Why Are We in Vieques?
For decades, the U.S. Navy has used a verdant, biodiverse Puerto Rican island as a target-practice bull's-eye, raining high explosives onto an idyllic tropical landscape. What's a loyal citizen to do when his government seems so thuddingly wrong? Sometimes even a lawyer's gotta break the law.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
As I sit by the sink in my cell, I’ve resolved to use the final week of my confinement to consider, with my contraband ballpoint, the events that led me to spend my summer vacation in a Puerto Rican prison.
How did I get here? The short answer is simple: On July 6, 2001, I was convicted of trespassing and sentenced to 30 days in jail. But like most of my fellow inmates, I have a longer explanation.
As the sun rose on April 28, 2001, I stood on the patio of the Casa Cielo, a small hotel overlooking a lush, green valley that unfolds down toward the tiny port of Esperanza on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s eastern shore. Two miles away I could see a dozen fishing boats race out of the harbor to divert the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels that patrol the waters leading to the “live impact area” of the naval bombing range on the east end of the island.
“Those are the decoys,” explained Wilda Rodriguez, a former journalist and union organizer who is one of the leading Puerto Rican activists on Vieques. With us were Dennis Rivera, a good friend and head of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents 215,000 health-care workers in New York State; actor Edward James Olmos, another friend; and Puerto Rican pop star and songwriter Robi Draco Rosa.
About ten miles to the southeast I could see a group of dark silhouettes—cruisers and destroyers from the Navy’s U.S.S. Enterprise Battle Group, preparing to begin the day’s exercises. Closer in to shore, a Coast Guard cutter blocked access to the firing range from Esperanza’s harbor. As the fishing boats approached, a pair of Zodiac pursuit craft left the cutter and gave chase.
With the decoy action underway, we jumped into a waiting van, sped downhill toward the harbor, jostled through a crowd of journalists, and boarded two fishing boats. Mine was a gunmetal blue 13-foot fiberglass panga with a deep keel and an 85-horsepower Evinrude motor. A fresh coat of marine paint obscured the registration numbers. Two fishermen hovered around the console, staring at us through eye slits in the purple shirts they wore as masks.
We could hear the Navy guns firing offshore as a marine patrol from the Puerto Rican police escorted us from the harbor. At first I presumed the patrol would arrest us, but then the boat’s uniformed officers approached the gunwales and saluted our small convoy before turning back. They were on our side! Outside the harbor, the waves were high enough that we had to grip the bowlines to keep our feet. Between bone-jarring bumps, I could hear the naked screw whining as the prop went airborne. A third boat packed with journalists and photographers trailed us.
About two miles out, we saw the decoy fishing fleet running back toward the harbor, hounded by the Coast Guard Zodiacs. When the crews aboard the pursuit craft realized what we were up to, they peeled away to intercept us. The masked man at the wheel of our panga buried his throttle in the console, and we began a thrilling ten-mile chase. When the Zodiacs pulled in front, we skirted their sterns and raced onward. In each Zodiac, a heavily armed team of five men wearing flak jackets and helmets shouted fiercely for us to heave to and allow them to board. Instead we went faster, skipping across water like the flying fish that issued from our bow wake in thick schools.
Finally, as they were closing in yet again, we veered toward shore and crossed a line of breakers onto the reef. Soon we were speeding across the near-shore shoal, a shallow boneyard of rocks and coral heads. The Zodiacs had turned at the reef, reluctant to follow us into the shallows, but the cutter continued to shadow us a half-mile out, burying its bow in the froth. Meanwhile, a Navy SH-3 Sea King helicopter churned above us as a half-dozen spotters with high-power binoculars followed our movements from the military’s hilltop observation post, perched on the edge of the live impact zone.
Our panga approached the beach; we scrambled onto the bow for a quick debarkment. Eddie turned to Dennis and me and said, “Let’s try to hide from them and see if we can stop the bombing for one day.” We leapt to shore as our fishermen threw the boat in reverse to run the blockade back to Esperanza. We would later learn that they evaded the Coast Guard Zodiacs on their way home, racing them at full throttle toward the harbor shore. The fishermen hit the boat ramp, and in a seamless maneuver, their boat was up on a trailer and moving down the road toward the forest. “In three seconds they were gone!” marveled a witness to the escape. The Zodiacs were left bobbing in their wake.
