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Protesters calling for the removal of Warren Kanders and Adam Weinberg in a Puerto Rico themed night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

On May Day in 2018, Puerto Rican citizens marched the streets of their capital city San Juan to protest the closure of schools and the implementation of a new austerity plan that puts strain on the archipelago’s most vulnerable populations. Protesters were met with a violent police reaction, including the firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.

Days before this year’s May Day rallies in San Juan, a coalition of grassroots groups led by Decolonize This Place dedicated the sixth installment of their Nine Weeks of Art and Action at the Whitney Museum to the plight of Puerto Ricans.

The same Safariland branded tear gas used at the US-Mexico border, Ferguson, Baltimore, North Dakota, the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Kashmir, and several other conflict zones, was used against protesters in Puerto Rico, the activists say. Safariland Group is a global defense manufacturer owned by Warren B. Kanders, a vice chair on the Whitney’s board of trustees. As in past weeks, the activists called for the removal of Kanders from the museum’s board, but for the first time, they also carried banners demanding the ousting of the Whitney’s director Adam Weinberg.

New banners also called upon Chairman Emeritus of the Whitney board Leonard Lauder and Chairman of the Executive Committee Robert J. Hurst to interfere in the crises.

Leonard Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of the Whitney board, is asked to interfere in the crises

Members of the Puerto Rican activist group Comité Boricua En La Diaspora, who choreographed the event, delivered on their promise to hold a party at the Whitney. The museum’s lobby was transformed into a dance floor as Puerto Rican club hits blasted from a loudspeaker. Several protestors donned masks to protect their identities from law enforcement cameras, and most of the speakers in the event refrained from disclosing their full names.

“I come from a colonized land. I don’t have a nation. It was stripped away from me by force,” said Andres Rodriguez, an organizer with Comité Boricua, in a speech delivered in Spanish. “As a Puerto Rican, I don’t have power over myself. I don’t have power of my land,” he said.

Rodriguez spoke about The Financial Oversight and Management Board, a body formed by Congress in 2016 to reconstruct the archipelago’s $72 billion public debt. “They have full control over Puerto Rico’s economy and transportation,” Rodriguez said. “Out of elitism and privilege, they close our schools, overprice our university studies, drive our doctors out of the country to find work elsewhere, and force patients to travel long distances to get treatment.”

Shortly into Rodriguez’s address, a small group of museumgoers was heard complaining to staffers about the noisiness of the protest, which only drew a louder response by the protestors.

“We were passed from one colonizer to the next,” said one of the protesters.

Two of the perturbed visitors shared their feelings with Hyperallergic. “I feel disgusted and threatened,” said Deane, a former corporate executive. Her friend Gail, a retired educator, interjected, “I do feel threatened because if I were to yell anything contradictory to what [the protestors] are saying, they’d be up in my face. It’s scary.”

“The Whitney is not a public institution, we have to pay to get in here,” added Deane. “I don’t come in here to listen to propaganda. I come in here to look at artwork. This is not artwork,” she said. Regarding the subject of the protest, Deane said, “I don’t really care. If they want independence, go become independent. It’s not my problem.” The two women remained present at the lobby through the entirety of the protest and voiced their concerns to different museum workers.

Timothy, a member of Comité Boricua, paid tribute to political prisoners in Puerto Rico including Nina Alejandra Droz Franco, Ana Belén Montes, and Noel Cruz Torres. “We are all held captive by the United States government. We are all political prisoners,” he said.

According to the ACLU chapter in Puerto Rico, police officers disproportionately used violence against demonstrators, reporters, and legal observers during the last year’s May Day protests, and continued with “warrantless arrests of protesters in their homes and university dorms.” Ahead of the May Day protests next week, the local police announced that its preparations for the rallies do not include any changes to what they did last year.

Borinquen was under violence since 1492. We were passed from one colonizer to the next. We suffered from sterilization and exploitation of our land and our people,” a member of the Bronx-based group Hydropunk said. Activist Hamez Barbosa described the history between the United States’s and Puerto Rico as an “abusive relationship.” Barbosa also asked to reject claims that Puerto Ricans are responsible for the crippling debt that their local government fell into.

