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Puerto Rican separatists taught me the U.S. won't learn from Jan. 6

Trump’s destructive Jan. 6 mobs get light sentences compared to Puerto Ricans fighting for their independence.
Image: Courtroom sketch of Guy Wesley Reffitt with his lawyer William Welch.
Guy Reffitt was sentenced to seven years in prison for his involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.Dana Verkouteren / AP

Jan. 6 insurrectionist Guy Reffitt was sentenced Monday to more than seven years in prison, the maximum punishment given so far to the more than 880 people arrested for the attack on the U.S. Capitol in the name of Donald Trump.

The Puerto Rican in me believes that the United States does not really want to look at what went on during Jan. 6.

To a Puerto Rican journalist like me, who has dedicated his career to raising awareness about issues relevant to my homeland and its colonial relationship with the United States, the Reffitt conviction rings hollow.

An armed mob intent on killing members of Congress and hanging a vice president were as extreme as anything in our history. But history tells us that the insurrectionists are getting comparatively light treatment.

Puerto Ricans have a complex history with sedition charges, which were handed to some of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. As Washington Post reporter María Luisa Paúl noted earlier this year, although such charges are uncommon, “they were often used throughout the 20th century — to prosecute Puerto Ricans.”

Reffitt’s sentence pales in comparison, for example, to how the federal government responded to another Capitol attack 68 years ago, when Puerto Rican nationalists shot and wounded five members of Congress on March 1, 1954. Three days after that attack, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irvin Flores Rodríguez were charged with more than 40 counts. By July of that year, they were sentenced to maximum prison terms, ranging from 16 to 75 years.

The “ruthless, fanatic violence” from members of a “Puerto Rican nationalist gang,” as described by one period newsreel, painted the picture of frightening foreign terrorists striking fear and undermining American democracy.

Violence is never the answer. But the context feels significant here: These people were fighting colonialism and actual oppression, as opposed to false claims of tyranny that Trump intentionally spread and used to helped whip violent crowds of rioters into a frenzy. At the time, Puerto Ricans who supported independence for the island were being arrested, jailed and repressed by the U.S. and their local government, which many believed was just a puppet government for Washington, D.C.

And while violence should never be condoned, it is the common tool used to gain independence, if history is any indication. The failed 1950 revolt by Puerto Rican nationalists, quickly quashed by the United States, led to acts like the Capitol shooting in 1954; and the 1954 attack was not the only time seditious conspiracy charges were used to target Puerto Ricans. Later in the '70s and '80s, charges against pro-independence groups for committing acts of political violence, including bombings that the federal government labeled as the work of “home-grown” terrorists, in the name of a free Puerto Rico led to more convictions. While all these convictions were eventually commuted (by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, President Bill Clinton in 1999 and President Barack Obama in 2017), the message from the United States was swift, clear and obvious: Puerto Ricans who commit acts of violence against the colonial power that rules them were instant traitors and terrorists.

The question, as is often the case in the United States, is not whether people should be punished for their crimes, but why some people receive harsher punishments for the same crimes.

The question, as is often the case in the United States, is not whether people should be punished for their crimes, but why some people receive harsher punishments for the same crimes, notably if the offenders are Black or brown.

In contrast, Jan. 6 coup plotter Lonnie Coffman gets less than four years in jail for showing up to the U.S. Capitol with a “truckload” of weapons and ammunition because he took a plea deal, an option not afforded to many Puerto Rican separatists throughout history. Similar seditious conspiracy charges being made against militia members of the Oath Keepers, who were allegedly “prepared and willing to use force and to transport firearms and ammunition into Washington, D.C.” as well as other seditious conspiracy cases related to the Capitol attack, the pace of the federal government has been anything but swift. The charges against the Oath Keepers were brought this past January, a year after the insurrection, and a trial is finally set to begin on Sept. 26. The Puerto Rican nationalists in the 1954 attacks were tried and convicted in a matter of weeks.

Unlike Puerto Rican nationalists who faced maximum sentences for seditious conspiracy, right-wing extremists connected to the attempted Jan. 6 coup are lawyering up and hoping the legal process is lengthy and complicated enough to keep them out of prison.

While millions of Americans watched and dissected the very obvious evidence being presented by the Jan. 6 committee — which hints that the biggest seditious conspirators could very likely have been part of the Trump White House or Trump himself — there still appears to be a lack of urgency with the country’s top prosecutor in fervently defending American democracy.

Attorney General Merrick Garland could be using the scope of the investigation as the reason why more has not been done. But with the midterms looming, major victories need to happen or else charges like seditious conspiracy will just be that — charges with no real substantial convictions.

In the case of the Reffitt conviction, which had the possibility of being 15 years with a terrorism enhancement, the seven years with no terrorism enhancement doesn’t feel historic at all. It only further set the stage for a white male militia member to earn sympathy when the Trump-appointed judge who issued the sentence didn’t believe the prosecutors’ argument that Reffitt was “planning to overtake our government” despite clear evidence on Jan. 6 of Reffitt possessing a firearm and saying in his own recording: “We’re all going to drag them motherf---ers out kicking and screaming, I don’t give a s---. I just want to see Pelosi’s head hit every f---ing stair on the way out, and Mitch McConnell too, f--- ‘em all... It’s time to take our country back... I think we have the numbers to make it happen.”

Convicted felons like Reffitt, by all accounts an avid member of America’s white militia culture, will always have allies to help tone down the nature of their criminal intentions, as will Trump. The Puerto Rican in me believes that the United States does not really want to look at what went on during Jan. 6 because it can’t face the fact that a coup was actually being attempted. It was much easier for this country to accept that Puerto Rican nationalists would behave violently, quickly label them as terrorists, and send them all to jail as quickly as possible.

Puerto Rican separatists over the years have fought for their freedom from a government that they feel unequivocally oppresses them and denies them basic rights, much like the early American colonists who fought against the British. Yet when it comes to the mostly white crowds who waged a mass attack on the U.S. government based on the false and orchestrated perception of oppression, in an attempt to take it over and destroy it, it’s apparent that the government has the resources and will to account for the complexities, motivations and reasoning behind the attack. It takes its time, and appears hesitant to hand out punishments.

This is why this Puerto Rican doesn’t think the United States will ever learn from Jan. 6 and why my skepticism about the prospect of saving democracy still lingers.