We sprinted across the silver beach onto a muddy, crater-pocked moonscape that was once a rich mangrove estuary. Dodging discarded equipment, twisted metal, unexploded shells, rockets, and parachute flares, and eating dust from the chopper’s downdraft, we scurried up a ridgeline, figuring that once we reached the other side we would at least be out of sight of the observation post. Then we all took off in different directions. The naval police, we knew, were already on their way.
I ARRIVED AT MY DIFFICULT decision to join the invasion of Vieques only after I was convinced that its people had exhausted every legal and political avenue to secure their rights. In my 18 years as a lawyer and environmental advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Riverkeeper movement, I had never engaged in an act of civil disobedience. As an attorney, I have a duty to uphold the law. But I also had a countervailing duty in this case. The bombardment of Vieques is bad military policy and disastrous for public health and the environment. But the most toxic residue of the Navy’s history on Vieques is its impact on our democracy. The people I met there are United States citizens, but the Navy’s abusive exercise of power on the island has left them demoralized, alienated, and feeling that they are neither part of a democracy nor the beneficiaries of the American system of justice.
Vieques has the sleepy, almost timeless ambiance of a García Márquez novel. The island is carpeted with broad expanses of unspoiled tropical hardwood forests, and it is home to 14 threatened and endangered species. Ranchers drive cattle across empty scrub savannas while droves of sea turtles nest on some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the Caribbean. Vieques’s coast is spangled with brown pelican rookeries, vibrant coral reefs, and mangrove estuaries where rare Antillean manatees calve. Mosquito Bay, just east of Esperanza, is one of the brightest bioluminescent bays on earth. On moonless nights, you can read a book by its phosphorescent light.
In 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, the Navy arrived on Vieques and began to “temporarily” expropriate the bulk of the island for a naval base that it never built. It forcibly deported 3,000 Viequenses, mostly to St. Croix, typically offering them $30 each for their homes and giving them 24 hours to get out. Over the following decades, the Navy refused to relinquish its beachhead. The military’s so-called Dracula Plan to deport Vieques’s remaining residents—living anddead, to discourage the aggrieved from visiting family grave sites—was derailed only by the direct intervention of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. After the closure of its other bomb range on nearby Culebra in 1975, the Navy annually saturated Vieques with thousands of pounds of ordnance—a total that eventually exceeded the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Naval bombs and missiles pulverized Vieques’s rainforests, blew its pelican rookeries and coral reefs to smithereens, filled mangrove estuaries, and poisoned the island’s aquifers with deadly chemicals. Navy pilots and gun crews killed sea turtles and whales, and Viequenses allege that the military narrowly missed bombing residential areas and injuring civilians; one local fisherman recalls seeing a crucial offshore pelican habitat “burning from incendiary bombs.”
Not surprisingly, Navy exercises regularly interfered with the local fishing industry. Tensions ran high: The bombing meant that large areas of the coastal waters were off-limits for weeks at a time; ordnance sometimes fell near fishing boats; and the ongoing conflict between the Navy and the fishermen led to the first organized opposition to naval operations on the island.
In November 1979, an early leader of the anti-Navy movement, Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal, died in federal custody in Tallahassee, Florida. Officially, he committed suicide, but there are many on Vieques who believe he was murdered. In early 1980, a bomb was planted in the San Juan offices of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which was offering pro bono representation to fishermen who had been arrested. A Navy lieutenant—the officer in charge of community relations in Vieques—was charged in connection with the crime.
The turning point in the movement against the military presence occurred in April 1999 when a U.S. Marine Corps Hornet fighter jet missed its target area and dropped two 500-pound bombs near the observation post, injuring a Navy officer and three civilian workers, and killing a Viequense civilian security guard named David Sanes. That May, hundreds of civilians and religious and political leaders moved into the impact zone itself, where they built an encampment (complete with a church) out of plywood and canvas. The Navy temporarily stopped bombing. In December 1999, in the face of the public outcry, President Bill Clinton ordered the Navy to halt the use of explosives on Vieques and to replace live ordnance with concrete-filled shells. In February 2000, 150,000 Puerto Ricans rallied in San Juan to protest further bombing.
