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HomeAbout NBHRNPolitical PrisonersBehind a Push for Parole in Chicago, a Prisoner’s Old Neighborhood

Behind a Push for Parole in Chicago, a Prisoner’s Old Neighborhood


From NY Times

CHICAGO — At a cafe in the heart of this city’s exuberant Puerto Rican community, in the neighborhood of Humboldt Park, a waitress serves up favorites from the island: café con leche, rice and beans and guava pastries. On the counter, a framed photograph of a white-haired man sits next to a stack of petitions calling for his release from prison.
The petitions are posted at more than a dozen businesses in the neighborhood, where the campaign to free 68-year-old Oscar Lopez Rivera has deep and stubborn roots: he is the last remaining member of the radical group known as the F.A.L.N. (Spanish initials for Armed Forces of National Liberation) still in prison among more than a dozen convicted in the 1980s.

Volunteers in the neighborhood, on the city’s northwest side, have increased efforts in recent weeks to collect signatures outside train stops, grocery stores and churches.

Mr. Lopez Rivera, who has been in prison for almost 30 years, is viewed by some as a political prisoner and others as an unrepentant terrorist. Since he applied for parole last year, both sides have been lobbying the four-member United States Parole Commission, which is expected to make a decision soon.

The commission has received three large boxes of letters in support of his parole and many calls against it, said Johanna Markind, assistant general counsel for the commission. The response has included passionate requests from prominent leaders, a letter supporting parole from four Puerto Rican members of Congress, and a letter against parole from Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago.
Mr. Lopez Rivera was convicted here in 1981 of numerous charges, including seditious conspiracy, a charge used for those plotting to overthrow the United States government. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison.

President Bill Clinton offered Mr. Lopez Rivera and other members of the F.A.L.N. clemency in 1999, a decision that stirred an emotional debate. Mr. Clinton said their sentences were out of proportion with their offenses.

While 12 prisoners accepted the offer and were freed, Mr. Lopez Rivera rejected the chance to reduce his sentence because it did not include all the group’s members, his lawyer, Jan Susler, said. If he had accepted the agreement, she said, he would have been eligible for release in 2009.
In January, a hearing examiner for the Parole Commission recommended that Mr. Lopez Rivera should not be paroled, according to several people who were at the closed hearing.

The F.A.L.N. was involved in more than 100 bombings in New York, Chicago and other cities, according to federal officials. A bombing at Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1975 killed four people, including Frank Connor, a 33-year-old banker.

His son Joseph has been a consistent voice against parole for any members of the F.A.L.N. When Mr. Connor testified at the parole hearing, he said he had hoped that Mr. Lopez Rivera would apologize or show some sense of contrition.

“He wouldn’t take responsibility for anything,” Mr. Connor said in an interview.

Although Mr. Lopez Rivera was not charged specifically with the Fraunces Tavern bombing, Mr. Connor said that he blames Mr. Lopez Rivera for his father’s death because he was a leader of the group that took responsibility for the bombing. Mr. Connor has written about the case for various Web sites and has encouraged friends and family to call the commission.

Ms. Susler said Mr. Lopez Rivera had no involvement in the Fraunces Tavern bombing. “It was very impactful, moving testimony from people who had terrible losses,” Ms. Susler said, “but it had nothing to do with Mr. Lopez.”

Since the hearing, the National Boricua Human Rights Network, which is active in Puerto Rican issues, said it had gathered more than 4,000 signatures supporting parole in Chicago. The city has the second-largest Puerto Rican community in the country, after New York.
The group has argued that Mr. Lopez Rivera poses no threat to the public and that others who were released have lived productive lives without getting in trouble again. It is an opinion shared by many in Humboldt Park.

On a recent afternoon, the owner of a barbershop in the neighborhood, Reinaldo Oquendo, sat at a table with a group of men playing dominoes.
“I think it is about time they let him out,” Mr. Oquendo said without looking up from his game. “Thirty years is a lifetime. Nobody deserves to be in prison for that long.”

The parole case still resonates here because his family continues to work in the neighborhood and many here have an interest in Puerto Rican history, “which is very much a part of their lives,” said Ana Ramos-Zayas, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University who has studied the community.

Many people here knew Mr. Lopez Rivera, who worked as a community organizer in the neighborhood after serving in the Vietnam War. His younger brother Jose Lopez is the longtime executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which runs a day care, an AIDS clinic and a youth center in the neighborhood.

There has been a concerted effort to establish Humboldt Park as a cultural and economic hub for the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, which numbers about 113,000 people, compared with more than 750,000 in New York, according to Census Bureau figures.

Crowds flock to several annual parades and festivals along a portion of Division Street known as Paseo Boricua, where two huge, red and blue steel flags extend over the road at both ends of the business district. The neighborhood is filled with Puerto Rican murals, restaurants, record shops, and bookstores.

Recently, Jose Lopez walked down the street greeting people and checking on the cultural center’s many projects. He was particularly excited about the opening this spring of a new Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture in the neighborhood.

Mr. Lopez said that his brother’s absence had taken a great toll on his family. Their parents and a sister have died while he was in prison.
“It is a continual punishment for our family not to have Oscar here for these moments,” he said.

Mr. Lopez Rivera still believes in Puerto Rican independence but he does not talk about the F.A.L.N., his lawyer said. At the federal prison holding him, in Terre Haute, Ind., he spends his days reading about current events, working as an orderly, and painting scenes of Puerto Rican life and leftist leaders like Fidel Castro. He sells them online to benefit the National Boricua Human Rights Network.

He could remain in prison for 15 more years if the commission denies his request for parole. But if Mr. Lopez Rivera is released, there is likely to be another celebratory rally in Humboldt Park as there has been for prisoners in the past.

Epifanio Velez, who opened a restaurant on Paseo Boricua four years ago, is looking forward to his return.

“He has done his time,” he said. “I want to meet him.”

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