By: Colonel Luis Berríos-Amadeo
Member of the Puerto Rico Equality Commission
Washington, DC – Last Friday, July 17, 2020, Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes and martyrs of the struggle for human rights and equality for his black fellow citizens in the United States of America, died in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 80. In the 1960s, along with his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Lewis began his peaceful struggle to advance the basic rights of these citizens, which were largely unrecognized in the southern states.
While the funeral of this patriot took place in the city of Atlanta, with the presence of three past presidents of the Nation (Clinton, Bush, and Obama), here in the colony/territory a letter was received from the Federal Department of Justice in regards to the status plebiscite to be held on November 3. In that letter, in response to a written communication to that department by the President of the State Elections Commission, it is informed that the use of federal money that a previous legislation had designated for those purposes is not authorized. The federal official who signed the notification uses several subterfuges to justify his undemocratic decision. Among them “…that the people of Puerto Rico have not definitively rejected commonwealth. We must remind this official that at the Nov. 6, 2012 vote, 970,910 eligible voters in Puerto Rico voted against the current territorial status which is nothing more than a commonwealth. That number of voters represented 54% of the universe of citizens who overwhelmingly rejected the commonwealth.
Immediately, the leaders who oppose continuing under this undemocratic colonial regime that we suffer, among others Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, expressed themselves clearly and forcefully against what was outlined in the federal letter. Among other expressions they called “embarrassing” the intentions of hindering the free vote of the American citizens who live here and equally stated that we do not have to ask anyone’s permission to claim our rights as American citizens and “that the plebiscite goes” with or without the endorsement of the Federal Department of Justice.
On the other hand, the leaders of the immobilism that pretend to perpetuate the colony in a clear violation of the most fundamental civil and human rights as the right to vote and even more the right to be equal, immediately requested the repeal of the law that facilitated the plebiscite of November 3. Obviously alluding to the letter where the federal government does not give us “permission” to vote and get rid of the colonial regime and achieve equality. Not only do they fear the federal government, they also fear that the people will again speak out forcefully for equality.
These leaders of immobility seem to have learned nothing from the example, teachings and life of John Lewis. We must ask rhetorically what would have happened to the civil rights movement for equality promoted by John Lewis if, on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, he had asked permission to march and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the government had refused and consequently complied with that decision and not attempted to cross it. Lewis attempted to cross the bridge with very negative consequences that day for him and his fellow companions because he was violently assaulted, but with extraordinary long-term historical consequences for African-American citizens.
One of the extraordinary fruits of Lewis’ struggle, tenacity and sacrifice was the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the Nation. This was recognized by President Obama at the celebration of life and mourning farewell on July 30, when he recalled that on the day of his swearing-in, he approached John Lewis to tell him and thank him that he was there for his struggles and sacrifices. It is imperative to remind those who prefer to continue living in a colony without the most fundamental human rights that during that same speech and obviously alluding to Lewis’ struggles, Obama pointed out that, the American citizens of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. should be “…guaranteed equal representation in our government. We all know that President Obama’s aspiration or goal, and the one Lewis supported, can only be achieved through statehood.
Days before his death, Lewis wrote an essay that was published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral. Among his messages before he left, he reminded us of the following:
“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is
the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society”.
Let us follow the examples and lessons of this giant of human rights and equality and without asking anyone’s permission and with the certainty that we are on the right side of history let us go out and vote massively for the “yes” alternative in the plebiscite of 3 November 2020.
For more information, please visit the Commission’s website: http://equality-pr.us