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A Great Teacher:
Lessons From the Trial of José Solís Jordán

On July 7, 1999, Dr. José Solís Jordán, an esteemed Professor of Education, a husband and father of two small children, but most of all a good and decent man, will stand up in a federal courtroom in Chicago and be sentenced to a long prison term.

My purpose in writing this piece is not to go into a long explanation of Dr. Solís' case. This has been done in a clear and thorough manner by journalist Mary Abowd in the November 1998 issue of Chicago Magazine. You can also find a wealth of material on Solís' case by writing the Committee in Solidarity with José Solís Jordán, PO Box 577826, Chicago, Illinois, 60657-7826.

What I want to do is share with you my experience getting to know José Solís and his supporters as I interacted with them over a very short length of time in the days leading up to Dr. Solís' conviction this past March.

In early February, Dr. Solís took some time off from his teaching duties at the University of Puerto Rico and arrived here in Chicago to begin final preparations for his trial before a federal judge and jury. The trial was set to begin in early March. The charge was conspiring to plant a bomb at a federal military recruiting station; or so a paid government informant alleged.

As part of his defense Dr. Solís, his wife, and supporters felt that it was very important that the people of the United States, North Americans, come to learn about his case.

It was my opportunity to meet Dr. Solís at the Autonomous Zone, a community resource and education center, where he came to speak. Sitting, waiting for Dr. Solís to arrive, I reflected on how cold and dark the night was and how much I wished I were doing something else. I have seen a lot of people speak and they usually bore me because they often spout platitudes, get angry and point fingers at the powers that be. From a Professor of Education I expected a lecture. A few moments before the event was to begin, in walked a slender, energetic, youthful man who when I was introduced to him gave me a warm smile and a firm handshake. The man was Dr. Solís.

Sitting down before a small audience, Dr. Solís looked out at us, asked us what we wanted to know, and began his story. He told us of how in December 1997 the FBI and SWAT team members descended on his home in Puerto Rico, blocked off his street, and with an early morning phone call told him to come out of his house.

As he walked out in nothing but his underwear, his eyes full of sleep, Dr. Solís was awakened by the sight of U.S. government forces massively deployed to effect his arrest.

"I just could not believe this was real," said Solís.

Perhaps he did not move fast enough for the government functionaries or maybe because it is his nature to express himself, but as he protested his innocence, guns where quickly drawn. His wife Martha Gonzalez, horrified, jumped in front of José Solís. Grabbed from all sides, Dr. Solís was pushed and spread-eagled up against a car. For the next several hours Solís was grilled intensely by FBI agents, without a lawyer present.

"I tried very hard to establish my innocence but it seemed like they had an agenda worked out," Solís told us. " At no time did I make a confession or sign any statement to that effect."

Hearing all this, most of us in the audience sat with our mouths open. The incongruity of this warm, personable man telling us what he had experienced was just hard to understand. I mean, why would the government do all this to an eminent Professor of Education?

As Dr. Solís said, "In the months ahead, as I prepared my defense and the government its prosecution, I began to realize that what was for me unreal was in fact a very terrible reality effected by the government to achieve certain ends."

Continuing with his story, Dr. Solís related how he came to DePaul University, where he taught in the Education Department, in the Fall of 1991. Because he has always been active for Puerto Rican independence, it was natural for him to become active at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. The Center is a place for educating and empowering Puerto Rican people, and if political independence is the path that empowerment needs to take then so be it.

While at the Center, José Solís was to meet two significant people who were to have a tremendous effect on his life. One was José López, a
guiding spirit in the Puerto Rican Independence movement, and someone the U.S. government wants very much to crush. The other
person Solís met was Rafael Marrero.

It is the nature of José Solís to reach out to those in trouble and show solidarity with whomever he meets. In Rafael Marrero he saw a troubled young man with a lot of fire and zeal for "the cause" but whose personal life was in a shambles. José Solís and Martha Gonzalez befriended Rafael, who would testify in the upcoming trial that Solís was the one who conspired to plant a bomb at a military recruiting station.

As I hear this I get more and more angry. Things are beginning to come into focus with this case. Obviously the U.S. government is after a big fish, José López, a leader in the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. Dr. Solís is a pawn in that hunt. The government has a spy, Rafael Marrero, testify against his "friend," Dr. Solís. Then, out of fear for himself and his family, Solís is supposed to "flip" and testify against José López.

Hearing all this I am watching José Solís closely. All I see is a warm, caring person. He is in a great deal of trouble yet he seems composed and very calm. He is strong yet he can laugh at himself and the situation he finds himself in. At no time did he express hatred for Marrero or the government. And it's blowing my mind because all I am feeling is a murderous hatred for the government and all of its scumbags. And yet José Solís says,"I don't hate these people, they are just sick."

And as José Solís says this he touches something inside me. A part of me that wants to feel compassion for people. Dr. Solís by his example has made it very clear that there is a big difference between hating what people do and hating them. For me for a very long time the two had become blurred. My hatred and shortness of temper had begun to affect my relationships with other people.

