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n June 14, 2019, the feminist group La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, or La Cole as they’re also known, convened an emergency protest in front of La Fortaleza, the Puerto Rican governor’s mansion. The catalyst for the protest was the news that another woman, Lourdes Cuevas Natal, had been killed by an ex- partner during the previous week. Shortly after, news broke that another woman was in critical condition after being stabbed by an ex-partner. The woman’s relatives appeared on a local news outlet suggesting “ella se lo buscó,” or that she was looking for it. For La Cole, such comments were indicative of the misogynistic ideas that not only fueled violence against women in the archipelago, but also allowed that violence to become normalized by the public and institutionalized by the state.
On Calle Fortaleza, the street leading to the governor’s mansion, dozens of feminists and their allies gathered to make clear that that no one looks for or deserves to become a victim of violence. As Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo have noted, the west end of Calle Fortaleza is an important site of political protest where Puerto Ricans converge to challenge the concentration of elite power structures represented by the governor’s mansion. It is on Calle Fortaleza where Puerto Ricans often come together in an attempt to prefigure and enacting radical geographies of freedom. That day, feminists strategically occupied Calle Fortaleza in order to (once again) call on the then governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, to take action and declare a state of emergency to deal with violence against women.
Zoán Dávila-Roldán, a spokesperson for La Cole, told the crowd gathered that afternoon that 8 women had been murdered by partners or ex-partners so far in 2019. She also mentioned to the crowd a shocking set of statistics compiled over the previous 6 months that outlined the situation faced by Puerto Rican women. According to Dávila-Roldán, police registered 3609 incidents of gender-based violence, of which only 1.25% resulted in any kind of conviction or penalty. Dávila-Roldán used these statistics to make clear to the crowd that the state had failed and continues to fail to protect women. Not only that, but the state was often times implicated in the violence that women experienced. This is especially salient when considering the high-rates of harassment and abuse perpetrated by members of the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) against the women around them. Dávila-Roldán noted that 642 complaints were filed against police officers for domestic violence and sexual harassment. “Unfortunately, here, there are so many cases of abusive police who are allowed to operate with impunity and are not dealt with,” Dávila-Roldán said.
“This is a state of emergency. There’s no other way to name it.” Dávila-Roldán declared and called for solidarity to uphold and value the lives of women and other populations vulnerable to state and interpersonal violence. “Our lives matter and our dreams matter,” she emphasized. Protesters joined together to demand accountability and to implicate the state, and law enforcement in particular, in the acts of both quotidian and spectacular violence that Puerto Rican women suffered. To the line of police stationed behind a metal barricade preventing demonstrators from getting too close to the governor’s mansion, protesters chanted “Dónde estaban cuando nos mataban, dónde estaban cuando nos violaban” [Where were you when we were being killed, where were you when we were being raped]. Plena Combativa, a feminist musical collective, added emphasis to the chants with their panderos, or hand drums, while demonstrators gave the police an ultimatum – “A la policía le quedan dos caminos: unirse a las mujeres o ser sus asesinos” [For the police there are two paths left: unite with the women or be their murderers]. For protesters, the stakes were clear: the PRPD had blood on its hands and it was implicitly and explicitly responsible for violence against women.
Perhaps surprisingly, protesters shouted these chants at a line of approximately one dozen police officers, the vast majority of whom were women. Police women had been strategically deployed to surveil the protest and maintain the barricade that separated feminists and their allies from the governor’s front door. Women’s bodies were cynically deployed in an attempt to construct a physical barrier between those who govern and women who are exposed to the violent whims of powerful elites. The decision to create a wall of women clad in police blues between the protesters and those inside the governor’s mansion was a direct response to another time when feminists were loudly and visibly claiming public space in order to make demands upon the state.
The previous November, La Cole had showed up to Calle Fotaleza to occupy public space in order to demand the declaration of a state of emergency in response to misogynist violence. After three days of round the clock protests, riot police, most of whom were men, used violence to dislodge protesters, most of whom were women. Unironically, the police did this on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. With these optics in mind, women officers were deployed to Calle Fortaleza on that day in June 2019 in an attempt to render the repressive arm of the state seemingly more diverse and, therefore, less deadly. For La Cole, the presence of the policewomen that day did little to convince them that they were safe from state repression and violence, nor did the presence of these policewomen in the PRPD do anything to keep women from being killed or assaulted.
The refusal of La Cole and their supporters to change up their chants or respond to the policewomen deployed to La Fortaleza that afternoon as any less responsible for the violence that Puerto Rican women face provides a valuable lesson those of us who study policing. As scholars and activists, we must move beyond the demographics of police forces or the actions of individual police officers in order to understand policing as structure. As I have suggested in my book, Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (2019), only when we take seriously the notion that policing plays an essential role in structuring power relations can we begin to more accurately diagnose the various ways that the police, as agents of the state, always work to protect the interests of colonial capitalism and often do so by dispossessing, repressing, and harming vulnerable populations. The recruitment and inclusion of police officers who come from vulnerable and marginalized backgrounds will do little to make the police less violent or society any safer because it does not alter the structuring role of policing in maintaining unequal power relations.
