NEW YORK – Organizers of New York City's Puerto Rican Day parade are sticking with their decision to honor a freed militant who once embraced armed resistance to U.S. rule of Puerto Rico, despite a promised boycott by Hispanic police officers and criticism from salsa star Willie Colon.
New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill on Monday became the latest person to say he wouldn't march in the parade because of the decision to recognize Oscar Lopez Rivera, who served decades in prison for his involvement in The Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN.
During the 1970s and 1980s, FALN claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico, including a blast that killed four people at New York's historic Fraunces Tavern in 1975.
Lopez Rivera wasn't convicted in any of the bombings, but a former FALN member testified that he instructed members on how to make bombs, detonators and silencers. While serving his sentence, Lopez Rivera was convicted of hatching a plot to escape from prison using explosives and a helicopter.
He served 35 years until his sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
The 74-year-old has thousands of supporters who see him as a political prisoner, jailed for seeking independence for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
The board of directors of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade released a statement Monday defending their decision to name Lopez Rivera as "Procer de la Libertad" — National Freedom Hero — for the June 11 parade.
"We understand that others may not be able to be with us," the statement said. "However, we will continue to represent all voices, with an aim to spark dialogue and find common ground, so that we can help advance our community and build cultural legacy."
The New York Police Department's Hispanic Society, which in the past has sent a few hundred officers to the parade, announced last week that it wouldn't participate this year. Some of those permanently maimed in FALN bombings were police officers.
"We will take a stance in support of the members of service who were seriously injured and with the families of the innocent people who lost their lives," society president Jenimarie Garcia-Cruz said in a statement.
The Rafael Ramos foundation, a nonprofit named for a slain officer that raises awareness of the danger of being in law enforcement, is also skipping the parade.
O'Neill said he might attend to offer support to officers working but wouldn't march. When asked whether he thought Lopez Rivera was a terrorist, he said: "Based on his actions ... I guess the answer would be yes."
Goya Foods, which has sponsored every parade since it began in 1958, said that it wouldn't do so this year, calling it a business decision.
An online petition demanding the title be revoked has about 2,000 signatures. Colon, the Puerto Rican salsa singer, wrote on his blog that parade organizers went too far, but he stopped short of saying he'd skip.
"I am compelled to denounce terrorism in any form for any reason," he wrote.
Lopez Rivera continues to be a beloved figure among many of New York's Puerto Ricans.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, and more than 30 other lawmakers sent a letter to the parade's board Monday commending the decision to honor Lopez Rivera.
"As countless families continue to struggle in Puerto Rico's current fiscal crisis, Oscar is a reminder of the hope that has always anchored the Island — and that's why we fully stand behind your efforts," the letter said.
Lopez Rivera was released last week from house arrest in Puerto Rico, where he'd been since his sentence was commuted in January. He got a hero's welcome and then traveled to Chicago, where a parade was thrown in his honor and a street sign bearing his name was unveiled.