FALN members settling into life unsettled
Released prisoners enjoy freedom, defend their controversial past
By Oscar Avila
September 10, 2009
Alberto Rodriguez is either a patriot or a terrorist, depending on whom you ask.
Once imprisoned for 16 years for his role in a radical Puerto Rican group tied to a series of bombings, the Logan Square man is trying on a new role as full-time father, taking one of his children to school for the first time. "I don't regret anything. I can't even imagine me, who I am, without those experiences," said Rodriguez, 56. "But I did miss a lot because of the choices I made."
Thursday will mark 10 years since President Bill Clinton offered a controversial clemency deal that freed 11 members of FALN, a group that advocated for Puerto Rican independence by terrorizing New York and Chicago, from Woodfield Mall to the Loop.
These days, some prisoners are moving fitfully into middle age, having accepted a clemency deal that required them to renounce armed revolution. Others want to keep their cause relevant in an age when a Supreme Court justice of Puerto Rican descent speaks to the advancement of their people in the U.S. In a Humboldt Park arts center last week, about 150 community members honored the prisoners with songs, poems and excerpts of a play, "Crime Against Humanity."
The former prisoners want President Barack Obama to free two comrades who remain in prison. But post-Sept. 11, they realize it would be a political minefield for Obama, who already has wrestled with the ghosts of radicalism because of his association with William Ayers, a respected university professor who was a member of the Weather Underground, which set off bombs in government buildings in the 1960s and 1970s.
During his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder drew criticism for repeatedly pushing for the clemency appeal while serving under Clinton.
From initial fights against police brutality and discrimination in the 1970s, the young Chicago members of the FALN took up the cause of Puerto Rican independence. In Spanish, the group's abbreviation stands for Armed Forces of National Liberation.
Until the early 1980s, the FALN set off scores of homemade bombs and robbed banks and other businesses to finance its operations. The group's bombings killed six people in New York, although most caused no injuries. The "FALN 11" went to prison not directly for bloodshed but for "seditious conspiracy" and other crimes associated with their movement to free Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth since 1952.
Clinton's granting of clemency ignited a firestorm. Mayor Richard Daley said the released prisoners were a threat to Chicago. The emotions on both sides of the issue haven't gone away.
"We Americans have to make clear that we will not tolerate officials who would put our lives in jeopardy by releasing terrorists. It is a disrespectful affront to all Americans," Joseph Connor, whose father was killed by an FALN blast, wrote in a newspaper op-ed during Holder's confirmation in January.
Several of the freed "political prisoners," as they are called by supporters, say FALN's actions were as justified as those of black South Africans who fought against apartheid.
Ricardo Jimenez, 53, a convicted FALN member who recently moved back to Chicago, said armed revolution is no longer necessary but stressed: "Did I do something wrong? Our actions were in line with what the world was doing."
Rodriguez was more defiant against those who would call them terrorists, saying the U.S. government has wreaked destruction.
"When the powerful wage terrorism, they call it war. When the weak wage war, they call it terrorism. It's such a loaded word."
Rodriguez now works as a researcher at the People's Law Office, which helped advocate for his release and represents others they see as wrongfully convicted.
After leaving prison, Rodriguez swapped his radical ways for domesticity. He survived cancer, remarried and has a 5-year-old son in addition to two adult children.
Several ex-prisoners now are focused on the release of Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar Lopez Rivera. They argue that three decades in prison is excessive for two men never directly convicted of murder or serious injury.
Torres is eligible for parole but his release has been held up by a weapons charge in federal prison, which his supporters say is a setup.
Alejandro Molina of the National Boricua Human Rights Network said he is hopeful that Obama will be more sympathetic to a release but acknowledges that "there would be a political price to pay." He emphasized that the released prisoners have lived low-key lives as teachers and artists "without even a speeding ticket."
Just as Humboldt Park was a center for 1970s activism, the neighborhood was abuzz with last week's dramatic reading on a stage that included a replica of a prison cell.
With paintings of the remaining prisoners staring down, a generation of young Latino activists portrayed their heroes in an effort to keep FALN's mythology alive.