University of Puerto Rico Braces for Walkout and More Protests
The youthful movement – drawn together by a common cause and linked through Facebook, Twitter and text messages – abruptly hit the streets and occupied them for days and days.
Their sustained demonstration drew a fierce political backlash from authorities – words turned to force – and the violent clashes with police were widely documented through photos and videos.
But this is not Cairo, it's the University of Puerto Rico where mobilized students all but shut-down the school's campus in Rio Piedras in a months-long struggle over a special $800 fee.
School administrators, who tacked on the fee to tuition to close a budgetary gap millions of dollars deep, did not back down. And the struggle threatens to resume in earnest with the start of the spring semester Monday morning. Student leaders are staging a walkout and march that will culminate with a rally at the university's administration building.
"We're going to continue the strike," student leader Giovanni Roberto, 28, who is studying to become a Spanish teacher, said. "We want to make the movement bigger."
"But we know that the campus will be occupied by the police," he added.
The clashes between law enforcement officers and the young students – who, by most accounts, are small in actual numbers, yet are sympathetic figures if not for their tactics then because of their cause – have frequently ended in violence.
"The way to end this is through dialogue," said Dr. Maritza Stanchich, associate professor of English at the university. "But the students have a right to protest without being physically abused."
If the same pattern holds, the confrontations – which have resulted in scores of activists being arrested or detained – could again reach a boiling point.
"It could be explosive," Stanchich warned.
Yet for as combustible as the clashes have been, they have remained largely out of the public eye, save for local coverage and independent media.
The protests in Puerto Rico have been more contentious and endured longer than similar student movements in the United States. In March, students from New York, Illinois and California, among other places, participated in a so-called Day of Action. That mobilization, which sparked clashes with police and ended with numerous arrests, was picked up by some national media.
In Puerto Rico, though, the demonstrations have carried on for months, yet remained well under the media's radar.
To fill the void, students, much like their counterparts in Egypt, have resorted to new communication platforms to get their message out.
"We coordinate almost everything through texts," said Roberto, who earned a degree in Hispanic studies in 2005. "And we ask people to duplicate it and move it forward."
Word has spread through Twitter and Facebook, too.
"The students have a clear edge in terms of controlling some of the media narrative via social networking," Stanchich said. "Students with little income are besting press secretaries. The press secretaries...are out of their league."
Still, the students, for all their savvy communication, have failed to win the hearts of everyone on campus.
To their critics, the students have frequently resorted to violence and intimidation with students and faculty who disagree with their cause. The images opponents see are not of peaceful demonstrators – but rather masked bandits, armed with weapons, who are provoking police and violating the law.
"Their version of strike is to block or inhibit people from doing their work," said Dr. Brad Weiner, chemistry and dean at the university's college of natural science. "I've been pushed, blocked, had students jump in my path to initiate contact."
"The activists, who resort to tactics of intimidation, come in with smoke bombs and sticks with nails in them," he added. "They are trying very hard to provoke the police. They are looking to become victims, and the police have shown a lot of restraint."
Composure on both sides will be put to the test again on Monday.
Whatever the outcome, the student movement, mostly through e-mails and YouTube and blogs, has had reach beyond the campus and Puerto Rico. In New York City, for example, groups have held rallies in support of the students.
Roberto, too, sees the Puerto Rican conflict as bigger than the students and a special fee. He said he's been monitoring the Egyptian revolution and feels a kinship to the youngsters who channeled the outrage into a peaceful action that got the whole world's attention.
"I like to believe this generation of young people have something in common," Roberto said. "Not only in Puerto Rico, but in all parts of the world."
You can reach Wil Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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