Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters for the first time today that the Puerto Rican Day Parade committee should never have extended its first-ever “National Freedom Hero” designation to militant nationalist Oscar López Rivera—saying that he’s “very happy” that the recently freed Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional leader turned down the distinction.
In an op-ed in the New York Daily News last week, López Rivera wrote that he will march in the parade “not as your honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather”—an apparent effort to end the uproar that has prompted numerous politicians and corporate sponsors to abandon the celebration. De Blasio told reporters at an unrelated press conference in Ridgewood, Queens today that he though bestowing the title of “hero” on the former convict was a mistake, and was only being “diplomatic” when he seemed to reserve judgement in the past few weeks.
“I’m very happy that Mr. López Rivera has declined the honor,” he said. “I don’t think it should have been offered to him. I think it’s good that he declined it because it was entirely distracting from the issue at hand, which is Puerto Rico. This is one of these things where you watch and recognize the most important thing is getting lost: 3.5 million people are being mistreated by their own government right now, by the U.S. government.”
Parade chairwoman Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez serves as a senior advisor to the mayor. The parade committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The FALN claimed responsibility for a string of deadly bombings in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the blast that killed four people at the Wall Street-area Fraunces Tavern in 1975. López Rivera was never accused of detonating any of the lethal explosives, but was sentenced to 70 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, robbery, transportation of explosives and firearms and an attempt to escape federal prison.
Former President Barack Obama commuted his prison term to end earlier this month.
The mayor recalled Puerto Rico’s ongoing municipal debt crisis, which he blamed for the island’s health system and economy are “falling apart.” He also highlighted the ongoing problem of Zika virus infection, which “really nothing is being done to address.”
“That’s the only thing this parade should have been about, and the decision to honor him, even though it was in the context of any other people—and I don’t think it was fair to the parade committee, there was 10 or 20 people being honored, he was not the grand marshal, he was not the sole honoree,” de Blasio continued. “It just took away from what the whole thing was supposed to be about.”
He said that the FALN was “mistaken from the beginning” given that it “used violence in the context of a democratic society,” saying that for him, it is “not acceptable” and “doesn’t conform with anything I believe.” When a Daily News reporter asked him whether he urged the parade committee to rescind the honor, he said that he just made it “very clear what was happening was not right.”
“I didn’t think it was a smart idea to begin with but more importantly, it was taking away from the whole thing they were supposed to be focused on,” he added. “And I think—I don’t wanna speak for them—I think their intentions were to focus on someone who had been supported by a lot of Puerto Ricans for the commutation of his sentence, just that.”
López Rivera and other members of the FALN never denied the accusations of terror leveled against them, but maintained they were “anti-colonial combatants” and thus not subject to the American judicial system.
The mayor first told reporters he would “do everything I would normally do with the parade.” He said that the organization with which he was affiliated “did things that I don’t agree with and that were illegal” but said that he served his time and has since renounced violence.
But in a statement released on Thursday, de Blasio said that the parade and plight of Puerto Rico “have been overshadowed by needless controversy,” saying that López Rivera agreeing to step aside from any formal role in the parade is a “critical step forward” in refocusing the city’s attention on more important issues facing Puerto Rico.
López Rivera’s supporters—like Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally who has significant sway with the parade’s leadership—view him as a political prisoner and freedom fighter. His critics, like NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, see him as the ringleader and bomb-maker for an organization that killed and wounded numerous civilians and first responders.
O’Neill told reporters today at a crime statistics update press conference in Central Park that his position hasn’t changed, “based on my original statement.”
“I maintain my original position,” he said. “I’m not gonna march in the parade.”