Policing Life and Death in Puerto Rico: An Interview with Marisol LeBrón

The following is an interview conducted by The Aboltionist with Marisol LeBrón on her recently published book Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019).

The Abolitionist: What can “mano dura” or “tough on crime” policing tell us about the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico?

Marisol LeBrón (ML): In the book, I look at mano dura contra el crimen (iron fist against crime) and its impact on how Puerto Ricans understand and experience life and death in contemporary Puerto Rico. Mano dura was implemented in Puerto Rico during the 1990s under the conservative pro-statehood governor Pedro Rosselló and deployed police and National Guard forces to raid and occupy public housing and other low-income communities as part of the “War on Drugs.” What I argue in the book is that mano dura is no mere importation of “Made in the USA” crime and drug control policies. Rather, mano dura responds to a very specific moment of crisis in the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. In an attempt to shore up this relationship and the relations of power that undergird it, local elite in Puerto Rico, with the help of the federal government, got tough on crime in a way that reinforced existing societal hierarchies based on race, class, residential location, citizenship, gender, and sexuality. In other words, the state targeted those populations most likely to suffer the effects of colonial crises in an effort to maintain social control.

The Abolitionist: Can you speak more to the illusion of a “strong state” that Puerto Rico attempts to create and the relationship that illusions of state stability and “postcolonialism” have with surveillance, policing, and criminalization? 

ML: The turn to punitive logics and practices in Puerto Rico is born out of a very specific moment of crisis in the colony’s relationship with the US During the 1950s and 1960s, the colonial and capitalist relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, known as the Commonwealth arrangement, seemed to provide increases in living standards for many Puerto Ricans, with wages and life expectancies going up. For the most part, these gains were dependent on a flawed and extractive economic development model that started to falter in the 1970s, and appeared to completely fail during the 1980s. It’s during the 1980s that we saw an alarming rise in rates of unemployment and poverty in Puerto Rico, and, as a result, we saw a lot of people turning to the informal economy and crimes of survival. Drug dealing, carjackings, and robberies start to increase, and many Puerto Ricans, especially those from the middle and upper classes, started to feel like crime is out of control and demanded that the state act. However, because of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, the local state is limited in how it can address the economic crisis confronting the archipelago and the social insecurity that people are feeling as a result. The local government can’t really implement any economic or political solutions without congressional approval, so instead they implement a series of tough on crime measures targeting marginalized populations to give the appearance that something is being done. Often when we see a turn to punitive logics and practices there is a weakening of state power and crisis in relations of authority at the root. Punitive measures are often used to give the illusion of a strong and capable state at moments when they are anything but.

The Abolitionist: What role do alternative storytelling methods, such as rap, zines, and oral storytelling, have in resisting the prison industrial complex? What role did they play in the creation of your book? 

ML: It’s really important for me as a politically engaged scholar not to take anything that the police say about themselves at face value. They police are always working to manufacture consent and justify their ability to deploy violence in order to maintain social control. If you just look at official police documents or interview police, then you’re going to get a lot of spin. That’s not to say that you don’t look at those materials, but to say that you can’t treat them as definitive or even necessarily true accounts. In the book, I look at media accounts and expressive culture to get at the voices of those who experienced mano dura contra el crimen in Puerto Rico. Although the state worked tirelessly to broadcast its rationale for why harassing vulnerable people and maintaining a near-constant police presence was necessary, we see people who bore the brunt of the mano dura pushing back against state justifications in incredibly creative ways. Criminalized people frequently spoke out in the media and created alternative spaces to talk about their experiences, including underground rap music. This is really important because people experiencing criminalization and abuse are not passive victims–they were constantly resisting and struggling to create more just conditions. Relying on official state and police narratives misses these important stories of resistance.

The Abolitionist: How does the US relationship to Puerto Rico impact Puerto Rico’s relationship with Latin America and other left movements for self-determination?

ML: Colonialism has been one of the most successful tools in frustrating solidarity between Puerto Rico and its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. Puerto Ricans are US citizens by virtue of their colonial subject position, which has made alliances between Puerto Ricans and Latin American and Caribbean im/migrants incredibly difficult. A lot of Puerto Ricans, unfortunately, think that their citizenship and ties with the US mark them as better off than other ostensibly “independent” countries. A common refrain you’ll hear within anti-independence circles is, “look at Haiti or the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela,” insinuating that independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This perspective has created prejudices, resentments, and hierarchies, that have to be overcome in order to work towards collective liberation. Even though colonialism has made solidarity more difficult, it hasn’t made it impossible; Puerto Rican radicals have always aligned themselves with international freedom movements and seen their struggles for liberation as bound up with other resistance movements against racism, colonialism, militarism, and economic exploitation.

The Abolitionist: In your book, you write about a ‘tough on crime’ relationship between Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Can you talk about these relationships, and what they can tell us about the fabrication of crises to maintain colonial power?

