Rebel or Revolutionary: The Story of Tito Kayak, published in Metro San Juan

Posted: July 1, 2009 in Environmental Justice

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His hands weren’t the hands of a soldier. Frail, lacerated and clumped into claws— they were the hands of someone with a degenerative condition. Arthritis, perhaps.

“Don’t squeeze so hard,” he says; his voice raspy and low, with an apologetic timbre. “I screwed them up in Vieques this weekend.”

Alberto De Jesús waits in front of a white ‘90s model Isuzu Rodeo with rust stains that are eating at the surface like a rash. Years of exposure to the wind and sun, maybe.

He was affable, courteous. This was the interview he had been avoiding for weeks, but he had hurried through rush hour traffic to do. A tight schedule, the environmental activist admits.

Love him or hate him, De Jesús sits at the epicenter of Puerto Rico ‘s modern environmental justice movement. Misión Industrial, United Cataño Against Contamination and other environmental organizations were at the forefront of the movement long before De Jesús could spell “Vieques,” but it is his media self, “Tito Kayak,” who has become the face of the environmental fight, the spokesman, if you will, of the struggle between the Earth and the State.

His are radical strategies, seldom forgotten by citizens, and always spectacular, playing like small telenovelas for the local sensationalist media. In 2000, he planted Puerto Rico ‘s flag atop the Statue of Liberty, a seminal moment in the Vieques effort to drive the U.S. Navy off the island. In July 2005, he attempted to switch the United Nations flag for ours during the UN’s Decolonization Committee Hearings. Last year, in a dramatic escape from authorities at the Paseo Caribe site, he swung from a crane onto a kayak and disappeared by the Dos Hermanos Bridge, foiling the attemps of the police’s First Response Unit, known as FURA, to catch him.

But that was Tito. De Jesús was here in my office. Tired, unshaven and demoralized—he had injured himself in Vieques and was coping with a personal problem.

De Jesús’ fighter instincts would awaken shortly. He scanned the office —soundboards, doors, old magazine editions laid down on the table in the foyer. He jumped off the chair, startled, as if he had come to a pressing conclusion, ran out the front door and began dialing away frantically on a beaten-up cell phone.

Within 15 minutes he returned and announced he would abandon the interview. He’d been advised against it by someone from the environmental group Amigos del MAR. He apologized. I asked why, and a woman on the phone’s speakerphone replied, “It can compromise the objectives of our organization,” spoken in an unctuous, overly dramatic tone.

Such secrecy characterizes leftist organizations, a defense mechanism that poses the proverbial question for the rest of the population: “What are they hiding?” This is the guy who flew a Palestinian flag from an Israeli surveillance tower, a fearless legend accustomed to media attention, yet afraid of public scrutiny.

That awkward individual in a scurrying rush is incompatible with those who know him and have worked by his side. Sandra Valentín, an environmental lawyer and part of the legal team that challenged the Courtyard by Marriot’s parking lot construction on the Isla Verde beach, describes him as an honest person, an unshakable warrior willing to accept the consequences of his actions. “Sometimes movements have to be radical to incite action,” she says. “In his case there is always action. I admire that he’s always ready to pay the price for what he believes.”

Vieques and Beyond

De Jesús became a household name in 1999 during the Vieques struggle to expulse the Navy. But his environmental work began before that, with the organization Amigos del MAR (Revolutionary Environmental Movement for its acronym in Spanish). Since 1995, these activists have travelled the island on an intense educational campaign that included environmental workshops for students. This was the “awareness” half of their agenda. An aggressive campaign to stop international vessels that carry plutonium and harmful waste through the Caribbean was launched as well.

De Jesús upped the ante when he became directly involved in the Vieques struggle. The death of David Sanes on April 19 during a bombing target practice in Vieques motivated De Jesús and Amigos del MAR to spearhead many civil disobedience camps.