The first time I went to Vieques, in April 2000, I met with fishermen, community and political leaders, and scientists. I was accompanied by Dennis Rivera, who is Puerto Rican by birth. For him, the fight over Vieques has become an almost religious crusade, and he has used his union’s political muscle to make it an urgent issue in New York. We visited the protesters in the live impact zone, and I went diving offshore to inspect the reefs. The coral had been shattered by bombs and crushed beneath a graveyard of sunken decoy ships; the ocean floor looked like an army-navy store, the reef bristling with dud bombs. I found what I believed to be clear civil and criminal violations of three federal environmental statutes—the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Endangered Species Act—and agreed to represent a host of Vieques fishing and community groups in their legal fight against the Navy.
EDDIE OLMOS DID THE smartest thing. After we split up, he found a hillside, sat down, and acted like he had no intention of hiding. He was tired anyway. I’d phoned to ask him to join us only four days earlier, but it turned out he was in Argentina. “I was calling to invite you to get arrested in Vieques this weekend, but you’re off the hook,” I said. But Eddie insisted on coming. When he got to San Juan, he’d had only three hours’ sleep in the past 36.
After a time, the helicopter crew became convinced he wasn’t going anywhere and went hunting for us. Eddie used the opportunity to strip off his white T-shirt and scurry to a hiding place, where he quickly fell asleep, confounding the search parties for the next five hours.
I hid under a demolished half-track. With time on my hands, I began to worry that I might take a direct hit if the bombing resumed. As I considered this possibility, I noticed daylight gleaming through the clean, telltale holes made by depleted-uranium bullets. I decided to hunt for a less radioactive hiding place.
With the helicopter shadowing me, I hiked toward the southeast, found a few acres of brush crowding a mangrove swamp, crawled into the thicket, squeezed under a mangrove root, and covered myself with branches and twigs. For two hours the helicopter hovered above me, trying to flush me out. Then I heard soldiers calling my name: “Mr. Kennedy!” I could hear them cursing the thorns; some of them passed just a few feet away. Finally, one spotted me and blew a high-pitched whistle. I came out. A Navy policeman, Petty Officer Larry Roberts, handcuffed me with zip-tie Flex-Cufs and walked me through the swamp to a military road.
I found Dennis handcuffed and squatting in the hot sun behind a camouflaged deuce-and-a-half. The Navy police were tired and thirsty. They asked us if we knew where the last guy—Eddie—was and we answered, honestly, that we did not.
One MP asked how we got into the impact zone. “We came on a fishing boat,” I answered. Another sailor asked if we were from the big island (Puerto Rico). “No, we’re from New York,” I replied.
A brawny MP from Louisiana said, “Did you take dat fishing boat all the way from New Yawk?” I told him no, we’d flown in the night before. “You flew all the way from New Yawk to hide in dem sticker bushes?” he asked incredulously.
“The guy you’re looking for flew all the way from Argentina—20 hours—to hide in the bushes,” I said.
“Who is dat fool?” the Louisiana sailor asked.
“It’s Edward James Olmos,” I said. “The actor from Miami Vice.” The show airs three times a day in Puerto Rico.
“Dat’s who dat is?” the sailor said. “Well, I’m going to look for him. I want to get his autograph and ask him about dat Viper.” He shouldered his backpack. “I’m going to ask him, ‘Do dat car really go dat fast?'” Then he shouted to another sailor: “He’s got mo’ money den all of us and he’s crawling around in dem sticker bushes.”
At that point, a K9 truck pulled up. All the MPs commented on how mean the dog was: “Dat’s no dog—dat’s a laughing hyena.” The dog did look like a hyena—short tail and stumpy, splayed hind legs, tawny skin with black spots, and a giant mouth with prominent black lips. The dog couldn’t find Eddie, and a recon group took up the search.
We climbed awkwardly into the truck with our cuffs on and were driven to the observation post where David Sanes had been killed. We cooled our heels there for the next couple of hours. Disposable cameras materialized and each of the soldiers had his photo taken with us in our cuffs. It was an odd feeling: These weren’t fans snapping a shot with a Kennedy; these were hunters posing with their trophies. I smiled for the camera.
We heard a voice on the walkie-talkie, an officer who identified himself as Rear Admiral Kevin P. Green, Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command. Green instructed his men to treat us like they would any other prisoners.
Dennis told me he likes Admiral Green. “He’s a really good guy,” he said. Two weeks before, Dennis and New York Governor George Pataki had toured Vieques by helicopter with the admiral, and had visited the observation post where we were now being held. He said Admiral Green made a good case for the Navy—that there is no other locale where it can simulate all the components of the classic amphibious assault:
air-to-shore and ship-to-shore bombardments, combined with marine attacks over the beach. On the tour, Admiral Green had forcefully
promoted this view.
