 1999 and 2015 over 1,800,000 hectares were sprayed with the herbicide to kill illicit crops, beginning with marihuana and transitioning to coca and poppy. Glyphosate fumigations of coca cultivations were domestically framed as a means of eliminating an important revenue stream for the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). For years, campesino communities protested the criminalization of coca and the use of glyphosate, linking the latter to damaging health effects, spoiled agricultural crops, and contaminated water sources. After decades of organized strikes and mobilizations, the Colombian government finally announced in 2015, during the Peace Negotiations, that it would at last ban the use of glyphosate for aerial spraying, citing health concerns. Following pressure from the US, in 2016 it resumed the use of glyphosate, this time using drones rather than helicopters and planes.

Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, was patented by Monsanto in 1970 and is the active ingredient in Roundup. International regulatory bodies have published conflicting results regarding its health impacts. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has described glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” pointing to ““convincing evidence that glyphosate (…) can cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Specifically, recent studies have shown a compelling link between exposures to Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) and increased risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL, a cancer of the lymphatic tissue). Alejandro Gaviria, a former Minister of Health, has linked the fumigations to “a high probability of infant mortality increases, dermatological and respiratory problems, and possible interference with embryonic development”.

Ineffective and Counterproductive Policy

Even if glyphosate were safe, fumigations in Colombia and beyond are ineffective and counterproductive. From Afghanistan to Vietnam, aerial fumigations have more often been used as commercial opportunities or chemical and agricultural warfare than effective policy. In Colombia’s Valle del Guamuez, rural areas were founded with names like Arenosa (“The Sandy”) after fumigations dried up the land. Communities learn to adapt their coca farming to fumigations but they give up on agricultural crops. Fumigations further aggravate internal displacement in a country with the second highest IDP (internally displaced persons) population in the world. Fumigations eradicate farming communities, not coca cultivation.

We do not yet know the results of the Congressional debate on the use of glyphosate. While there were more speakers in favor of upholding the current glyphosate ban, we know that the administration of Iván Duque is under significant pressure from the US.

The Trump administration has been “seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements” unless coca cultivations change their course. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding Colombia, stating, “what we’ve said is you have to get back to allowing the spraying of these fields, the destruction of the fields.” Earlier, in 2014, the State Department had complained about protests against fumigations: “National level protests blocking access roads and inhibiting movement were a major hindrance to manual eradication’s ability to operate in major coca growing regions, and also bedeviled aerial eradication operations.” But perhaps the bluntest explanation came from former US Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, a top counternarcotics official at the State Department for the Trump administration. Collective action and road-blocking, he observed, were not a problem during aerial fumigations. “You cannot protest from the ground an airplane that is flying over a coca field and killing the coca from the air”…

The renewed debate around glyphosate is particularly disturbing because Colombia has tested, proven, and agreed-upon alternatives. The 2016 Peace Agreement’s points I and IV address Land Reform and Crop Substitution respectively. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that voluntary crop substitution programs, the basis of the Fourth Point, are overwhelmingly more effective than fumigations and other forms of forced eradication. Their report affirms that just 0.6% of coca cultivations are re-planted under voluntary crop substitution programs while, under forced eradication programs, 30% of crops are re-planted in the first three months and over 50% of crops are re-planted within the year. The high rates of re-cultivation are the result of a policy that does not address the basic need for a stable sustenance– the reason families cultivate coca.

Beyond crop substitution, Colombia needs land reform. Nearly seventy percent of the country’s productive land is concentrated in 0.4 percent of agricultural landholdings, Oxfam reports. As long as this reality holds, no form of coca eradication has a chance of succeeding. We can and should debate about glyphosate without losing sight of the more central, historic debate in Colombia.

Further readings:

The problem of glyphosate spraying, by Pedro Arenas

Coca and Agriculture in Post- Peace Accord Colombia (Part I) and After the Peace Accord, Violence Persists in Colombia’s Coca Regions (Part II) by Isabel Peñaranda

En la Corte, el Gobierno está casi solo en su defensa de la fumigación con glifosato, by Juanita Vélez and Adelaida Ávila Cabrera

Twilight Hour of Coca Fumigation in Colombia Shows its Injustice, Ineffectiveness, by Adam Schaffer and Coletta A. Youngers

The Cocalera Marches: An Expression of the Right to Demand Rights, by Luis Felipe Cruz

Atlanta Chapter Report

If it hasn’t been clear before, the latest IPCC report has put the crisis in plain view: life on Earth as we know is threatened, and the window of opportunity to avoid the worst is closing quickly. We have a seemingly vanishing timeframe of only twelve years to halve our carbon emissions compared to the year 2010.