Andres Rodriguez: “Does [American] citizenship mean being abandoned after Hurricane Maria?”

“To be Puerto Rican means to be a warrior. We’re in this war, whether we asked to be in it or not. We want our peace. That’s why we are here,” said another protester after speaking about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the 1960s and the “disproportionate” drafting of Boricuas in American wars. “The Whitney is being funded by the war waged on our homeland,” he said.

“Does [American] citizenship mean being abandoned after Hurricane Maria?” Andres Rodriguez added, “Citizenship is the whitewashing of our colonial realty.”

Noise complaints were answered with louder music

“I’m sure the Whitney will make a documentary about us in 20 years,” said an artist who preferred to remain anonymous. “There’s a real big issue when it comes to art and gentrification, displacement, and whiteness,” she added. “You [artists] want to be with the people of New York when you move in here, but you’re displacing us at the same time. You want to be with the Black, brown and Indigenous people of New York, but you laugh at us when we tell you that we can’t survive.”

“We’ve been coming here for six consecutive weeks. At this point, I’m not sure if the staff loves or hates us anymore,” said Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx. “We are only following your lead,” she said to staffers, referencing the public letter that was signed by more than 100 of their peers. “We don’t want to put you in a place where have to jeopardize yourself, but we are suggesting that you use the momentum from this as leverage. We are doing the heavy lifting here. Push on your end,” Rodriguez pleaded.

The night ended with a rave dance

To close the night, the protesters broke into a final dance with their banners in their hands.

Editor’s note 12:26pm 4/28/19: An earlier version of this article misquoted Andres Rodriguez as having said, “Does [American] captainship mean being abandoned after Hurricane Maria?” It has been corrected to, “Does [American] citizenship mean being abandoned after Hurricane Maria?”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an...

10 replies on “A Musical Protest at the Whitney Museum Focuses on Puerto Rico”

  1. So the Whitney has become a protest center. Is it still a museum? Or does art now take second place? Or is the protest “art”? Anyway, it makes me want to stay away.

  2. There you have it. Puerto Rican protesters don’t understand basic responsibilities of running the island. The Government of Puerto Rico defaulted on $72 billion of debt. In other words, the taxpayers of Puerto Rico did not pay their bills. And the island government mismanaged the $72 billion.

    As for the hurricane — the Puerto Rican Power Company did not perform routine maintenance and repair for 20 years PRECEDING the hurricane. Thus, the Power Company was in bad shape before the storm hit.

    Whit it hit, the hurricane knocked down ALL the power lines on the island. And there was almost no access to the fallen power cables strung across the island because the Power Company employees had not kept the access routes to the cable routes clear of brush and trees.

    Puerto Ricans completely bungled the management of Puerto Rico. The problems were all local. No connection to Washington.

    1. It’s almost impossible to parody the ignorance and stupidity in your comment. The *Federal Government* ruled that anyone buying bonds issued by Puerto Rico would be exempt from state, local, and federal taxes. The *US Congress* then took away those exemptions, sending the economy into what is essentially a permanent recession, costing 80K jobs and sending many young people off the island.

      Trump essentially ignored Puerto Rico after the hurricane. Over *3000 people* died because of Trump’s racist negligence.

      Anyone who says “the problems were all local” is a goddamned fool who needs to be mocked relentlessly.

      1. You are absolutely wrong about the status of Puerto Rican bonds. Clearly you know nothing about finance. And you know nothing about taxation in Puerto Rico.

        There was a period when corporations operating in Puerto Rico were able to book their profits tax-free. That special break was aimed at increasing commercial and industrial activity on the island. The pharmaceutical industry then established facilities on the island to take advantage of the tax deal. This tax status is separate from the municipal bonds issued by the island.

        However, the tax-free deal did not last — due to failures totally the fault of Puerto Rico. See Act 20.

        The death toll resulting directly from the hurricane was about 20 people. Hit by falling trees and possibly a few electrocutions.