“We agreed to disagree,” Dennis said.
IN FACT, THERE ARE many places on the coast of the U.S. mainland that are ideal for such practice maneuvers. (This summer the Pentagon released an August 2000 study concluding that a number of bases in Florida and North Carolina could work as substitutes for Vieques.) But most of these sites are near mainland communities represented by members of Congress who can hold hearings and subpoena naval officials and subject them to troubling interrogations about the health and environmental impacts of these exercises. Viequenses, who are predominately of Taino Indian and African heritage, have no voting representation in Congress and therefore lack the political heft to keep the Navy out. Away from the microphones, many senior naval officers admit that, more than any other factor, Vieques’s lack of congressional representation makes it uniquely appealing as a bombing range.
But whatever justifications the Navy offers for the strategic importance of its presence on Vieques, these must be weighed against the devastating effect the bombing has had on the island’s 9,300 inhabitants and their environment. In 1999, a report compiled by the Special Commission on Vieques for the governor’s office cited studies suggesting that Vieques suffers the highest infant-mortality rate and highest overall mortality rate in Puerto Rico. The report also cited a study conducted by the Puerto Rico Department of Health which asserted that from 1980 to 1989, the risk of developing cancer was greater in Vieques than the rest of Puerto Rico. Many residents have been found to carry dangerous flesh loads of contaminants, including cadmium, arsenic, mercury, lead, and uranium. High concentrations of heavy metals have also been found in soil, groundwater, fish, and crabs and can be linked to the detonation of naval ordnance. According to preliminary findings of a December 2000 study conducted by a Puerto Rican medical team, many Viequenses suffer high levels of vibroacoustic disease, a potentially lethal thickening of the membrane around the heart caused by persistent exposure to sonic booms.
Although the impact on human health may be the most egregious, the clearest and most demonstrable statutory violations, in my opinion, involve the Navy’s failure to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The ESA requires that a federal agency (or any other entity or individual) must complete a biological assessment before it disturbs an area where endangered species are known to exist. There are 14 federally designated threatened and endangered species in the naval maneuver area: brown pelicans; Antillean manatees; leatherback, green, hawksbill, and loggerhead sea turtles; four species of whales—finback, humpback, sperm, and sei; and four plant species. Indeed, one of the largest pelican rookeries in the Caribbean sits on Cayo Conejo, a rocky outcropping off the southern coast of the impact zone. There have been numerous instances of amphibious landings on beaches where turtles nest, and of bombs landing in waters where whales and manatees swim. And yet the Navy has never completed a proper biological assessment on any of these species, despite being ordered to do so by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Black-letter case law states that any agency that fails to do a biological assessment must be enjoined from continuing activities in that area until the assessment is performed. Vieques looked to me like an airtight Endangered Species Act case.
(The Navy, for its part, claims that it has “an excellent record preserving the environment on Vieques.” In a letter sent to Outsidewhile this article was being prepared, the public affairs office of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet asserted that “the area on Vieques where weapons are dropped is only 900 acres…. Weapons are not dropped on the vast majority of Navy land, which is kept in environmentally pristine condition.”)
In August 2000, I filed actions against the Navy on behalf of the NRDC and two dozen other plaintiff groups for violating environmental law and the civil rights of the Viequenses. Two months later, on October 10, we filed a motion in federal court in San Juan requesting a preliminary injunction against the Navy to prevent further bombing until a trial could be held. Our clients were disappointed when the case was assigned to Chief U.S. District Court Judge Hector Laffitte, who they believed was strongly sympathetic to the Navy. I filed a series of motions asking that the judge act, yet Laffitte sat on our injunction for eight months and did nothing as the Navy conducted a new series of bombing exercises.
When the Navy resumed bombing again, in April 2001, I was faced with a difficult decision. The Viequenses were largely convinced that naval power could trump every law and political institution that was relevant to their daily lives. These were people who had only the most limited political avenues. They had rights, but I had pursued legal options without achieving results. I hadn’t even been able to get them their day in court. Once again, the law had failed them. With my lawyer’s hands tied and the Navy poised to open fire, I could offer my clients only my civil disobedience. And so I walked into the impact zone.