This tactic forged the cause for Vieques. Demonstrators trespassed into the practice ranges; some camping there until removed by federal marshals, becoming a phenomenon broadcast the world over. Former Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were among those arrested, and world leaders, politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders and artists supported the cause.

The turtle speed of a liberation process that had mobilized an entire continent and beyond did not satisfy De Jesús. In an act of defiance, he hoisted the Puerto Rican flag to the top of the Statue of Liberty in New York . The gesture became a symbol of Boricua pride and prowess.

A Necessary Force

When De Jesús and other activists occupied the Paseo Caribe construction site in San Juan , few expected the brouhaha to evolve into the media frenzy that followed. The new facilities reached the beach front, which environmentalists’ argue is public property, and the construction impeded access to the San Gerónimo Fort.

Demonstrators camped on the premises and De Jesús climbed up a crane and sat for an entire week. On Nov. 13, 2007, holstered on a harness, hiding his face under a black mask, De Jesús slid down a thin rope to the canal below. Supporters had prepared a red kayak. He climbed on board and headed for the Dos Hermanos Bridge. FURA maritime units were waiting on the other side of the bridge, but when his red kayak appeared, a decoy had taken over the vessel. De Jesús swam but was intersected by two police jet skis. Then, from the bridge, one after another, men started to jump. With decoys swimming all around him, De Jesús escaped unnoticed and unscathed. He later turned himself in to the police. On Feb. 8, 2008, Superior Court Judge, Oscar Dávila Sulliveres ruled that the site was not public property and declared the San Gerónimo Caribe Project Inc. owners of the land.

Dr. Palmira N. Ríos, sociologist and director of the School of Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico , Río Piedras Campus, holds that these are efficient strategies to attract public attention and motivate change.

“He sends his message through innovative means that grasp the public’s attention,” says Ríos. “Events need to be powerful and memorable to be media worthy, and Tito has been very capable of using the media efficiently.”

For Ríos, these action scenes are more efficient than conventional marches and protests. Sluggish turnout at protests can hurt the cause, she adds. “With respect to the media, people question their strength because there is no one there.”

Ríos adds that through De Jesús’ persistent demonstrations at the Paseo Caribe site, the public did learn of possible violations and questionable permits granted by government agencies.

“We know of the environmental cause, of the potential or real violations because he created awareness,” says Ríos. “In the Paseo Caribe case, the court decided in favor of the developer. Within the legal framework, his permits were in order. But after the demonstrations, people began questioning what was or wasn’t public property and if developers could build in these areas. He truly made people question the process by which the country issues [construction] permits.”

Political activism has proven to be an efficient weapon in modern politics. Long before Puerto Ricans expelled the military from Vieques, community-based groups in Cataño and Guayanilla had fought the industrial plants that were polluting their air and contaminating their resources. Misión Industrial and United Cataño Against Contamination were pioneers in the environmental justice movement that began in the early ‘70s.

“In both cases there were intense and extensive organizational efforts,” says Juan Rosario, an environmental health expert associated with Misión Industrial.

United Cataño Against Contamination, with the collaboration of Misión Industrial, forced the Bacardi plant in Cataño to reduce organic waste products from the alcohol fermentation process. The organic sludge, labeled a “monster” by the residents, had an unpleasant smell and tinted the water an unsightly brown hue. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put pressure on the company as well, and the company developed a biodigestor that turned organic residue into gas, which they then used as an energy source. This was an environmentally friendly solution also because the gas partially replaced the use of oil derivates to generate energy.

“It was one of the first renewable-energy projects in Puerto Rico ,” Rosario adds.

In the continental United States , environmental justice spread far and wide. Demonstrations and other forms of resistance came to public light when conscientious citizens across the country began noticing the harmful health effects of an industrialized America .

Environmental historians trace the origins of the U.S. ‘s environmental justice movement partly to a case in Warren County, North Carolina. In 1978, the mostly African American community found out that the state was going to build a landfill to hold 40,000-cubic yards of soil contaminated with the chemicals known as PCBs. The community responded with a four years of resistance that included a month-long protest and over 500 arrests for civil disobedience.