As Dr. Solís finished his dialogue with us, I couldn't begin to tell all of the feelings welling up inside me. I am so angry at what the government is doing to this man. I also feel so very sad for him and his family and yet I am amazed because he seems so upbeat and
positive, full of compassion and humor with everyone he relates to. Right then I realize very clearly that the U.S. government has made a big mistake in trying to break this man, and the movement he is part of. Yes, he is caring and very personable, but this is a man of
principles whose strength the powers-that-be cannot imagine. Because the strength of Dr. José Solís Jordán comes from a deep well of caring and love of other humyn beings!

I only saw José Solís two more times before his trial. In both instances there was the warm smile, the firm handshake, and the sparkling eyes that looked deep inside one. I felt then, how could any jury convict this man?

The Trial

The first day of the trial I arrived with a great many other people eager to support Dr. Solís. It became a numbers game with the U.S. marshals, who were determined that the courtroom not become stacked with Solís'
supporters. We were told that only a few of us would be allowed in. Because I make my living driving a taxi cab I decided that I would come back later on in the trial.

I made every effort to keep posted on what was happening. Rafael Marrero testified that José Solís had conspired to plant a bomb. From what I have heard his testimony was shaky but did do damage to Solís' case.

Finally it was decided by José Solís that regardless of the personal consequences, he must share with the jury the issues involved.
The issues? That U.S. government and corporate interests are determined not to allow political independence in Puerto Rico. These interests will do whatever they feel they must, to suppress people like José Solís and José López, who stand for the self-determination of the
Puerto Rican people.

Was José Solís successful in reaching the jury? In hindsight, no. His testimony was articulate and very persuasive to those whose minds are open. To everyone he came in contact with, be they U.S. marshals, the judge, the jury, or court personnel, he was respectful, personable and considerate and yet it would prove to not make a difference. Why?

I believe it is because human beings in our culture are losing the ability to think and make choices. From an early age reality and truth are interpreted for us by the mass media and institutions we perceive as being in the know. People do not question authority. Nor see that truth can have various layers. It is much easier to hold on to the images that we are programmed with.

The jury saw José Solís Jordán as this Puerto Rican dissident challenging the U.S. government and saying that it has been guilty of vicious crimes against the Puerto Rican people. That this same government would lie to suppress José Solís and all that he believes. This the jury would not, could not, accept.

The last two days of the trial I was able to free up some time. It was very difficult to believe what I saw. Three FBI agents testified that Dr. Solís, while in custody after his initial arrest, confessed, and they produced a typed confession. Not a written one, but TYPED. Here you had FBI agents, the symbols of all that patriotic "Americans" hold dear, saying Dr. José Solís Jordán confessed. The jury had a clear choice. Believe the U.S. Government, or this individual man José Solís, who dared to say what was true.

Waiting for the Verdict

The next day I got down to the Federal Courthouse with the hope that the verdict would be reached while I was there. The hours began to drag on and on. We talked among ourselves. Was the jury's delay a good sign or a bad one?

As we talked I got the opportunity to learn a little bit about the people supporting José Solís. One man talked about watching as a boy as his friend was chased down and killed by gang members. How he then went into a deep depression, of drugs and self-abuse, and how this began to change as he began to "hang" with people in the Puerto Rican independence movement. He became an educator, and a musician with great pride in his culture. For this man José Solís stood for all that is best about being a man and an activist for social change.

Another man in his fifties talked about a massacre that took place in his small village, where U.S. government forces killed scores of people. Now, I read a great deal of history and yet I had never heard of this event. He said he was not surprised.

In the early afternoon I walked over to a student lounge at the downtown campus of DePaul University, where José Solís, his lawyers, and a few supporters were resting and waiting for the verdict. As I came into the room I saw a scene that pulled at the innermost part of my heart. José Solís was seated on a couch with his wife Martha, hands grasped, their temples resting against each other. I saw a great love and companionship which they shared and thought to myself that could be my wife and I. There is a price to be paid for speaking the truth. Could I, would I, have the courage to stand up for what I believed?

At about 4 p.m. the verdict came in. We all rushed over to the Federal courthouse. José Solís took his place at the defense table. Tension filled the room; the waiting was finally over, and the jury filed in. The defense lawyers and Solís grasped hands. We in the audience did the same. Our breathing stopped as we waited.

The judge, Blanche Manning, requested that the foreman read the verdict. The jury found Dr. Solís guilty on all charges. There was an audible gasp, and then all of us were just stunned. How could a good man be convicted? José Solís immediately went to his wife and sister and began to hold them. Did he appear angry? Not that I could see.

It is the nature of this man to be concerned about others. And so he reached out and began to comfort his relatives and supporters. His determination to keep fighting was manifest. He looked each one of us in the eyes and with words and expression the message was clear.

"We cannot lose this case. The only way they win is when our people succumb to the agenda of the colonizer. The success is in the process. We grow by doing. Our greatest teacher is the struggle in all of its manifestations."

- Bill Burns


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