Decision by parade to honor Oscar Lpez Rivera, a controversial nationalist hero, stirs anger and overshadows one of Americas biggest annual gatherings
In one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of Oscar Lpez Rivera, a leader of the violent extremist group that took credit for more than 100 bombingsof US targets in the 1970s and 80s in a campaign for Puerto Rican independence.
The decision was met with a mixed reaction, as such decisions typically are.
Some characterized Lpez Rivera and the Armed Forces of National Liberation to which he belonged as unrepentant terrorists, and jeered the commutation. Others described him as a freedom fighter and political prisoner, calling the release overdue after he served 35 years.
The debate hadnt cooled off for long before it was reignited by word that the newly freed Lpez Rivera would be honored at the Puerto Rican day parade in New York City , scheduled for 11 June. The event brings 2 million revelers to Manhattans Fifth Avenue, making it one of the countrys biggest annual gatherings.
As a result of the organizers decision to designate Lpez-Rivera a National Freedom Hero, sponsors like AT&T, the New York Yankees, JetBlue and Goya foods have pulled out of the parade.
And on Friday afternoon, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced he was unfortunately not attending this year, though his statement made no mention of Lpez Rivera.
Earlier in the week the sponsors pulling out had been joined by the New York Daily News, which explained its decision in an op-ed. Lpez Rivera was never charged in direct connection with a bombing. But it is beyond dispute that he proudly oversaw the unrepentantly violent movement, the tabloid New opined. It is also beyond dispute that he has never expressed remorse or worked with authorities to hold accountable those responsible for unsolved crimes.
All of this is welcome news to Joseph Connor, whose father Frank was killed in a FALN bombing in 1975, when Joseph was eight. Leaving four dead and injuring more than 50 at the historic New York Fraunces Tavern, the attack was by far the most devastating of the bombings for which the organization took credit.
Whether [Lpez Rivera] walked the bomb into Fraunces Tavern or is irrelevant, Connor said. Osama bin Laden didnt fly the plane into the World Trade Center either.
Lpez Rivera has denied involvement in FALNs Fraunces Tavern attack, as well as its other deadly bombing in 1977.
No one was ever charged with a crime in the Fraunces Tavern incident.
Parade organizers said in a statement that the honor was a recognition of a man and a nations struggle for sovereignty not an endorsement of the history that led to his arrest. Lpez Rivera was convicted in 1981 on charges of seditious conspiracy and of transportation of explosives with intent to kill and injure people and to destroy government property.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton offered Lpez-Rivera and 16 other FALN members clemency on the condition that they renounce violence. Lpez Rivera declined on the grounds that one FALN member, Carlos Torres, wasnt offered the same deal.
In 2011, after Torres had been released, Lpez Rivera applied for parole, 30 years after he was first incarcerated. Connor attended the parole hearing in 2011 and left unimpressed. Really, we were looking to put this behind us, Ive got enough in my own life, Connor said. We were just looking for him just to be somewhat contrite and he wouldnt do it.
In an October 2016 interview with the Guardian, Lpez Rivera said he and his movement had transcended violence but still claimed a justification for violence under international law, in the fight against colonialism.
It depends on your vantage point on whether someone is fighting for equity and justice or just a plain-old terrorist, said New York City councilman Jumaane Williams, who reaffirmed to the Guardian his pledge to march in the parade.
I dont know too many struggles that we can talk about where someone wrote a letter and said, Please give me equity, justice or freedom, and they were given it. It comes out of struggle and tension.
Williams conceded that there was a difference between violence aimed directly at perceived oppressors and terrorism typically aimed at innocent civilians.
Nelson Mandela was on a terrorist list well into the 21st century, Williams added. The St Patricks Day parade has had IRA members who used, probably, worse violence than what people are say FALN did in their parade, so we should show some consistency when we have these discussions.
In 1983, the New York St Patricks Day parade featured IRA advocate Michael Flannery as grand marshal.
Like today, schisms opened up in 1983 over who was choosing to boycott the parade because of Flannerys involvement, and who was not. New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former state governor Hugh Carey boycotted. The NYPD, unlike in this years parade dust-up, did not.
Connor said: I have no use for the IRA either they were terrorist thugs. I would hope that no one would march with an IRA member either.
Connor also pointed to the timing of the discussion, just days after a bomb detonated in Manchester, killing 22 and injuring more than 50. This is nasty evil, cowardly and cruel, said Connor. I have a little girl. How could anybody support anybody who would be a member of a group like that. They should be ostracized rather than lionized.
The parade will be held on the same day that Puerto Rico is scheduled to take its fifth referendum vote on territorial status.