ABOUT TWO HOURS went by before the searchers spied Eddie in his white shirt, two miles away on a ridgeline. MPs were dispatched to snatch him. Fifteen minutes later they had him in custody, and we heard an officer radio the message, “Range is hot,” followed by the distant report of naval gunfire.
Eddie told us that he’d fallen asleep under a bush after eluding the helicopter. When he woke up, he was worried that the Navy would start up the bombing again, so he took a little hike. The soldier who finally caught him got his autograph and told him, “You won Survivor!”
Our captors drove us all to the naval compound at Camp Garcia, where they turned us over to a less refined crowd. Our new guards made us kneel upright on sharp gravel, searched us, and took our shoes, socks, and belts. Then they marched us toward a chain-link enclosure containing 24 other male protesters. An adjacent enclosure housed about seven female prisoners, including Commonwealth Senator Norma Burgos, vice-president of the Puerto Rican Statehood Party, and Myrta Sanes, sister of the slain security guard, David Sanes.
As we approached, the prisoners cheered and chanted, “¡Kennedy! ¡Olmos! ¡Vieques, sí! ¡Marina, no!” A guard ordered them to shut up. When they didn’t, five soldiers opened up with pepper spray, shooting the prisoners through the fence. They writhed on the ground in their handcuffs, fighting to escape the agonizing burns. Some of them fainted and urinated on themselves. One man crapped in his pants. We were thrown in among the groaning, miserable bodies.
We spent the next few hours parboiling in the steamy Caribbean sun. Eventually we were loaded onto a bus and driven to the beach for a trip, via cargo barge, to Roosevelt Roads Naval Base on the Puerto Rican mainland.
We sat handcuffed on the open steel deck for roughly four hours. Beside us, Norma Burgos laughed and chattered, her lively elegance undiminished by handcuffs and dirty clothes. She had sneaked through the Camp Garcia fence four days earlier, hiked 11 hours to the live impact area, and slept in the bushes, feeding herself from underground caches stocked for thedisobedientesby the Vieques Fishermen’s Association. She finally raised a white flag when the bombs began dropping around her that morning.
Norma told us that the military police had brought in a new group of detainees after they caught us, including Robi Draco, whose boat had been turned back by the Coast Guard. He had returned to the harbor and climbed through the fence near Camp Garcia with a number of protesters, including U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez of Chicago.
As Norma later told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus during a hearing on Capitol Hill, she saw the guards beat Gutierrez. His knees hurt from kneeling on the rocks, and he bent to sweep a space smooth of pebbles. One guard kicked his ribs from behind and then, with the help of another guard, picked up the handcuffed congressman and flung him face-first onto the gravel. Norma told us one of the guards then put his foot on Gutierrez’s neck and ground his face into the gravel, saying, “You don’t like the rocks on your knees? Try some on your face.” Gutierrez confirmed the story when we saw him in federal prison the next day.
DURING THE BOAT TRIP to Roosevelt Roads, I found myself talking to Petty Officer Roberts, the sailor who captured me. He said he aspired to become a Navy SEAL. He asked about President Kennedy and was aware of his commitment to the Special Forces and the SEALs. Looking westward from our slow-moving transport, I could see El Yunque, the mountainous Puerto Rican rainforest that had once been home to an American Special Ops jungle warfare school, which I visited when my Uncle Jack was in the White House. I was eight years old, and I’d gone with my Uncle Sarge Shriver and cousin Bobby to watch the Green Berets run the obstacle course.
Ours was a Navy family. My father admired every species of war hero, but especially the elite units. During my childhood, Hickory Hill, our family home in Virginia, was frequently filled with commando types, Cuban guerrillas, and members of the Green Berets, the unit President Kennedy was instrumental in founding. Behind our home, the Green Berets built an obstacle course and a zip-line parachute jump, which for 30 years my mother required her house guests, including George H. W. Bush, to ride.
I listened with admiration as Roberts spoke about how badly he wanted to make the SEALs, and I experienced a familiar sting of ambiguity about opposing the service that was such an important icon of my childhood. But I was also thinking that those who love an institution most should be the first to criticize it when it does wrong. Every nation has a right to ask its citizens to sacrifice their lives during time of war. But on Vieques the Navy is endangering the lives of children, women, and men for a dubious military exercise without their consent.