Eileen McGurty, associate chair of John Hopkins’s Environmental Sciences and Policy department and author of “Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County , PCBs and the Origins of Environmental Justice,” wrote about the positive consequences of collective protests. “The flurry of disruptive collective action in the 1960s transformed the study of social movements from an explanation of the deviance of discontents to investigations that assumed social movement participants had legitimate political claims.”

The effectiveness of massive protests is well documented, but in Puerto Rico , they may have lost their political clout. Environmental lawyer and University of Puerto Rico Professor Érika Fontánez-Torres argues that citizens are indifferent to massive demonstrations because they interrupt their daily activities.

“The majority of people feel uncomfortable with these protests and are intolerant,” says Fontánez-Torres. “When they see that it is Tito Kayak, they reject him, his objectives and methodology.” Fontánez-Torres regrets this collective apathy and stresses that De Jesús resorts to these actions only when conventional means fail.

“Before he said, ‘I’m going up on that crane,’ many people asked for reports, many went to the courts and filed complaints… when that didn’t work, he said ‘now I’m going to get up on that crane,’ and it has been effective,” adds Fontánez-Torres.

Fontánez-Torres, who was involved in the Marriot case, argues that the demonization of the environmental groups is lead by the developers and the companies behind them.

“Obviously Tito Kayak, didn’t have the money, but when the verdict of the Marriot case was revoked, a full page ad was published in the paper,” says Fontánez-Torres. “The same happened with the Northeastern Ecologic Corridor Nature Reserve, when the developer Dos Mares placed full ads defending their projects. They have the economic power, so what is there left to do, but protest and make a lot of noise.”

Aside from developers, De Jesús and Amigos del MAR, the group he represents, face one more obstacle. According to Sociologist Ríos, having De Jesús as the protagonist in the environmental fight can hurt their objectives. “It’s his idiosyncrasies, his style that projects, not the objectives of the collective,” says Ríos.

She adds opponents might try to harm the movement by attacking him and his credibility. She cites the cases of the Puerto Rican Independence Party during the 1950s, when Nationalist Party leader Pedro Albizu Campos was incarcerated and allegedly subjected to radiation experiments. Ríos warns that organizations like Amigos del MAR and other leftists groups lack transparency, which hurts their trustworthiness in the public eye.

“To me, their process is not clear,” says Ríos. “How many are there? How do they make decisions? They want transparency from the government, but civil society groups need to do it as well.”

Numerous calls by MSJ to Amigos del MAR were not returned. Ríos suggests these organizations must create alliances to achieve their goals and create a social safety net.

When reminded that during the Marriot and the Paseo Caribe demonstrations, religious, political and civil rights groups supported the Amigos del MAR’s mission, Ríos explains that they were supportive of the cause, not necessarily the group.

“There was support for the cause, but no one knows if they were working together,” Ríos responded. Carlos Carrasquillo, a psychologist with 25 years experience with community-based organizations, agrees that alliances are the key.

“Real messiahs try to collectivize their cause,” he says. To Carrasquillo, De Jesús became a makeshift messiah that organizations come to when they need assistance. People or organizations, he fears, might take advantage of him to further their own goals and receive protection.

But at the end, who protects the leader? Messianic tales seldom have a happy ending. Christ was crucified, and Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were murdered. These were De Jesús’ heroes, according to an indymedia.org interview. Carrasquillo adds that De Jesús is not interested in a position of power; he’s both a martyr and a hero. And like Christ who was rejected by his own, De Jesús won’t find supporters among the general population.

“The message is accepted by the ones who believe there is an environmental problem,” he says. “I don’t think he would gain many followers with those methods. Those who have already rebelled against the system might follow him. A rebel and a revolutionary are not the same thing and he falls in the category of rebel, although he wants to lead a revolution.”

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