In this contribution, I highlight the work of La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción in order to show how feminist activists are rejecting punitive governance in Puerto Rico, which positions policing as a solution to social crises. La Cole and other feminist groups reject carceral feminism’s promises that more police and harsher sentences can keep women, especially women experiencing multiple forms of vulnerability, safe. La Cole instead asks collaborators and members of the public to situate the police within a larger structure that causes harm in the lives of women and other marginalized people. In order to respond to gender-based violence and femicides in Puerto Rico, La Cole and other feminist groups are making radical demands on the state that foster life and reduce the need for carceral responses to insecurity. As Rocío Zambrana points out, La Cole draws on a repertoire of Black Feminist tactics, which include shutting down or occupying streets and plazas in addition to confrontations with the police, in order challenge the deadly effects of colonial capitalism, especially on economically and racially marginalized women, queer, and gender non-conforming people. Through their radical praxis, La Cole invites people to join them in work of creating a decolonial future for the Puerto Rican archipelago where women and other vulnerable populations are free from exploitation and violence.
As scholars of policing, we must center the work and analysis of intersectional feminist activists like La Cole if we not only want to better understand what policing actually does in the lives of vulnerable people (as opposed to the myths that law enforcement promotes about what it does) but also understand what alternative solutions to crisis communities envision for themselves outside of carceral frameworks. Further, given the androcentrism that has dominated research on both the police and well as the victims of their violence, as researchers we must pay attention to the ways that women, queer, and gender non-conforming people experience police violence and uplift the crucial work they are doing to challenge the punitive state and fight for a world where we are all free and safe.
Reform and the myth of the policewoman as caretaker
As social movement demands for police reform, and in some cases abolition, have grown in the United States and elsewhere over the past decade, law enforcement agencies have responded by pledging that they would “diversify” police forces, especially in terms of race. More Black officers and officers of color, the logic goes, would help to temper the deadly impulses of racism and xenophobia that undergird policing writ large. Similarly, calls have been made to recruit and retain more women and LGBTQ officers in order to combat the sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that animate police interactions with civilians.
International consortiums representing the interests of law enforcement, and particularly women officers, have funded and promoted research that suggests that hiring more women as police reduces rates of violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, and homicide, as well as reducing incidents of police brutality more generally. A leader in promoting the recruitment of women police officers as a vital reform strategy is the U.S.-based National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP). Using law enforcement compiled data, the NCWP’s Recruiting and Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement suggests that in areas where more women officers were mobilized incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence were more likely to be reported to the authorities. They also suggested that women were less likely than their male counterparts to use excessive force or verbally abuse civilians. In the NCWP’s study on excessive force, they note that the average male officer costs between 2 ½ and 5 ½ times more than the average female officer because they are approximately 8 ½ times more likely to have an excessive force complaint filed against them. This, according to the NCWP’s numerous publications, is because women are more adept at using interpersonal skills that prioritize empathy, problem solving, and communication.
The arguments for recruiting and retaining more women police officers resemble the arguments for the Human Terrain approach in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror. These “soft power” projects, traffic in gendered essentialisms that leave unquestioned the inherent violence embedded within the military or police as agents of state power domestically and abroad. And, indeed, these soft power approaches and attempts to “humanize” and render more familiar the violence of the state only seek to shore up the legitimacy of the state during moments of crisis. The National Center for Women and Policing admits as much when they point out in their study that the main incentives to hire more police women are that their presence could help restore public confidence and save the state millions in settlement payouts. This approach leaves the attitudes and behaviors of the vast majority of police officers unaltered and leaves the gendered violence undergirding the entire structure of policing unquestioned.
Diversity-based police reforms, whether grounded in the recruitment and retention of more people of color, or women, or LGBTQ people, will never be able to keep marginalized people vulnerable to state violence safe in any meaningful way. Diversity-based police reforms, while appealing, individualize the problem of police violence and fail to tackle the structure and purpose of policing. On a meaningful level, these reforms fail to understand that policing is embedded within and central to the maintenance of capitalist extraction, white supremacy and hetero-masculine normativity. The addition of more diverse bodies to the ranks of the police force does not make people safer because it leaves intact and unquestioned the very “order” that the police are tasked with protecting. These limited approaches to police reform depend on a flawed understanding of the role of the police within unequal societies. As Alex S. Vitale (2017: 32) notes in The End of Policing, “It is largely a liberal fantasy that the police exist to protect us from the bad guys.” Instead, as Mark Neocleous (2000) argues, police “fabricate social order,” which means that police exist to protect a social order rooted in racism, capital exploitation, (settler) colonial relations, xenophobia, sexual repression, gender inequality, and spatial segregation.
