In the face of ongoing police violence and state-sanctioned aggression, the need for systemic change and accountability has never been greater. This month, Borealis’ Communities Transforming Policing Fund (CTPF) connected with Mari Mari Narváez, the founder and Executive Director of CTPF Grantee Partner Kilómetro 0, a grassroots organization that organizes and advocates for community safety and police accountability in Puerto Rico.
Mari Mari shared insights on Kilometro 0’s unwavering commitment to combating police violence in Puerto Rico, strategies for police transparency, and what fuels the organization’s work and vision.
You are a certified Law Enforcement Oversight Practitioner, a writer, and co-author of several books delving into social and political issues in Puerto Rico. In what ways has your lived experience informed and inspired this work, as well as your work with Kilómetro 0?
I come from a lineage of dedicated anti-colonial and pro-independence activists in Puerto Rico. Our experiences, marked by intense encounters with authorities including the politically motivated assassination of my brother and my father’s incarceration, have shaped my perspective on colonial rule and its impact on the day-to-day life of Puerto Ricans.
The brutal reality of this rule was exposed in 2005, when Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a long-time figure in the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence from U.S. rule was killed during an FBI undercover operation. This impacted me in ways I cannot describe. The way the FBI unilaterally blocked all aid revealed the unchecked power that the US government holds in Puerto Rico, a shocking reminder of the oppression from the police state.
That event, and experiencing what my family has gone through was a catalyst for my transition from journalism to active advocacy, as I realized that writing about these issues wasn’t enough for me. My work now at Kilómetro 0, and the work we publish emphasize an anti-oppression and anti-patriarchal perspective. I view the fight against the police, a common symbol of toxic masculinity and oppression, as a fundamental part of the struggle for diverse freedoms. By challenging police power, we’re standing against all forms of oppression.
Grassroots organizations like Kilómetro 0 are working tirelessly to bring both attention and meaningful change to the social and political challenges in Puerto Rico, many of which go unnoticed in the mainland U.S. due to willful ignorance and systemic racism. Can you please provide a broad overview of the state of policing in Puerto Rico, and share how your organization is working with Black and Brown communities to curb police violence?
Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. is complex, marked by colonial imposition and a lack of self-governance, but at the same time, we are inspired by, and model after, the BIPOC activists in the U.S. fighting against State-sanctioned violence.
This complexity extends to policing, where oversight is absent and impunity is rampant. Since 2016, the Financial Oversight Board of Puerto Rico, a government entity whose role is to revise and approve the budget and obligations of the government of Puerto Rico, has continually increased police funding, while pulling back resources from essential community services such as public schools. This has worsened the issues of accountability and systemic racism in Puerto Rico.
At Kilómetro 0, our focus is on the people. We aim to counteract these challenges by empowering the residents of Puerto Rico. By empowering them, the police have no choice but to change. We’ve published reports on State violence, data that are greatly underrepresented. We’ve successfully litigated in the Supreme Court over the use of police force and focused our efforts on areas that are heavily policed, and we work directly with Black and Brown communities. We engage with young leaders, fostering new leadership, and strive to promote discussions about public safety while working towards changing attitudes on systemic issues.
Kilómetro 0 recently celebrated its 5-year anniversary. How has the institution of policing changed during this time, and how have your visions for community safety grown and evolved?
Our focus at Kilómetro 0 is not on changing the police but rather on transforming the way Puerto Rican society interacts with the state and redefining collective notions of rights. Our aim is to change people, to transform society and collective expectations. We don’t have high expectations for the police to change; we believe that change will only occur if society does.
Since our inception, we have been subject to attacks on social media, which indicates the impact we’ve made on law enforcement. Our presence has led to shifts in police behavior. We examine police violence data in Puerto Rico—something that nobody else has done. We’ve examined hundreds of cases and pointed out the vast disparities that often impact Black youth from marginalized communities. By using all available information, we are telling the untold stories of police violence in Puerto Rico. Our analysis of data and research contextualizes the systemic issues.
There has been a significant shift in the narrative since we began our work—initially, we faced accusations and skepticism and it was very hard. I was seen as irrational, but such reactions are not uncommon when one chooses to defend society’s most oppressed individuals.
What are some underfunded or overlooked areas that funders should consider investing in to help end police violence and increase accountability?
The overall situation in Puerto Rico needs attention. We deal with an added layer of invisibility due to language barriers since many of us don’t speak English, and language is an essential aspect of communication. Additionally, very few organizations are adequately resourced. Despite some funding post-Hurricane Maria, it’s important to realize that Puerto Rico is perpetually in a state of emergency and simple operational funding is crucial to sustain the organizations here. Over the past few years, we’ve endured multiple hurricanes and earthquakes. At times, operations are completely hindered. For instance, power outages prevent staff from coming to the office from time to time. Therefore, funding for operational continuity is essential.
Resources for data-related purposes are also often overlooked. The flow of funds for data and investigation has slowed down for community-based organizations. We’re fortunate to have a research director and pro bono lawyers who can help with legal challenges, but it is not the norm in Puerto Rico. Even though there is a right to access information, the mechanism to access it is often obstructed, which further emphasizes the need for adequate funding.
The work of overseeing law enforcement and holding space for residents is taxing and emotional. How do you practice self-care? What is your advice to organizers doing similar work?
For self-care, I practice kickboxing, which is an effective way for me to release pent-up energy. Regular exercise is beneficial for me! Despite its social complexities, living on the island is a source of joy for me. It’s a beautiful place and I make time to enjoy nature, whether that’s climbing mountains or visiting the beach, and I try to travel when I can.
As defenders, it’s crucial to have a supportive circle, not necessarily direct family, but individuals who are present in our day-to-day lives. It’s important to have people who understand our struggle and why we fight. Having someone who values this work can make a huge difference. I’ve been fortunate that my siblings and partner, having grown up in activism, provide support. For those who may feel isolated, I’d advise creating strong relationships with those who believe in you and provide encouragement.
The journey to eradicate police violence, challenge institutionalized power structures, and reimagine public safety is both challenging and necessary. Organizations such as Kilómetro 0 are actively working towards redefining community safety. To learn more about their ongoing efforts and the impact they are making, you can visit their website. To learn more about how you can join Borealis’ Communities Transforming Policing Fund to support organizations like Kilómetro 0, email Maya Berkowitz at Mberkowitz@borealisphilanthropy.org.