Leaders of New York City’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade, among the country’s largest diasporic celebrations, have reaffirmed their commitment to honoring former political prisoner Oscar López Rivera at the June 11 celebration despite backlash from police groups and anticipated sponsors. 

The New York Times reported yesterday (May 23) that several companies withdrew or reduced their parade sponsorship. AT&T, like longtime sponsor Goya Foods and JetBlue, completely rescinded its parade support, while Coca-Cola joined the New York Yankees in redirecting its financial support to the parade’s associated scholarship program for high school and college students of Puerto Rican descent.

The companies pulled out of the event because of backlash to the decision to recognize López Rivera as a “Procer de la Libertad,” or National Freedom Hero. López Rivera served almost 36 years of a 55-year sentence for illegally transporting weapons across state lines before President Barack Obama pardoned him in January. His 1981 conviction and incarceration were traced to his membership in the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a Marxist-Leninist militant group that advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence from U.S. control and claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings of government and private buildings in Puerto Rico, New York City and Chicago during the 1970s and early 1980s. The Times reported in 1983 that FALN-attributed attacks killed six people and permanently maimed at least three police officers.

López Rivera maintained his innocence throughout his sentence, telling Univision prior to his release from house arrest last Wednesday (May 17) that the U.S. government never conclusively proved he committed any violent crimes. “The FBI has investigated this case for 38, 39 years and has never been able to say so-and-so carried out that crime,” he said. López Rivera also said that he believes the group’s peak mid-1970s violent actions were justified in the context of anti-colonial struggle. 

The support he enjoys from thousands of Puerto Ricans—who see him as a freedom fighter despite possible ideological differences—contrasts with the views of police groups and others who see López Rivera as a radical terrorist. ABC/The Associated Press notes that the New York Police Department’s (NYPDHispanic Society of Latinx officers and Detective Rafael Ramos Foundation, which supports the families of slain officers, both declined to participate in the parade. “We will take a stance in support of the NYPD members of the service who were seriously injured and with the families of the innocent people who lost their lives during these attacks which occurred throughout the United States including our city,” reads Hispanic Society president Jenimarie Garcia-Cruz’s statement

NYPD commissioner James O’Neill told the New York Daily News and other assembled press on Monday that he would also boycott the parade: ”I cannot support a man who is a co-founder of an organization that engaged in over 120 bombings.”

Nuyorican salsa musician Willie Colón also criticized the parade’s honor as an endorsement of violence and radicalism. “The Puerto Rican Day Parade has gone from the hands of the amoral opportunist to a group of radical fanatics who are trying to hijack the parade and divert it from being a fun day of pride and unity to a divisive expression of socialist anti-American sentiments,” he wrote on his blog. “Puerto Ricans who do not believe in terrorism should not attend the parade this year. We must again vote with our feet.”

A petition pressuring parade chairperson Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez to rescind López Rivera’s honor has accumulated more than 2,500 signatures as of press time. “How is it possible to honor with this kind of award, a person who betrayed the most basic democratic principles of freedom in the USA, by means of terrorist acts and the FALN’s criminal ways?” reads the petition.

The parade’s organizing board responded to earlier criticism with a May 12 statement that explained what motivated the decision:

The intention of integrating López Rivera into the parade is meant to honor the commitment and hard work of thousands of people, Puerto Rican and non-, whose efforts contributed to his sentence commutation. At the same time, we seek to raise awareness about Oscar López Rivera’s story, the grave colonial situation in Puerto Rico and the identity questions that continue to arise, even today. Nevertheless, Oscar’s participation is not an endorsement of the history that led to his arrest, nor any form of violence, but rather, a recognition of a man and a nation’s struggle for sovereignty.

The board reiterated this position with another statement yesterday that addresses the sponsorship loss: 

While we are saddened and disappointed by certain sponsors pulling out of our parade, we respect their views and decision to do so. Equally, we respect our parade’s mission and commitment to inclusiveness, and the responsibility of representing the broadest possible blend voices that make up the Puerto Rican community. 

ABC/The Associated Press reports that Mayor Bill de Blasio will still march on June 11.