ML: I mentioned that in the book I stay away from understanding mano dura or other tough on crime approaches as little more than “Made in the USA” imports to Puerto Rico, but that doesn’t mean that Puerto Rico wasn’t a part of international policy networks. During the 1980s and 1990s, we saw a number of locales all around the globe turn to punitive measures, places like New York, Los Angles, London, Cape Town, São Paulo, just to name a few, turn to policing and enclosure to manage social crisis. All of these sites are part of international policy circuits that reference each other and borrow from each other in order to justify their own repressive strategies. One of the examples of this I look at in the book is when local elites in Washington D.C., including the mayor at the time, point to Puerto Rico as an example of how to successfully mobilize the National Guard to combat drug related crime, as well as use securitization to privatize public housing complexes. D.C. technocrats didn’t care whether mano dura actually reduced crime or made people feel safer in their communities (it did neither of these); instead they pointed to Puerto Rico because it allowed them to justify their efforts to curtail civil liberties, criminalize vulnerable populations, and privatize public resources. In another example I look at in the book, Puerto Rican police and government officials look at New Orleans’ implementation of the Pennington Plan, which basically put more police into public housing and poor communities and increased targeted “hot spot” policing in order to justify their attempts to carry out similar efforts in Puerto Rico. The circulation of these so-called policing “successes” were positioned as modernizing departments through the establishment of “best practices,” but what we see if that these measures circulated in a way that allowed local elites to consolidate power, manufacture consent, and justify increasing repressive practices that targeted people who were seen as problems to be managed.

The Abolitionist: Critical Resistance in Oakland organized for years in a coalition to successfully end Urban Shield, an extremely militarized SWAT training program that justified itself under the guise of “emergency preparedness and disaster response.” You have a forthcoming project discussing Hurricane Maria, which was one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico. Can you talk about the state exploiting disasters like Hurricane Maria to justify using and expanding policing and militarization?

ML: Hurricane Maria was a disaster caused by colonialism and capitalist exploitation in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and public resources had been systematically weakened for more than a decade as the debt crisis worsened. The hollowing out of Puerto Rico’s public resources is what caused the storm to completely devastate the infrastructure and cause so many preventable and premature deaths. The lack of access to clean water, food, transportation, health care, and safe housing caused widespread desperation. The local government was, in many ways, completely unprepared to help and the federal government’s response was completely half-hearted to put it politely: This created a situation where the military emerged as the only part of the state able to aid people in distress. As the local and federal governments bungled distributing aid and attending to people, and accusations of corruption started to be hurled at local politicians (in one particularly egregious case a local politician was accused of stealing generators and supplies that were supposed to be distributed in his town), the military was increasingly seen as a reliable source of assistance. This created a distressing situation where humanitarian aid was militarized, and the sight of heavily armed military personnel in the streets became normalized. Given Puerto Rico’s history of military occupation, from the early days of colonization to the bombing of Vieques, the idea that the military is there for the good of the people is a dangerous one. The other problem that emerged as a result of the hurricane was that since Puerto Rico was left without electricity for weeks the local government issued a curfew, which created a situation where people could be picked up for disobeying the curfew. This shifted the responsibility for safety onto the population and normalized the fact that Puerto Ricans could expect to live without electricity and essential services for months. In other words, the consequences for violating the curfew fell to the people, while the state dragged its feet with recovery efforts. In both of these examples, we see how military and police power are mobilized during moments of crisis to reestablish state control and authority.

The Abolitionist: How do you view the relationship between the movements for abolition and anti-colonialism in Puerto Rico? What examples and opportunities are there for solidarity or joint struggle between these movements?

ML: I think these struggles are very connected in Puerto Rico. People aren’t necessarily using the term abolition, but activists and ordinary people are increasingly challenging the ways that policing and prisons are used as solutions to social, economic, and political problems, which is at the core of abolitionist thought and organizing. And when people are talking about anti-colonial organizing they’re often implicitly talking about ideas and strategies that we would identify with abolition. That is, they’re talking about freedom and justice. The biggest challenge to a unified anti-colonial and abolitionist movement in Puerto Rico is that activists have to not just tackle the unequal power relations created by the colonial relationship that exist between Puerto Rico and the US, but those that exist within Puerto Rican society. In other words, to be truly abolitionist, anti-colonial organizing must be deeply intersectional and challenge the racial, class, spatial, gendered, sexual, and citizenship hierarchies that structure Puerto Rican’s everyday lives and often dictate the conditions of their deaths. I think there are a lot of organizations in Puerto Rico that are taking up this work in really creative and important ways and I’m excited to see what connections of solidarity emerge in the coming years.

Marisol LeBrón is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in race, policing, and political activism in Puerto Rico and US communities of color. She is the author of Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico and co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm. Marisol is also one of the co-creators of the Puerto Rico Syllabus, a digital resource for understanding the Puerto Rican debt crisis.