NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Organizers of the city’s Puerto Rican Day parade are sticking with their decision to honor a freed militant who once embraced armed resistance to U.S. rule of Puerto Rico, despite a promised boycott by Hispanic police officers and criticism from salsa star Willie Colon.
NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill on Monday became the latest person to say he wouldn’t march in the parade because of the decision to recognize Oscar Lopez Rivera, who served decades in prison for his involvement in The Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN.
“I’m not going to be marching this year,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill’s decision marks a dramatic break from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is marching this election year.
“I cannot support a man who was a co-founder of an organization that engaged in over 120 bombings, six people killed, and seriously injured four police officers,” O’Neill said.
During the 1970s and 1980s, FALN claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico, including a blast that killed four people at New York’s historic Fraunces Tavern in 1975.
Lopez Rivera wasn’t convicted in any of the bombings, but a former FALN member testified that he instructed members on how to make bombs, detonators and silencers. While serving his sentence, Lopez Rivera was convicted of hatching a plot to escape from prison using explosives and a helicopter.
He served 35 years until his sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
The 74-year-old has thousands of supporters who see him as a political prisoner, jailed for seeking independence for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Supporters compare him to George Washington and Nelson Mandela, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.
O’Neill said he might attend to offer support to officers working but wouldn’t march. When asked whether he thought Lopez Rivera was a terrorist, he said: “Based on his actions — I guess the answer would be yes.”
The board of directors of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade released a statement Monday defending their decision to name Lopez Rivera as “Procer de la Libertad” — National Freedom Hero — for the June 11 parade down Fifth Avenue.
“We understand that others may not be able to be with us,” the statement said. “However, we will continue to represent all voices, with an aim to spark dialogue and find common ground, so that we can help advance our community and build cultural legacy.”
The NYPD’s Hispanic Society, which in the past has sent a few hundred officers to the parade, announced last week that it wouldn’t participate this year. Some of those permanently maimed in FALN bombings were police officers.
“We will take a stance in support of the members of service who were seriously injured and with the families of the innocent people who lost their lives,” society president Jenimarie Garcia-Cruz said in a statement.
The Rafael Ramos foundation, a nonprofit named for a slain officer that raises awareness of the danger of being in law enforcement, is also skipping the parade.
All the police unions are also boycotting, and they want parade sponsors to join them.
JetBlue pulled out on Monday, saying in a statement that it did not want to be involved in the controversy:
“As the leading airline in Puerto Rico, JetBlue is proud of its strong relationship with the Puerto Rican community and its long-time sponsorship of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. It became clear that the debate about this year’s parade was dividing the community and overshadowing the celebration of Puerto Rican culture that we had set out to support. Out of respect for the many different points of view, we will be redirecting our funds to support scholarships for Puerto Rican students in both New York and Puerto Rico. We did not make this decision lightly and hope all sides will come together to engage in a dialogue about the parade’s role in unifying the community at a time when Puerto Rico needs it most.”
Meanwhile, Goya Foods, which has sponsored every parade since it began in 1958, said that it wouldn’t do so this year, calling it a business decision.
Goya’s decision called an anti-Goya demonstration within an unusual rally to defend Lopez Rivera and the groups marching in the parade.
An online petition demanding the title be revoked has about 2,000 signatures. Colon, the Puerto Rican salsa singer, wrote on his blog that parade organizers went too far, but he stopped short of saying he’d skip.
“I am compelled to denounce terrorism in any form for any reason,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, and more than 30 other lawmakers sent a letter to the parade’s board Monday commending the decision to honor Lopez Rivera.
“As countless families continue to struggle in Puerto Rico’s current fiscal crisis, Oscar is a reminder of the hope that has always anchored the Island — and that’s why we fully stand behind your efforts,” the letter said.
Mark-Viverito called those who are boycotting the parade “misguided.”
“If we look at the statements that have been made as to why they are not participating, they are all lies,” she said. “They’re based on information that is not accurate.”
Mark-Viverito insists those who believe Lopez Rivera was behind any violence are misinformed, 1010 WINS’ Sona Rincon reported.
“The FBI could not present any facts that linked him or any others to any action that hurt anybody,” she said.
As to the groups that are boycotting, Mark-Viverito said: “They have a right to make a decision to not march. They don’t have a right to make up the facts.”
But Detectives’ Endowment Association President Michael Palladino said Lopez Rivera was involved in terrorism, and slammed Mark-Viverito for defending him.
“I have detectives who lost the precious gift of sight. I have detectives that are confined to a wheelchair for the rest of their life, because of the bombings that took place by the FALN here in this city,” Palladino said. “To support an individual who took part in terrorist activity – especially right here in this city – I think is a violation of her oath of office. It’s a betrayal of the innocent lives that were lost; the cops that were injured.”
Also not marching are U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Gillibrand’s spokesman said she never planned to march, while sources said Schumer is scheduled to be out of town. Schumer’s spokesman said the senator marched last year.
Lopez Rivera was released last week from house arrest in Puerto Rico, where he’d been since his sentence was commuted in January.
Lopez Rivera got a hero’s welcome and then traveled to Chicago, where a parade was thrown in his honor and a street sign bearing his name was unveiled in the Humboldt Park community – where he was once an organizer. Chicago Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) called Lopez Rivera a hero and said, “This is your park.”
But the Chicago ceremony was not without dissent. One man, Mark Heller, said the evidence of terrorist acts against Lopez Rivera is ”unquestionable” and said the street designation is “an insult to Chicagoans,” CBS Chicago reported.
Heller got into a brief scuffle with others on hand who ripped up his sign, which read, “Terrorist OLR – not a hero.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)