When the students at the University of Puerto Rico gathered to protest an $800 hike in school fees in December, the state Supreme Court ordered them to do so outside the school gates.
Ana Guadalupe, the rector at the university's largest branch in Rio Piedras, had declared a moratorium on all student expression on campus and warned that any protests on university grounds would result in arrest. So students demonstrated in front of the university tower on campus and a circumscribed "Free Speech Zone" on Ponce de Léon Avenue starting Dec. 14.
Soon, the protests turned violent, first in skirmishes with a private security company hired by the university to take down student barricades, then with state police in SWAT gear who beat students, lobbed smoke bombs, and sprayed tear gas on the demonstrators. Nevertheless, students have continued to protest over the past three months, forming picket lines around the university's perimeter and regularly holding sit-ins and silent marches.
The climactic standoff at UPR dramatizes a nationwide problem: As state governments have pulled back funding for higher education and tuition has skyrocketed, college -- long heralded as an economic equalizer -- has become harder and harder for middle- and low-income families to afford. It's a problem that has only been exacerbated by the economic recession, which has forced cash-strapped states to cut education budgets even more to close gaping budget deficits.
But the problem is especially acute in Puerto Rico, where the median family income sits at $28, 279 -- just a little more than half the national median income. Thirty-five percent of households subsist on food stamps, and unemployment hit 14.7 percent in December of 2010, the most recent number available.
Waldemiro Velez, a student leader at UPR who along with 6,000 other protesters was suspended from the university for voicing his opposition to the fee change, says the $800 increase would force at least 10,000 students across the university's 11 campuses to drop out. "It's the people's right to have an education," he said.
But that right, according to small-government Republicans, is something we can't afford right now. In response to the protests, Gov. Luis Fortuño, a conservative Republican, blasted what he called the protesters' "political agenda."
"Without a doubt, their objective is to provoke violence and politically damage this administration; politics in Puerto Rico are that crude," he said in a message to voters shortly after the December skirmishes.
Transferring the burden of UPR's estimated $75 million deficit to students who he said are "privileged" follows Fortuño's small-government agenda. Within his first two years in office, he had frozen the salaries of all public workers, closed government agencies, and fired 26,000 state employees.
But if Fortuño's politics are classically conservative, his administration's police tactics are out of the Middle East. Grainy videos shot by students on cell phones and flipcams show police beating students with batons, fondling female protesters, and hog-tying marchers. "The solution can't be that every time the students want to express themselves the police beat them," says William Ramirez, 59, executive director of the Puerto Rico ACLU. "There has to be mutual respect."
Because of the standoff, lawmakers unveiled a compromise plan Feb. 24 to reduce the proposed fee to $200 -- the same day Fortuño again dispatched state police to the University to, as he called it, "keep the peace." Fortuño's rhetoric, painting protesters as agitators and terrorists while maintaining that police are needed to maintain order, criminalizes the student's right to free speech, Ramirez said.
A march of 30,000 people against Fortuño's budget at the Puerto Rican capitol building last spring characterized his administration's approach to protesters. In contrast to the Wisconsin state Legislature, where union members were allowed to protest Gov. Scott Walker's attack on collective bargaining unmolested within the Capitol, protesters in Puerto Rico were met by state police who used pepper spray and rubber bullets against the crowd.
They were not allowed in the building and the legislature met behind closed doors -- in violation of the Puerto Rican Constitution -- Ramirez said. "We have a government that sees all protest as an obstacle," he said.
In many ways, the battle at UPR is as much about access to education as it is about the essential right to register protest against a powerful administration -- one that is comfortable using force to quell dissent.
The students who continue to strike and push for access to education are not undermining the university, as Fortuño and the opposition have said, but personifying the very lessons learned in the classroom.
"These students aren't terrorists," Ramirez said. "These students believed the lessons they learned in the University -- that they are citizens and have a right to free expression."