Is all lost? No, not yet! While leaders continue to promote extraction of fossil fuels, or are, at best, reluctant in their actions, the citizens of the world, the people, rise up, demand change, and create change (e.g., Europe, Puerto Rico, and California). It is the people who have the vision and create movements and alliances that ultimately will break up the cultural hegemony, advocated by the current elites, which continues to fuel climate change. Science for the People has drawn attention to how corporations successfully lobby politicians into policies that just serve their profit. Frank Bove, an activist and organizer with SftP in its early days and now a member of the Atlanta chapter, published an article in the Science for the People Magazine in 1979 that exposed how the young technology of solar cells was already under attack by oil lobbies. Decisions around climate change are beholden to corporate profits and a perpetual growth-driven economy, in other words: capitalism.

Science for the People rises with the people, in the streets and at our writing desks, at the front lines to build a better tomorrow–together!

On September 8th 2018 we rose for Climate, Jobs, and Justice. The Science for the People Atlanta chapter co-organized a rally with 350.org Atlanta, Sierra Club Georgia, and 1.5 Degree Patrol, featuring a panel made of several local social justice organizations: Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions (W.A.N.D.), Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, The New Georgia Project, and WRFG Labor Forum. We were joined by about 100 people at the Flipper Temple American Methodist Episcopal Church in Southwest Atlanta to talk about capitalism, social justice, and climate change (event in the news).

This event was part of an international climate action arranged by the large coalition People’s Climate Movement. It was organized in response to California Governor Jerry Brown’s Climate Summit and drew attention to the fact that our leaders are not moving fast and bold enough to push back fossil fuel industry and avoid the worst climate scenarios.

(L-R) DeAnna (Dia) Parker (Los Vecinos de Buford Highway), Neil Sardana (Atlanta Jobs with Justice), Lindsay Harper (Georgia W.A.N.D.), Dianne Mathiowetz (WRFG Labor Forum), Billy Michael Honor (The New Georgia Project)

Tom Thrasher from 350.org Atlanta, main event organizer, at the opening of the panel discussion at the Flipper Temple with filled about 100 people.

Dr. Jasmine Clark, scientist, former March for Science Atlanta director, and Representative-Elect from Georgia’s House District 108, speaking to the rally participants.

(L-R) Jordan French, David Hofmann, and Chris Smoot at the Science for the People info table.

On September 22nd, the Atlanta chapter, together with our partner organization, EcoAction, tabled at the Just Energy Summit at Morehouse College. This event featured scholars, social and environmental justice activists, and policy makers discussing strategies to achieve energy justice in the metro Atlanta area. Energy democracy was at the center of the discussion as was the city council’s resolution to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050. Some of our members, including Jordan French, Chris Smoot, Amber Keller, and Frank Bove engaged with the participants and joined the event’s working groups. Our tabling at the Just Energy Summit set in motion steps for SftP Atlanta to become part of Atlanta’s “Just Energy Circle”, a coalition of community and grassroots organizations addressing social and environmental justice issues.

These are examples of our continuous effort to build bridges and establish collaboration with marginalized communities, where we seek to support by providing access to resources through intentional community-based organizing initiatives for a better and more just Atlanta. Both events occurred in Southwest Atlanta’s historically Black district where environmental injustice specifically has been an issue for generations.

To help achieve our goal of collaboration with local groups in Atlanta, our SftP chapter focused its work on the intersection of climate change and social justice beginning in early 2018. As Atlanta’s city council came forth with a resolution in late 2017 to transition to 100% clean energy, our chapter decided to devote our monthly reading and discussion group to this topic to educate ourselves and our community on how to transition in an equitable way. In these reading group sessions we covered theoretical concepts such as Marx and Engels’ concept of the metabolic rift, the cause and impact of climate change on a global scale, and local solutions like energy democracy as a means to achieve an equitable clean energy transition. Energy democracy is a crucial concept to highlight since it prescribes the dissemination of decentralized renewable infrastructure, which will put energy production, and thus power, into the hands of the people, and creates the potential for thousands of well-paid jobs. Energy democracy is a key vehicle for the city of Atlanta’s equitable clean energy transition, as well as, on a federal scale, the “Green New Deal” that was put forward recently by congresswoman-elect Ocasio-Cortez. Finally, we learned technical and political aspects of how to integrate renewables into the existing energy grid which concluded this year’s reading group.

