Calling attention to what they said was the Trump Administration's neglect of Puerto Rico in the year since Hurricane Maria destroyed much of that U.S. territory, Chicago solidarity groups held a protest Sept. 20 at Federal Plaza as a part of a nationwide day of action.
The protest also denounced the Congress-approved Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board's harsh austerity measures.
Among the speakers were Chicago Boricua Resistance members Veronica Tirado and Emely Medina; Chicago Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines member Michael Boyte; Chicago Teachers Union Latinx Caucus members and union delegates Marlena Ceballos and Victoria Rosario; Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Co-Chair and Chicago Police Accountability Council member Jazmine Salas; US Palestinian Community Network-Chicago member Nareen Askar; Anakbayan Chicago Chairperson Maya Arcilla; and Mijente member Rebecca Martinez.
Prior to speakers' remarks, emcee Miguel Alvelo read the names of the known dead ( out of the almost 3,000 reported deaths ) and called on everyone to say "presenté" after each name. Alvelo said most of these people died due to colonialism and racism, not because of the hurricane.
"For more than 500 years, Puerto Rico has been an occupied land and Puerto Ricans have not been considered human," said Alvelo. "We are here to honor the memory of all of the people of the Caribbean who died as a result of these human rights abuses, and to denounce the actions of the U.S. government. We demand justice."
Luis Tubens read a protest poem in both English and Spanish.
Tirado spoke about losing contact with her mother for weeks after the hurricane, adding that due to neglect by the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments, there was not enough food, water or medicine.
"Bondholders and the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments are dismantling the island in a criminal way," said Tirado. "They are making profit out of other people's pain."
"Today, we unite our voices with the people around the world in solidarity for the people of Puerto Rico." said Medina.
Medina explained that the Fiscal Control Board and FEMA have made the situation worse by starving the people of resources in the year since Hurricane Maria. She said this includes closing schools and not rebuilding homes, resulting in many people attending schools in Puerto Rican government-funded ( millions of dollars ) trailers and living in tents. People have not been able to bury their dead with dignity, added Medina.
Both Tirado and Medina demanded that the Puerto Rican debt be erased, schools reopened and a sustainable plan be implemented for public education and accessible public health systems for everyone on the island.
Boyte drew parallels between what is happening in the Philippines with the U.S.-backed dictator Duterte and how the U.S. government reacted to Puerto Rican's plight post-Hurricane Maria. He called on the audience to chant, "We will bring imperialism down," and said the way forward is resistance to government oppression.
Ceballos said that when the hurricane hit both she and Rosario reached out to each other because they did not know if their families were alive, and could not concentrate on their work. She denounced politicians who did photo-ops while containers of food and water were sitting in warehouses on the island spoiling because they were not distributed to the people due to an archaic law.
"Sometimes the laws are not right, and you have to break the law to save lives," said Ceballos.
Rosario explained that they wanted to do something meaningful and impactful so they took a group of educators to Puerto Rico during Spring Break to help with the recovery efforts. She said neo-liberal policies are destroying communities, including their educational resources, in Puerto Rico and across the rest of the United States.
"This was not a disaster that was natural," said Rosario. "It was an intentional, calculated act and opportunity for those who want to capitalize on other people's pain."
Salas said her mother was born in Puerto Rico and she spent days wondering if her family members were alive.
"It was one of the worst experiences of my life and a reminder of the intergenerational trauma that we have been carrying around," said Salas.
Salas explained the history of the island and how the U.S. government's colonialist policies have stripped the people of their culture and language. She said this practice continues to this day.
"While the doofus in the White House is throwing paper towels and claiming a job well done, the people stepped up to do the job themselves," said Salas.
Askar said her organization stands in solidarity with Puerto Rico. She explained that it would be hypocritical for her to ask people to support the Palestinian cause if they did not do the same for Puerto Ricans, especially since they have both been under colonization for many years.
Arcilla explained that her organization is fighting for democracy in the Philippines.
"Puerto Rican blood is on the hands of the U.S. government," said Arcilla.
Martinez said her organization is "pro-Black, pro-immigrant and pro-queer." She explained that justice transcends borders and that colonialism and white supremacy, as well as neo-liberalism, work together to oppress and destroy people of color.
Between remarks, Alvelo led chants in English, Spanish and Tagalog.
Lester Rey and Rebel Diaz closed out the protest with resistance songs while the attendees made their way from Federal Plaza to Trump Tower, then to the Que4 community online radio headquarters in the West Loop, to heal. Some attendees also gave spoken word performances during the open mic that was available at Que4.
Twice during the protest a Homeland Security vehicle drove by and stayed parked alongside the curb for more than five minutes.
Arab American Action Network, TAKE ON HATE, La Voz de los de Abajo, Lifted Voices, Teachers for Social Justice and Gay Liberation Network were also on hand to offer support and solidarity during the protest.