We landed at Roosevelt Roads and were taken to the stockade in a tropical downpour. There we were turned over to U.S. Marshals and federal prison guards, most of whom were Puerto Rican. They treated us more like heroes than criminals. At midnight a bus carried us to the maximum-security federal prison in Guaynabo, a San Juan suburb. We packed ourselves into a holding cell with a good view of the galvanized toilet in its center. Eddie and I signed a zillion autographs for prisoners and guards.
Then the processing began. Outside the holding tank, Eddie, Dennis, and I were ordered to stand abreast, facing three prison guards. They told us to strip naked, to lift our private parts for visual inspection, and then to turn, bend, and spread our cheeks. It was in this position that Eddie seemed to experience second thoughts about having answered my call. He turned to Dennis and me and said, “Hey guys, lose my number.”
We were photographed, fingerprinted, decked in khaki, and marched to our cell block. Two days later, on April 30, a magistrate released each of us on $3,000 bail.
BY THE TIME I GOT home, after my release, I was fairly certain that I would be spending a significant portion of my summer in a federal prison. The reaction to this news by my friends and family was generally supportive. My mother counts among her close friends enough admirals to sail the Atlantic Fleet, but she was nevertheless reliably subversive and as proud as if I’d been elected to the Senate. A week after my release, I was at Hickory Hill for a fund-raiser for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, hosted by the cast of The West Wing. I smiled when I greeted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“Thanks for putting me up in Puerto Rico last weekend,” I said.
“I heard you couldn’t find a hotel down there, so I thought I’d help you out,” he said with a laugh.
Seated beside him during dinner, my mother goaded the Secretary in earnest good humor to abandon Vieques.
In early June, the San Juan federal district court notified Dennis and me that our trial date would be July 6. We were disappointed to learn that Judge Laffitte had chosen to retain our trespassing cases. (Because Eddie had been arrested by a different soldier, his case was assigned to a different judge.) When we asked Laffitte to recuse himself, arguing that our defense in the trespass case arose out of his failure to rule in the Endangered Species Act case, he refused.
My brother-in-law, Andrew Cuomo, was instrumental in persuading his father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, to act as co-counsel with our Puerto Rican lawyer, Harry Anduzze. Mario went to work lobbying the Bush White House to end the bombing and to point out the flaws in the Navy’s argument that Vieques was a military necessity. On June 14, President Bush announced that the Navy would stop using Vieques as a target area by May 2003—a compromise solution that pleased neither the Navy nor its opponents, who demand that the bombing stop immediately. On August 1, the House Armed Services Committee recommended that the Navy not be required to move by May 2003 if, by then, it hadn’t found an equivalent or superior substitute for Vieques.
Mario called Dennis and me three days before the trial and told us that he had worked out a deal to delay our sentencing so that I could be with my wife, Mary, when she had our baby, which was due July 12. The catch was that we had to plead guilty and waive our right to appeal. Judge Laffitte favored the deal, Mario said, and had indicated that our agreement to sign on might incline him toward a more lenient sentence. When I asked Mary, she told me not to take any deal. Dennis agreed.
I FLEW TO SAN JUAN on July 5. At the Caribe Hilton, Reverend Jesse Jackson signaled me from a beach chair. His wife, Jacqueline, had just been released from ten days in jail for protesting at Camp Garcia. Jackson had returned to Vieques with five congresspeople to attend our trial. “Suffering is often the most powerful tool against injustice and oppression,” he told me. “If Jesus had plea-bargained the crucifixion, we wouldn’t have the faith.”
Our defense was based on the doctrine of necessity; a defendant cannot be convicted of trespassing if he shows he entered the land to prevent a greater crime from being committed. We intended to prove that we had engaged in civil disobedience for a single purpose: to prevent a criminal violation of the Endangered Species Act by the Navy that the federal court had refused to redress.
Our trial took about seven hours. The U.S. attorneys were deputized Naval Reserve officers. When our lawyers tried to present evidence to support our necessity defense, Judge Laffitte quieted them. “I’m not going to allow political views, philosophical views, none of that,” he said. After the Navy put on its case, the judge announced that he found us guilty and said he would allow statements prior to sentencing.
Mario Cuomo spoke eloquently on our behalf: “We ask the court to recall that this nation was conceived in the civil disobedience that preceded the Revolutionary War, the acts of civil disobedience that were precipitated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, in the famous Sit-Down Strikes of 1936 and 1937, all through the valiant struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, and the movement against the Vietnam War. Always they were treated by the courts one way: not like crimes committed for personal gain or out of pure malice, but as technical violations, designed to achieve a good purpose.”