Besides these actions in 2018 we successfully organized and supported several other events: together with Metro Atlanta DSA we picketed a Microsoft store in solidarity with Microsoft’s workforce that joined the #NoTechForICE movement (more here), four of our members joined the Science for the People Puerto Rico solidarity brigade (more here), and finally we supported the organizing of the local March for Science (more here).

These activities have provided a solid foundation for our chapter to grow into the next year, continue developing partnerships and forming alliances with other grassroots organizations. Our goal is to extend the discussion about climate change and advocate for a just transition to renewable energy in Atlanta. Our chapter, currently, has about 10 active members and over 100 subscribers to our listserv.

College Park Chapter Report

The College Park (University of Maryland) chapter of Science for the People is just getting started. This semester, we’ve been hosting biweekly discussion groups as we try to find a core group and gain a better understanding for what important on-campus issues we’d like to work on. So far this semester we’ve discussed issues like how experts should interact with democracy, the science of sex and gender and how it relates to transgender rights, and climate change and ecological economics. At this point, we have 5-6 regular participants who are clearly interested in building a larger, more capable group.

Like any university, Maryland has plenty of issues we could tackle head-on: Vice called the University of Maryland America’s most militarized university; our proximity to DC allows for easy activism on federal politics (Congressional visits, etc); and the university is currently experiencing some political pressure from students who want us to cancel a contract with ICE. We’re looking forward to the spring semester and figuring out exactly how we can move from our regular reading groups to real action.

Ann Arbor Chapter Report

The Ann Arbor chapter of SftP has recently focused on the issues of climate change, reproductive justice, and solidarity strategy.

Actions around climate change have primarily been in collaboration with the Climate Action Movement (CAM) at the University of Michigan to put pressure on the U-M President and administration to develop a plan for carbon neutrality that is aggressive and incorporates the principles of environmental justice. SftP members were instrumental in aggregating data to assess University progress toward climate goals and, with CAM, developed a set of emissions reductions targets in accordance with the the latest IPCC recommendations for limiting warming to 1.5C. SftP and CAM members drafted resolutions based on the recommendations, which were then passed unanimously through student and faculty governments. Current work is focused on garnering a commitment in adherence to these recommendations from the President and Regents of the university, with tactics including official testimony, op-eds in university publications, and organizing direct actions.

We have also been working to introduce those engaged in climate action to a larger critique of the social structures at the root of the climate crisis. Along these lines, we have partnered with the local Marxist Collective to host Jason Moore for several speaking engagements at the University this Spring. Jason Moore is an environmental historian who is known for his books and essays on environmental history, capitalism, and social theory. Furthermore, a subgroup of SftP members are actively advocating to incorporate a course in the core curriculum in the School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M that more adequately incorporates environmental justice, critical analysis and environmental ethics.

SftP members have conducted a number of direct actions in solidarity with larger campaigns. These have included: 1) targeting events hosted by banks responsible for financing environmentally destructive pipelines with blatant disregard of indigenous land and rights; 2) advocating for effective and unbiased local police oversight; 3) debunking pseudo-scientific claims made by an anti-immigrant speaker.

Ann Arbor SftP periodically facilitates Science for Who events with an open discussion between panelists and community members about a specific area of science and its interplay with society-at-large. Our upcoming topic will revolve around reproductive justice, with invited panelists having expertise in the history of eugenics and genetic counseling, women’s studies, and reproductive ethnography. Science for Who has provided an informal setting (over food) to engage with and learn about the deeper implications of a variety of fields and served as the first point of contact with SftP for many members.