        The estimated 3,000 people who died over the year following the hurricane died because their life-sustaining healthcare equipment lacked electricity — BECAUSE the Puerto Rican Power Authority ignored maintenance and repair of the power delivery system for 20 years — and when the storm hit, the power lines went down and it took almost a year to replace them and restore power.

        That responsibility was on the people who run and work for the Puerto Rican Power Authority. The utility was managed by incompetent clowns.

        Meanwhile, the death toll in Puerto Rico for the 12 months following the hurricane was no higher than it has been in any other 12-month period. Soooo, get over the nonsense about the loss of life. The people who died in the months after the storm were at death’s door anyway. The storm itself did not harm them.

        Learn something about the financial mismanagement of Puerto Rico.

        1. You seem to have problems with basic thought. While I’d like to applaud you for doing a quick Google search in an attempt to cover your @ss, you’re not smart enough to realize that the section you cut and pasted actually proves what I said: many of Puerto Rico’s financial problems come from the U.S. Congress.

          You also make the transparently stupid claim that 3000 people not because of Trump’s willfully negligent response after a large Category 4 hurricane hit a poor and isolated island, but because of the Power Authority’s negligent.

          You really can’t see how idiotic that is? Do you know anything about hurricanes? A strong Cat 4 will take down almost all the power lines in the most carefully maintained system.

          You’re a clown. Just walk away.

          1. Puerto Rico’s economic problems stem from the incompetence and lack of human resources in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans on the island do not pay US federal taxes. And they don’t bother to pay local taxes either. That’s the key problem. The island “manana” mentality.

            And obviously, you have no experience with municipal bonds or any securities issued by the PR government or private enterprises on the island.

            PR borrowed a lot of money from bond investors and then defaulted. There’s no one to blame except the people of PR.

            PR issued $72 billion in island debt. Tax revenue collected in PR was expected to cover the interest expenses. But, the people of PR didn’t pay their bills and the government was forced to default. That’s PR’s failing. Not Washington’s.

            The lousy business climate of PR is a function of only PR, not Washington.

            The tax breaks offered to US corporations for relocating some facilities to PR did not deliver the desired results. It seems you don’t know the difference between US corporate taxation and municipal taxation.

            That’s hardly the fault of the US government. But, apparently in your view, the taxpayers on the US mainland should support the PR population.

            In fact, that largely happens, due to all the social service payments made to a very high percentage of PR residents.

            I suggest that PR return to complete independence and, for those on the island hoping for statehood, well, let it go. Of course, if PR were to become entirely independent, then the remaining 3 million residents would pack up and move to the mainland. The island can’t pay its own bills.

            As for hurricanes, your knowledge is non-existent. Category 4 storms may knock down towers. But when the access routes to the towers are kept clear due to sane maintenance and repair standards, it takes no time at all to restore power. Weeks, instead of a year.

            But, the Puerto Rican Power Authority ended its maintenance and repair work about 20 years ago, and that continuous inaction of gross negligence is the reason it took a long time to restore the power.

            Helicopters were transported by ship to PR because they were needed to fly workers with chainsaws to the cable routes to clear away all the heavy growth that blocked access to repair crews reconnecting the power lines.

            Driving was not possible. Roads were closed and the locals did almost nothing to remove the obstructions.

      2. Something else to combat your ignorance:

        LII U.S. Code Title 48. TERRITORIES AND INSULAR POSSESSIONS Chapter 4. PUERTO RICO Subchapter I. GENERAL PROVISIONS Section 745. Tax exempt bonds

        “All bonds issued by the Government of Puerto Rico, or by its authority, shall be exempt from taxation by the Government of the United States, or by the Government of Puerto Rico or of any political or municipal subdivision thereof, or by any State, Territory, or possession, or by any county, municipality, or other municipal subdivision of any State, Territory, or possession of the United States, or by the District of Columbia.”

        Do you get it? No taxes on Puerto Rican bonds. Of course, investors have to bear the risk of Puerto Rico defaulting and failing to make the interest payments.

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