An independent journalist was pepper-sprayed by law enforcement officers while covering protests on Aug. 25, 2022, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that protests in Puerto Rico’s historic district started off calmly, as individuals gathered to hear speakers denounce LUMA Energy, the private company contracted to take over the island’s electricity grid.
Reuters reported that hundreds of protesters marched in the streets in a call for government officials to end a 15-year contract with the energy company after years of recurring blackouts and rising power costs.
Berríos Polanco, who was reporting for Latino Rebels, said police officers were present throughout most of the day but began acting aggressive later in the night, when protesters started moving toward a permanent police barricade that was set up after 2019 protests that ousted the then-governor.
By the evening, according to Berríos Polanco, the number of officers in riot gear had nearly doubled and there were clashes with individuals pushing against the barrier. Berríos Polanco said he was filming when an officer standing behind a police line started spraying the crowd with pepper spray.
Berríos Polanco said his equipment was not damaged by the irritant but believed the officer knowingly sprayed him.
“For some reason, even though I was wearing my helmet with the word ‘PRESS’ and I had my ID around my neck, he decided to fill my face and cover my phone with pepper spray,” Berríos Polanco said.
Berríos Polanco said he continued reporting after washing the irritant out of his eyes and donning a gas mask. Soon after, he said police officers deployed tear gas into the crowd and shoved a NotiCel photojournalist, Juan R. Costa, to the ground.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi condemned the violence on Twitter, saying that every aggression reported that night would be investigated. Berríos Polanco said the statements don’t inspire much confidence.
“I feel like it's happened before and it'll probably continue to happen again, as long as police use such violent tactics to quell people just being like, ‘Hey, when are we going to get stable electricity again?’” Berríos Polanco said.