Greetings to Members and Delegates of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) IN San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Law for the People Convention.
As I thought about this event, I could not avoid thinking of the status of Puerto Ricans as part of the American empire.
Puerto Ricans are, of course, American citizens by birth, but what kind of citizens? By U.S. law and custom, they are something other than most Americans, for though they may freely join the Army, they are forbidden (while on the island) from voting for a president; or, for that matter, for having their delegate to the U.S. House vote on matters outside of committee.
This distinction of Puerto Rico, as a people separate from Americans, surely had its genesis in its seizure from Spain in 1898, and thereafter, that idea was concretized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Balzac v. Porto Rico 258 U.S. 298 decision, which denied the right of Puerto Ricans to jury trials, saying, in essence, that they weren’t ready for such an innovation.
Lest any doubt my reasoning, please heed the following account from the opinion [p.310]:
The jury system needs citizens trained to the exercise of responsibility of jurors. In common law countries centuries of tradition have prepared a conception of the impartial attitudes jurors must assume. The jury system postulates a conscious duty of participation in the machinery of justice which it is hard for people not brought up in fundamentally popular governments at once to acquire. One of the greatest benefits is in the security it gives the people that they as jurors actual or possible, being part of the judicial system of the country, can prevent its arbitrary use or abuse. Congress has thought that a people like the Filipinos or the Porto Ricans, trained to a complete judicial system which knows no juries, living in compact and ancient communities, with definitely formed customs and political conceptions, should be permitted themselves to determine how far they wish to adopt this institution of Anglo-Saxon origin, and when…..[pp.310-311]
Apparently, Puerto Ricans (and Filipinos, it seems), weren’t Anglo-Saxon enough to handle jury trials.
And while time has certainly changed (we note that the court now boasts a Puerto Rican justice), the Imperial perspective, of distinction, of difference, of deference, owed the empire by the colony, yet remains.
For millions of Puerto Ricans, especially her political prisoners from the early 20th century to today, the right of national independence rates higher than second-class citizenship within the U.S. Empire. In 1950 and 1954 Puerto Rican independence fighters opened fire at President Harry Truman and members of Congress to emphasize their support for independence.
Lolita LeBron and Rafael Cancel Miranda, among others, spent decades in American prisons for their efforts.
A new generation of Independendistas emerged after the ‘60s, and the ‘80s, and 11 were freed during the Clinton era, to buy support for Hillary Clinton’s NY Senate campaign.
Some, on principle, like Oscar Lopez Rivera, remain in prison today, one of the longest held political prisoners in the world.
We should not kid ourselves. Puerto Rico, though bedecked in finery, is a colony; moreover, as a jewel seized after an exhausted Spain was forced to withdraw after a losing effort to hold on to Cuba, it still isn’t free.
Perhaps, they are still not Anglo-Saxon enough.