University of Puerto Rico students successfully, and almost without a significant incident, paralyzed academic and administrative operations at the Río Piedras campus Wednesday after university officials had vowed to keep the institution open.
A group of several dozen students who had stayed within campus premises since Tuesday night joined others coming into the campus on Wednesday morning and successfully locked the gate on Barbosa Avenue as early as 6:00 am.
At the gate five or six university guardsmen had tried to stop the students in a kind of tug o’ war with them to control the gate. In the melee some of the guardsmen and students were crushed between one another and exchanged some blows. Meanwhile, several others were pepper sprayed in a confusing incident.
Twenty minutes later the same group of students had crossed the campus and locked UPR’s main gate at Ponce de León Avenue without incident.
“By insisting in keeping the gates open the administration is trying to provoke a confrontation,” said Student Negotiating Committee member Adriana Mulero, who Wednesday morning called the first of the two days stoppage “a success.”
“They [university officials] expected we would come around 4:00 am to close the campus main gate. Instead, we took refuge at the university itself – the way it is meant to be – last night and this morning proceeded to close the gate on Barbosa Avenue,” explained Mulero, also a member of the Public Education Student Defense Committee.
Mulero informed the students had organized themselves to occupy the UPR “from within while avoiding confrontation.”
But for UPR’s Interim Chancellor Ana Guadalupe far from avoiding confrontation, the students had provoked it.
In a last minute press conference Guadalupe announced that as of 9:45 Wednesday morning she had decreed an indefinite academic and administrative recess for the Río Piedras Campus.
“It is my responsibility to provide a peaceful and quiet atmosphere for classes and other campus activities to take place, where students, professors and employees can fulfill their tasks,” Said Guadalupe.
“Up until the violent incident where 19 security officers were pepper sprayed and assaulted with pipes, pieces of wood with nails [sticking out], chains and other objects, in a clear violation of the demonstrators commitment to uphold the no confrontation policy, we see no alternative other than the indefinite academic and administrative recess,” added the Chancellor.
Questioned how many of the UPR police had been beaten and injured Guadalupe said that all 19 officers had been injured. But reports from several journalists covering the incident all agreed that no more than six university guardsmen had been involved in the incident that took place at the gate on Barbosa Avenue and that only two of them had exchanged blows with the students. Press reports of the incident also specify that it was one of the guardsmen who pepper sprayed the crowd but that the wind had carried the irritating substance towards his fellow officers.
Guadalupe insisted that the number of injured officers had been 19 but declined to offer any evidence on the subject while assuring that “all evidence will be presented in due time.”
Act of provocation
Despite the lack of official information Secretary of State and acting Governor, Kenneth McClintock, authorized Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha to assist university authorities by “taking control of the campus’ outer perimeter.” Police presence, including that of the Tactical Operations Division (riot squad) members, would later prove to be interpreted as an act of provocation in what had been until then a relatively calm student demonstration.
The chancellor said her decision could be reversed only if the striking students agreed to adhere to the no confrontation policy, which will entail free access to the institution, no interruption of the classes or administrative activities.
Guadalupe had scheduled a meeting for 3:00 pm Wednesday with the demonstrating students and the negotiating committee to discuss her proposals and theirs. Like UPR president José R. De La Torre, Guadalupe said she has always been open to negotiate and would meet with the negotiating committee even if they are not official student representatives as described in the institution’s rules and regulations.
The chancellor did not commit herself to accept any of the students’ proposals but assured she would consider those over which she has authority to decide.
Nevertheless, the chancellor’s offer didn’t surprise the students.
“Her announcement is but a confirmation of our victory. She had said that campus operations would be as usual but we have clearly demonstrated that was not so,” General Student Council president Gabriel Laborde.
“I think that one of the first items in the agenda is for her to recognize those 16 committee members are legitimate student representatives...” added Laborde.
After “winning” their first day in battle the students refused to leave the campus even though their stoppage seemed to turn “academic” since the chancellor had announced and indefinite recess for the campus. The demonstrators’ persistence prompted the administration to present a legal action against them at the San Juan Judiciary Center.
The injunction submitted by the university administration requested the court order the students to desist from their actions interfering with access to campus grounds. Superior Court Judge José Negrón, who reviewed the recourse Wednesday afternoon, reserved his decision on the injunction and as of Wednesday night had not yet filed it.
By nightfall, UPR students, still in control of the campus’ gates had a standoff with members of the riot squad. The incident which spurred tension on both sides of the UPR’s main gate started when a student leader was denied access to the premises by a group of students. The argument escalated into a struggle for control of the gate.
Minutes later a riot squad platoon lined up in front of the gate with their batons at hand and ready. Their presence provoked the students’ ire, who immediately took to the gate and started yelling insults at the officers.
The situation took almost an hour of intense negotiations between Police brass and Puerto Rican University Professors Association members before the riot squad retired from the gate.
An undetermined number of students decided to stay inside the campus for the night while others left. It was unclear whether the demonstrations would continued today or be postponed until classes resume next week or later.