When we understand policing as structure, we are able to move away from the notion that the violence that marginalized people and political dissidents experience at the hands of police are the result of “a few bad apples.” Diversity-based reforms would have us believe that we just need more good apples to outnumber or counterbalance the bad ones. When we understand policing as structure, however, we understand that the whole bushel has a rotten core and all the good apples in the world can’t cover that up. In this way, police violence is not the unfortunate by-product of a few bad police officers who abuse their power. Rather, policing is violence in the service of managing inequality on behalf of the state (and capital) and it plays a role in structuring a whole range of social relations. Or as Micol Seigel (2018: 10) puts it, violence is the core of police work because “violence also lies at the heart of the state”.
Rejecting reform and demanding radical transformation
If as David Correa and Tyler Wall (2018: 3) suggest, “police reform never ends police violence because police reform has always and only sought to improve the image of the police and shore up police legitimacy more generally” then radical societal transformation becomes the only way to eliminate police violence and work towards individual and collective safety. The work of La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, provides an example of how feminist organizers can move away from reformist and carceral feminist approaches in order to make radical demands on the state that value, protect, and improve the lives of women and other vulnerable populations.
On November 23, 2018, La Cole in collaboration with other women’s organizations called for a “plantón,” or sit-in, to demand that Governor Ricardo Rosselló issue an Executive Order declaring a National Emergency Plan Against Gender Violence. A list of demands had been drafted and approved by a broad coalition of over 400 feminists representing a range of organizations and communities during a Feminist Assembly convened on June 13, 2017. On June 30, 2017, the Rosselló administration had been presented with the demands that emerged from the Feminist Assembly, but failed to implement or otherwise meaningfully engage with any of the feminists’ demands. This failure of action in the face of startling rates of violence against women is what led women and their allies to make the decision to occupy public space and camp out on Calle Fortaleza in order to force the governor and other high-ranking government officials to listen.
Although the Plantón Feminista was demanding first and foremost that the government take immediate steps to stop feminicides, feminists had come up with a list of 153 demands necessary to truly create a sense of safety for not only women but also other marginalized populations in Puerto Rico. The demands addressed gender-based violence as part of a larger constellation of structural forces that harm women and limit life chances including health, education, labor, and colonial capitalism. While the list of demands did include measures and recommendations specific to the police, including training police in how to better respond to victims/survivors of gender-based violence and processing backlogged rape kits, for the most part, the demands went far beyond and decentered punitive responses. For instance, here is a sample of some of the key demands that emerged from the Feminist Assembly and were reaffirmed during the Plantón:
1. Guarantee and ensure, through humane treatment, a public, universal, secular, quality and cost-free healthcare system for all people in Puerto Rico.
2. Implement a model of services and participatory governance that meets the specific needs of populations according to their race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender, age, economic status, religion and nationality of men and women, adolescents and youth, LGBTT people, elderly and people with functional diversity. Particular attention should be given to people in conditions of greater vulnerability, such as the incarcerated population, homeless, undocumented immigrants, and those living in areas far from health facilities.
9. Promote integrated health through the rehabilitation of green spaces, which are public and safe, based on universal design, for exercise and leisure.
15. Total legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of drug use.
19. Demand reparations for communities (such as Vieques, Peñuelas, Salinas, communities near Caño Martin Peña and others) for harm and damages to the populations that have suffered the health consequences of industrial, military, scientific practices, among others.
25. Guarantee access to free, non-coerced, dignified, humane, quality abortion and with the right to decide who accompanies you.
29. Guarantee a free, secular and quality public education at all educational levels to all people in Puerto Rico.
39. Eliminate any austerity policy that involves cuts, closures, or privatization of the public education system.
45. Establish a public educational policy focused on curriculum with gender perspective at all levels.
67. Sanction and expel Monsanto from Puerto Rico.
70. Eliminate military bases (Buchanan / Ramey) and restructure land use in projects that encourage the local economy with participation and approval from all sectors of society.
81. Encourage food sovereignty projects.
91. Create individual and community incentives to increase the use of renewable energy.
95. Improve and expand public transportation infrastructure.
98. Place a moratorium on debt payments and establish a public citizens’ audit of the public debt that includes penalties for those responsible.
