Spotlight 11/8/17

The Law Weekly reached out to affinity group leaders to write for us in a feature we are calling “Spotlight.” Our goal is to give leaders a regular platform to start conversations about issues they are facing, to reflect on the events of August 11th and 12th, and to educate the UVa Law community about their diverse experiences so that we can become better allies to our fellow classmates.   

If you or your organization would like to be featured, please reach out to us at editor@lawweekly.org.

Minority Rights Coalition

 Puerto Rican resident wades through flooded street after Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

Puerto Rican resident wades through flooded street after Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

In the Trump Era, the news happens so quickly that it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters. Consider, for instance, what has occupied our attention since Hurricane Maria made landfall in the Caribbean little more than a month ago. 

President Trump criticized NFL players protesting police brutality by calling them SOBs; LeBron James responded by calling him a bum. Trump threatened to destroy North Korea. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, resigned in disgrace due to his abuse of taxpayer funds. The president openly feuded on Twitter with the Mayor of San Juan. The Las Vegas shooting happened. President Trump announced plans to de-certify the Iran Deal, gut the Clean Power Plan, and squash the birth control mandate. Senator Bob Corker called the White House an adult daycare, prompting angry tweets from the president. The White House announced it would not fund essential insurance subsidies, seriously damaging Obamacare. The President and his staff embroiled themselves in a week-long controversy over the death of an American soldier in Niger. Senator Corker and President Trump continued their feud. UVa Law Alum Robert Mueller readied his first indictments.1 

Take a deep breath. Reading that list can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to focus on and what to tune out in the bad reality show that is America 2017. The Minority Rights Coalition at UVa Law would like to suggest that you should focus your attention, your energy, and your outrage not on the president’s latest tweet or embarrassing blunder, but on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. 

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing apocalyptic damage.2 More than a month later, the island remains in rough shape. Seventy-five percent of Puerto Rico lacks reliable electricity and access to clean water looks to be patchy, at best.3 FEMA had to continue delivering food and running water four weeks after the hurricane, a first in the agency’s history.4 

We may never know how many of our fellow Americans died as a result of this storm because the overwhelmed Puerto Rican government has allowed funeral directors to burn bodies without counting them in the death toll.5 As a result, many observers are concerned that the death toll could be far higher than reported.6 In raw numbers, the storm could cost Puerto Rico up to $95 billion.7 It may set the island back decades. 

The response to Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico’s devastation differed markedly from the response to Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas and Hurricane Irma sweeping through Florida. FEMA responded more slowly and with fewer personnel for Maria than it did for Harvey and Irma.8 Private donations for Harvey, especially, far outpaced similar efforts for Maria.9 And, of course, the President of the United States did not attack the Mayor of Houston on Twitter, or question whether Texans deserved aid after tragedy struck. Trump’s apathy reflects that of his supporters, like the Trump voters in Houston who received aid after Harvey but do not believe Puerto Ricans deserve the same helping hand.10 

Indifference—or outright hostility—to Puerto Rico in other areas has infected the response to Maria. An old shipping regulation called the Jones Act, for instance, has been driving up the cost of living unnecessarily in Puerto Rico for decades.11 After public outcry, the Trump administration waived the regulation after Maria, so supplies could get to the island cheaply. The Trump administration, out of incompetence or outright malice, recently let that waiver expire.12 Concerns about corruption involving a $300 million rebuilding contract caused a firestorm before the contract was cancelled over the weekend.13

This column does not have the word count to dive into the shadow of colonialism displayed through PROMESA and the Puerto Rican debt crisis,14 or the appalling behavior of Puerto Rico’s creditors since Maria hit the island,15 or the potential for Puerto Ricans to reshape the electoral map of Florida (and the country) in 2020.16  Instead, the members of the Minority Rights Coalition ask our friends and classmates to do three things. 

First, give (or continue to give to) relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The link in the footnote below is a good place to start.17

Second, tune out the noise. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the latest uproar in the ongoing Trump reality show. Focus your attention—and your time and talent—on the injustices that really animate you, whether that’s tabling for Puerto Rico or protesting against police brutality. 

Finally, stay involved in politics. Puerto Ricans deserve both statehood and effective representation in Congress.18 Until then, it is our obligation to vote, and vote often, until the administration can no longer afford to be apathetic. 

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wch4xs@virginia.edu

1 This timeline constructed from my own memory and this helpful piece from AOL: https://www.aol.com/news/trump-timeline/. 

2 http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/25/us/hurricane-maria-puerto-rico/index.html

3 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/25/16504870/puerto-rico-running-water

4 Citing a tweet from https://twitter.com/DavidBegnaud in https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/25/16504870/puerto-rico-running-water

5 https://www.buzzfeed.com/nidhiprakash/puerto-rico-cremations?utm_term=.dlAo0yB1nN#.xkVGypO5M8

6 https://www.buzzfeed.com/nidhiprakash/puerto-rico-natural-causes?utm_term=.owqBabJK16#.aoEKNzdw7y

7 http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/28/news/economy/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-damage-estimate/index.html

8 http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/26/us/response-harvey-irma-maria/index.html

9 http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/26/us/response-harvey-irma-maria/index.html

10 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/many-trump-voters-who-got-hurricane-relief-in-texas-arent-sure-puerto-ricans-should/2017/10/20/32da835c-b344-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html?utm_term=.182f82e5458b

11 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/27/16373484/jones-act-puerto-rico

12 http://thehill.com/latino/354561-white-house-lets-jones-act-waiver-expire-for-puerto-rico

13 http://abcnews.go.com/US/puerto-ricos-governor-whitefish-power-agreement/story?id=50795922&cid=clicksource_4380645_2_three_posts_card_hed

14 https://newrepublic.com/article/132307/colonizing-puerto-rico

15 https://theintercept.com/2017/09/27/puerto-rican-debt-holders-respond-to-catastrophic-hurricane-by-offering-puerto-rico-more-debt/

16 https://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2017/09/27/puerto-rican-devastation-could-mean-more-florida-voters-114762

17 http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-help-puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-2017-9/#the-united-funds-of-puerto-rico-1

18 This proposition has overwhelming support in Puerto Rico, but Congress has yet to act. http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/09/us/puerto-rico-statehood-vote-2017/index.html