East Tennessee Chapter Report

Science for the People East Tennessee research party

The East Tennessee chapter of Science for the People is centered in Knoxville, but the activities of our membership extend to Oak Ridge and into the rural areas of the region. The largest research institutions in the area are the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory – the largest research and development facility for the US Department of Energy. We began to form around the time of the 2017 March for Science. Many of our members had been involved in both labor and environmental activism long before the emergence of SftP or the contemporary science movement in general. So, when it came time to plan and execute the local March for Science, we saw it necessary to strengthen the linkages between our organizing and our jobs as science workers. In building the march and speaker roster, we sought to build unity between the voices of people often marginalized within science, the campus and research workers that make science happen locally, and environmental justice organizations. We felt successful in steering the message of the march towards a distinctly radical tone—advocating the necessity of system change to address climate change, lifting up the struggles of marginalized and oppressed people within science, and promoting these struggle above banal “science advocacy.” Overall, the march helped us understand the balances of forces operating within the local science community and develop strategy for building our chapter over the coming months and years.

It took us some time to get into the rhythm of chapter building. We hosted a screening of the documentary Command & Control, about nuclear weapons accidents in the US, on the UT Knoxville campus in fall 2017, with about ten people showing up to learn more about SftP. This event went okay, but it probably would have done better to focus on SftP itself, rather than the content of the film. So, we reoriented our activities towards engaging with students and science workers we had personal connections with to bring them into to fold of SftP to learn about organizing in general, the struggles within science, and to think more deeply about how to engage in our local community.

We began hosting regular meetings in early 2018, with much of the content centered around discussing topics of organizing practices in general, our personal struggles within education and research, and thinking about how to engage with existing movement work locally. One of the lessons learned from these meetings is just how eager many people in the sciences are to learn about political organizing. A common theme in sharing our experiences in the sciences was how institutionally repressed we were from both engaging in political activism and coming to understand science in political terms. Therefore, the meetings became a space where we were sharing our knowledge and skills with one another, introducing each other to concepts familiar to political organizers but less so to scientists, while discussing how we could put this knowledge to practical use. When sharing our memories of the past year, many of our members felt strongly that this was one of the more useful aspects of our meetings.

Through our discussions, coalition building with other movement forces emerged as a primary goal for our work. In particular, there was real concern that if we weren’t careful, we might duplicate the efforts of existing movement groups operating within the region, which might be seen as pretentious or chauvinistic coming from a group of scientists. We took this concern to heart, so rather than plan our own campaigns, we reached out to existing groups in the area to help them with their already existing work. For instance, our members assisted with data entry for Appalachian Voices to aid with their campaign to build bottom-up membership power within rural electrical co-ops. Our members also turned out to support the longstanding efforts of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) to hold the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) accountable at hearings for their multitude of failures in the region, especially regarding the 2008 Kingston coal-ash spill. This environmental catastrophe killed over 30 cleanup workers and caused severe illness in several hundreds more of the one thousand workers, due to severe and deliberate negligence on the part of the contractor responsible for the cleanup.

SOCM routinely monitors the permit applications submitted to TDEC for wastewater, hazardous waste, and more. In the fall of 2018, one of the organizers for SOCM approached us concerning a hazardous waste permit application from a chemical plant operated by Dow Chemical subsidiary Rohm & Haas. This plant is located in the heart of Knoxville, in a high density neighborhood where predominantly working class people, people of color, and students live. The plant had racked up a series of wastewater violations in the past due to leakages of volatile organic compounds into the groundwater and nearby stream, so there were major concerns regarding permitting the storage of thousands of gallons worth of hazardous waste on site. As such, there was an opportunity to build coalition between SOCM and SftP and to engage in a shared campaign of awareness raising and to call for a public hearing regarding the plant. According to Tennessee state law, TDEC must comply with requests to host a public hearing regarding any new or renewed permits.

We requested that TDEC host a public hearing and we set ourselves to the task of raising awareness about the plant, and organizing community members and students to attend the hearing. From the outset, we understood that it was probable that the permit would be granted, but we saw this as the first step in long-term organizing for environmental justice in the area that intersected with class and racial dynamics. As such, this was a good chance to grow our collective skills and strengthen our solidarity. To build the coalition, we reached out to a long-standing student environmental group on the UTK campus called Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville. SPEAK allowed us to come to their meeting to talk about this project and SftP in general, and many of the students were very curious about the permitting process and excited to turnout to the hearing. In preparing for the hearing, we hosted a research party to collect information about the history of Rohm & Haas, analyze the details of the application permit, review state and federal environmental law, and to prepare a community briefing document to enable people to make informed comments at the hearing. The research party was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable and meaningful activities we have done together, as it allowed all of our members to put their scientific knowledge into service.