107. Guarantee the right to housing for all people, with special priority for the homeless.
115. Initiate an independent and democratic process of self-determination and decolonization for Puerto Rico
150. Repeal the Cabotage Laws.
151. Eliminate Public Private Partnerships.
At first, it may seem that these demands do not specifically address the problem of gender-based violence and feminicides in Puerto Rico, however, La Cole and other feminists are pushing legislators and the public to think about how various structures and relations of power function to make women vulnerable to multiple forms of violence at the intimate, community, and societal levels. Further, these demands create new geographies of freedom that reject the exclusionary or extractive spaces that animate social hierarchies and structure everyday life for many Puerto Ricans. Here, La Cole and their collaborators are imagining what a Puerto Rico that was (re)built from the ground up for its most vulnerable residents might look like and how that would create truly expansive forms of safety. Thus, these demands center on restructuring relations of power by intervening directly in institutions and the built environment.
While feminists made demands for better training and accountability within existing law enforcement structures, they did not stop there. Nor did they ask for greater representation within the police, likely because they recognized that the police are themselves key instigators of violence against women and other vulnerable populations. Nowhere among the 153 demands made by feminist organizers did they ask for more women police officers or for harsher sentences or more prisons in order to protect women. Rejecting the allure of carceral feminist approaches, radical feminist organizers in Puerto Rico remind us that police and prisons do not do not create safety – empowered communities do. Feminists, therefore, envisioned a radical transformation of how Puerto Rican society is structured, which would not only reduce gender-based violence but also reduce the need for the police by working to eliminate societal inequalities. Although the demands of these feminist organizers do not announce themselves as abolitionist, they carry impulses that help us to diagnose the limitations of the police and point us towards both short- and long-term steps that will eventually make the carceral state obsolete.
On July 24, 2019, In response to nearly two weeks of unprecedented public protests that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, Ricardo Rosselló resigned as governor. Tellingly, it was the leak of a series of vulgar chat messages that pointed to a widespread pattern of corruption and attacks on political opponents that finally pushed the people to the breaking point. After the twin devastation caused by Rosselló’s handling of Hurricanes Irma and Maria as well as the on-going debt crisis, Rosselló’s jokes about the dead, Black people, poor people, women, and LGBTQ people ignited the people’s rage and desire for change. Indeed, La Cole was revealed as object of scorn and derision among Rosselló and his “brothers” in the chat. For La Cole and other feminist organizers, the chats merely put on full display a pattern of complete disregard for women and other marginalized people in the archipelago.
Before Rosselló officially stepped down from his post on August 2 at 5pm, he appointed Pedro Pierluisi, the former Resident Commissioner and a lawyer for the federally appointed fiscal control board, as Secretary of State for so that he would be next in the line of succession. Pierluisi assumed the post of governor before waiting for full Senate approval, a move that was invalidated by the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. Pierluisi was removed, which meant that the governorship went to the next in the line of succession, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez Garced. Vázquez Garced was sworn in on August 7, 2019 as the governor of Puerto Rico – she was the third governor in the span of a week.
A few days after Vázquez Garced ascended to the governorship, Puerto Ricans learned that two women had been killed in the town of Cayey, bringing the total number of women killed in Puerto Rico as a result of gender-based violence to 15. Noting that the murder of these women was “lamentable,” Vázquez Garced said she would not be declaring a state of emergency in response to gender-based violence in the archipelago. In response, La Cole issued a statement reiterating their position that wide-ranging and radical actions must be taken in order to protect Puerto Rican women and cultivate their lives. That the refusal to declare a state of emergency was coming from a woman occupying the highest post in the land did not lessen the deadly outcomes of state violence through inaction. And indeed, Vázquez Garced had proven herself as incapable of creating safety for women in the various law enforcement positions she had previously occupied, including Secretary of Justice and head of the Office of Women’s Rights (Oficina de la Procuradora de las Mujeres). La Cole let Vázquez Garced know that they planned to keep the pressure on her until she declared a state of emergency:
Be responsible and create an integrated plan to address gender-based violence. This is a demand not only of the la Colectiva Feminista, it is a demand of women and it is a demand of the people. If you are not able to address this problem or think that expressing regret is an adequate action for dealing with this problem, then vacate the governor’s chair. The people know what they want, and they have already shown what they will do with government officials who ignore our demands for a better life.
In the fight to keep women safe and build strong empowered communities for all people, Puerto Rican feminists are illuminating a path forward that is rooted in radical societal transformations and eliminating structural inequalities that promote harm and death.
Correia D and Wall T (2018) Police: A Field Guide. London: Verso.
LeBrón M (2019) Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland: University of California Press.
Neocleous M (2000) The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power. London: Pluto Press.
Seigel M (2018) Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Durham: Duke University Press.
Vitale AS (2017) The End of Policing. London: Verso.
Marisol LeBrón is an Assistant Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico and, along with Yarimar Bonilla, co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm. Marisol is one of the co-creators of the Puerto Rico Syllabus, a digital resource for understanding the Puerto Rican debt crisis.