Oscar López Rivera, who just 14 days ago ended an unfair sentence of more than 35 years, arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area to be featured in a public event invited by solidarity organizations from the area. The event was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
Until May 17 Lopez Rivera was a political prisoner and was the one who had spent more time in U.S. prisons than any other in the history of Puerto Rico. For 35 years and eight months he remained locked up on the dubious charges of conspiracy to commit sedition, in other words the state had no real evidence on him or they would have charged him with them. Oscar’s only real crime was to stand up and fight for an end to the colonial control of his country by the United States. In January of this year, as a result of an international human rights campaign, President Obama commuted his sentence of 70 years. Oscar has been widely recognized as “the Nelson Mandela of Latin America”.
The gathering in Berkeley began with a reception organized by the National Lawyers Guild where, among other things, Oscar received proclamations of welcome from four City Councils including Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond. Gayle McLaughlin, former Mayor and a current Richmond City Council member presented their proclamation to Oscar that read in part, “Therefore be it resolved that the City of Richmond welcome Oscar Lopez Rivera to the Bay Area and designates May 31st as the Oscar Lopez Rivera Day in the City of Richmond.”
An extensive collection of political posters from the early stages of the struggle for Puerto Rican independence was on display at the reception and in the sanctuary connecting the past to the present.
As Oscar walked into the sanctuary of the church for the event the emotions of more than 700 erupted with a standing ovation and cheers of “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” The diverse audience was comprised of young activists and freedom fighters who had struggled for Oscar’s freedom for decades.
Frances Ramos and Vylma Ortiz, two young Puerto Rican women, officiated as Masters of Ceremony and began the event by recognizing a number of former political prisoners present in the room that generated a strong applause from the audience.
As an example of the preservation of Puerto Rican culture in the area, the Quenepas Youth Assembly delighted the audience with typical dances of Puerto Rico. Also performing was the renowned percussionist John Santos and the Puerto Rican artist Rico Pabón.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a rich history of struggle for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners that emerged in the 1970s primarily in Puerto Rico and Chicago around the building of a strong campaign for the freedom of the Puerto Rican nationalists Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores Rodríguez and Oscar Collazo. This movement for the independence of Puerto Rico then spread West.
Judith Mirkinson, an organizer of the event from the National Lawyers Guild, reminded those present that four decades ago, in the nearby city of Oakland, a similar event took place that welcomed three of the four Puerto Rican nationalists who had just been freed and then 8 months later, another similar event of solidarity welcomed the fourth freed nationalist Lolita Lebrón.
Mirkinson emphasized the importance of supporting the struggles for the end of colonial rule, the struggle of the Palestinian and Venezuelan people, and also expressed solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and Syria in their struggle against imperialism.
The next speaker was José López, brother of Oscar, who did not stop a single moment in the long struggle for his brother freedom. “I have come to celebrate with all of you and to thank you for several decades of solidarity with the Puerto Rican political prisoners and the independence of Puerto Rico… we must continue to strive, to never give up. Many told us that the nationalists would never leave prison alive, many abandoned the fight on the road, and yet here we are today with Oscar. We have made what seemed to be impossible possible through all of you.”
But the night was all about Oscar López Rivera and his humble and dignified strength. When he came to the podium the first thing he said clearly and loudly was, Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
It was obvious that the 36 years that Oscar spent in prison could not break his spirit. He arrived full of gratitude, enthusiasm and determination to continue the struggle for a better world and for the release of other political prisoners in the United States. “This is a fascinating, extraordinary and beautiful moment,” he said. “A moment where we can unite to support a good and noble cause.” Speaking of his own experience, “We have chosen to pay any price, but we have done it with dignity and honor, we have the power to pass any test, we all have it, we just have to discover it.”
Referring to the controversy that exists at the moment around the coming up national Puerto Rican Day parade in New York. “We will not allow the colonialists to lie to the diaspora and to tell those who support us what to do. This is a special moment because I think all the Puerto Ricans who love their homeland will join and we will be united in a big tent and we will not allow anyone to tell us what to do, and we are going to decolonize Puerto Rico.” Oscar continued by saying, “We celebrate life and continue working on the important things, celebrating the most precious things we have that gives meaning to our lives to be better human beings. We have the power to do so, but we only need to have the strength and the commitment to continue.”
The evening held two important meanings for some of the organizers of the event; on one hand it was the culmination of nearly 50 years of work and struggle that spanned several generations involved in this solidarity movement with a relatively small Puerto Rican community as its base. On the other hand, looking forward, there remains a strong and growing movement committed to the freedom of political prisoners in the U.S. Tonight was a vivid reminder that with building a broad unified movement comes the possibility that seemingly impossible victories can materialize.
To end this extraordinary evening, Oscar along with a group of people representing different generations, sang the La Borinqueña Revolutionary anthem. A fitting ending as the uplifted crowd slowly left.