At the public hearing, we put all of this effort into action. As is typical, the state environmental regulators put forward a canned powerpoint full of assurances regarding their monitoring of the plant. When it came time for our members and coalition partners to comment, we brought the science in a strong and righteous way that demonstrated our prowess as scientists and commitment to serving the people. Each of us comes from different disciplinary backgrounds, including public health and environmental engineering, and our comments showed that our concerns were to be taken seriously. The local press coverage of the hearing reflected this, as they reprinted much of the strong commentary we brought forward. Many of the environmental regulators present expressed in private that they were impressed with our comments afterwards. We learned that, in addition to voicing these concerns at the hearing itself, it helps to prepare a solid written statement in conjunction, as these written statement are reviewed by the state beyond the hearing itself and can have an impact in the decision-making of the regulators. To carry this work forward, we are planning environmental “know your rights” trainings for community members in urban and rural areas to raise awareness and provide education on spotting environmental violations in these environmental, legal rights regarding the environment, how to effectively engage the state regarding these issues, and how to organize for environmental justice in ways that go beyond relying on government agencies.

Overall, we’ve learned a lot over the past year or so in building our chapter and working on our first campaigns. We hope to continue growing our membership base, strengthening our coalition partnerships, and demonstrating our solidarity with everyday people in the region. We also hope to create linkages with other chapters and to share skills and share organizing work to build Science for the People! You can reach out to us at sftpetn@gmail.com.

New York City Chapter Report

For the New York City chapter of Science for the People, the past few months have been defined by newfound potential to mobilize people power and grow our roots within the surrounding activist community. For many of our public appearances, we partnered with activists from organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America, Movimiento Cosecha, and Columbia’s Graduate Worker Union. In these efforts we strove not just to band together at public demonstrations, but to nurture our allyship through ongoing collaboration–giving organizers the floor to present at our bi-weekly chapter meetings, hosting art-build parties at apartments and public spaces, and leading topical discussions that related to the campaigns we’ve supported. Additionally, we’ve forged goodwill with local venues such as Verso Books, Bluestockings, Caveat, and Star Barr, where we hosted and co-hosted panels, fundraisers, film screenings, and even participated in science-themed nightlife events.

During the summer, amid the disturbing reports of the Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies, we launched a campaign to implicate the use of scientific developments, specifically in the tech sector, to expand militarism and enable governmental agencies to further violate human rights. As workers at major tech corporations began to demand accountability from their employers, we amplified their message in order to draw attention to the connections between corporate control of technology and human marginalization and de-normalize the practice of prioritizing profit over people. Our campaign started small, with a series of efforts such as: petition sharing, leafleting, picketing, and joining protests with our tech-implicating messaging. By July 31st, the influence of our campaign reached a culmination point, as we mobilized hundreds to take to the streets in heeding Cosecha’s national call for action.

After weeks of planning in collaboration with Cosecha NYC, organizers within our chapter staged a picket, march, and civil disobedience, where we disrupted midtown rush-hour to demonstrate at flagship Microsoft, Salesforce, and Amazon locations in the city. At the brick-and-mortar Amazon on 34th street, we created a booming spectacle with protestors chanting and singing and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra driving the energy with boisterous music. We shut business down with a human blockade that dared to hold the line until put under arrest. Coming out of this action we leveraged our momentum to draft a solidarity letter with tech workers, assist in the establishment of a NYC Tech Workers Coalition chapter, and raise awareness by picking up media attention.

As fall set in, we shifted to strategy and outreach events by supporting academics, authors, and community organizers in the execution of panels, discussions, and rallies. In the spirit of SftP’s legacy of international solidarity work, we supported Scientists for Palestine in executing the Second International Meeting for Science in Palestine, a multi-day conference that brought together academics, students, and scientists from Palestine and the international scientific community to collaborate on implementing concrete plans to bolster the access and achievements of scientific pursuits for Palestinians. Locally, we engaged with the community through Verso’s climate change panel series, where we expanded our network with SftP flyers, merchandise, and newsletter sign-up sheets in tow.

Presently our subscriber list is 300+ strong! Follow our activity on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pg/SFTPNYC and our newly launched website at https://nyc.scienceforthepeople.org.