After the allocutions, the other defendants and I stood to hear our sentences. Judge Laffitte called Myrta Sanes, the sister of David Sanes, and let her go with six months probation. Several Vieques fishermen had been arrested on the day of our protest; the judge sentenced them to 30 days apiece.
I am dead sure that when Judge Laffitte entered the courtroom, he intended to give Dennis and me 40 days or more. Luckily for us, perhaps, he called Norma Burgos first. In the course of sentencing her to 40 days, he rebuked her: “You are a senator… I cannot condone such action.” Burgos responded in kind: “The ones who are violating the greater law are the members of the Navy. What are you waiting for in order to come and arrest them and judge them?”
“You are becoming defiant!” Laffitte shouted. “It does not behoove you to defy the court.”
Norma continued to argue until the judge hammered down his gavel. “OK,” he said, “I’ll change that sentence to 60 days.” This did not slow Norma down. She would have worked her way up to about a year in prison if a kindhearted U.S. Marshal hadn’t grabbed her and hauled her from the courtroom, still berating Laffitte.
The storm having passed, Judge Laffitte seemed inclined to be lenient toward us. When he said 30 days, I was ecstatic. After subtracting the three days I’d already served, I’d be home by August 1, the day my kids were to begin their summer vacation.
When we arrived on the special “Vieques cell block” that night at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo, we were greeted by about 60 of the 711 people arrested on Vieques since May 2000. Cheering disobedientessang, beat congas, abrazoed, and then treated us to a nearly endless ovation.
MANY OF THE Vieques protesters imprisoned at Guaynabo are genuinely suffering to satisfy their consciences. They’ve lost jobs, and some of their families are going hungry. For me, it’s been a vacation. While it’s true that the meat dishes in federal prison have the taste and appearance of infected cadavers, the rice and beans are abundant and tasty. My cell has the simple design functionality that my wife, an architect, admires. The toilet is also the chair. The sink is also the desk, as well as a stepladder for climbing up onto the upper bunk. The footlocker is also the wardrobe, cupboard, bureau, bookshelf, shoe closet, refrigerator, and file cabinet–and it’s only one by two feet. The spoon is also the fork; we are warned to preserve this ingenious implement for the duration of our stay.
Wake-up is at 6 a.m., breakfast at 6:05. We are locked in our rooms for formal counts (we stand near our bunks at attention) at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and for the night at 9:45. We have Catholic church services on Tuesdays, which are standing room only. We can talk for ten minutes on the phone each day and have visitors once a week. We are strip-searched whenever we leave the cell block. Guards inspect our rooms for contraband, dirt, and food. The bed must be “wrinkle-free.”
Every night a giant crowd gathers outside the prison to cheer us and wave banners. There is a strong sense of community on our cell block. We play basketball and dominoes, have heated discussions during our communal meals, and everyone reads lots of books. Every night the prisoners make popcorn and play merengues, bolero, and salsa on their guitars and congas. As it happens, there are some well-known Caribbean musicians serving time here, so some nights the music is magical. My wife said she thought I was a hero, but if she could see me, she’d peg me as a slacker. She’s the only real hero in this, having cared for our five children and produced our sixth, Aidan Caohman Vieques Kennedy, in my absence.
On July 29 (three days before my release), nearly 70 percent of the island’s residents voted in a nonbinding referendum to force the Navy to stop the bombing and leave immediately. The Navy, predictably, stated that the vote had no
bearing on its plans and that it would go ahead with more maneuvers on August 2.
In the days leading up to the referendum, the Navy waged a last-ditch campaign to sway the vote, including offering payments to fishermen who had lost income due to the maneuvers. Some Puerto Rican politicians accused the Navy of trying to buy votes. Whatever the motive, it’s ironic that the Navy has waited so long to mitigate the impact of its presence on the island. If the Navy had committed itself to ameliorating the health, environmental, and economic effects of its maneuvers years ago, it might have found the patriotic Viequenses welcoming it as a good neighbor. My most poignant moment in prison was a reminder of that patriotism. One night a group of Viequenses apologized to me tearfully after hearing that an American flag had been burned on the island.
Like so many battles in history, the Navy’s fight to keep Vieques is being lost through arrogance alone.
Now, I gotta go. I hear the guard coming and I have to hide my pen.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. He met his newborn son, Aidan, for the first time on visiting day in Guaynabo prison.