Next month’s Puerto Rican Day Parade is embroiled in controversy over organizers’ choice for “National Freedom Hero”: a long-imprisoned leader of a separatist group that sought the island’s independence by carrying out bombings against civilians in New York City and elsewhere.
Oscar López Rivera, who was freed last week after 35 years, and his group will not only march in the June 11 parade, but he will be feted as its premier guest.
On Monday, JetBlue airlines withdrew as a corporate sponsor of the event, and NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill and state Sen. Nicole Malliotakis also announced they would not march in the parade.
“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 to reporters after a budget hearing at City Hall Monday.
The NYPD’s Hispanic Society and Goya Foods also have backed out of the parade.
The withdrawals come amid concerns voiced by police groups about honoring a man associated with FALN, a Spanish abbreviation for Armed Forces of National Liberation, a Marxist-Leninist group that carried out bombings that killed civilians in the 1970s and ’80s.
The worst was at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan in 1975, in which four people were killed and many more injured. No one was charged in that attack.
“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,” JetBlue said in a statement.
López Rivera, now 74, was convicted of transporting weapons and explosives with the intent to kill or injure, but never was charged with carrying out bombings personally. His sentence was commuted in January by then-President Barack Obama.
He has denied involvement in any deadly actions, and told The New York Times earlier this month: “I do not have blood on my hands, and that’s why I cannot be a terrorist.”
The parade committee said in a statement that López Rivera “was never charged with carrying out the acts of violence,” and they criticized “circulation of false information and the targeting of loyal sponsors by people who disagree.”
Some elected officials plan to march in the parade, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was in Puerto Rico for López Rivera’s release from house arrest on Wednesday.
Mark-Viverito has long defended López Rivera, noting that he was never directly linked to any actual violence.
With Laura Figueroa and Anthony M. DeStefano