Almost every peaceful protest has an iconic moment. In 1989 China, it was a lone man facing down military tanks. In Sudan earlier this year, it was a woman singing a folk song about equality. In Puerto Rico, where two weeks of massive demonstrations against government corruption and other misdeeds have led to the ouster of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, that moment occurred when many protesters read the U.S. Constitution aloud to the police.
Those who read the document were not pointing to the half-million people in the streets of San Juan. Rather, they were citing the moral law of unalienable rights – for themselves as well as the police. Guns are not power, they were saying. The mass of people is not power. Instead, power resides in an objective moral order that allows people to give their consent to be governed – or to withdraw it.
“When people realize that you’re not just the employee, you are the employer, that you get to decide who is on top, this is what happens,” one protester, Luz Torres, told the Miami Herald.
After a decade of hardship – recession, debt, Hurricane Maria, federal intervention, and then a scandalous governor – Puerto Ricans may be transitioning from feeling like victims to being free agents in a constitutional democracy. They could unite and clean up their own government, first by demanding a new governor and soon by demanding better political parties and candidates in the next election.
“You have a population that has discovered they have a power they didn’t think they had,” former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá told The Washington Post. “Politicians have to be ready to be accountable and transparent because there is strong distrust for the traditional institutions.”
The effect of this historical empowerment could be broader than the island’s politics. It might also influence the future status of the territory. If more Puerto Ricans now understand their rights are not conferred by government but derive from the natural principles of self-governance, they could finally decide whether to achieve independence, be granted statehood, or maintain the status quo as a commonwealth.
The choice may not be easy, but it has been made easier by the way the protesters stuck to peaceful tactics and by reminding officials – and themselves – of the constitutional principles of democracy. Sometimes those principles must be read aloud.