JULY 6, 2001 | SENTENCING STATEMENT OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.
TO FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT JUDGE HECTOR M. LAFFITTE

Your Honor, as you know, the issue of Vieques has mobilized Puerto Ricans of many viewpoints. Last year during a trip to the island, I had the pleasure of meeting independent party leader Ruben Berrios, who wants to sever Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States and sees the bombardment of Vieques as an emblem of the misuse of United States colonial power. And only recently I was arrested and incarcerated with Senator Norma Burgos, vice-president of the statehood party, who wishes to strengthen Puerto Rico's bonds with the United States and views the Navy's operations on Vieques as an obstacle to that objective.

I have, I think, a more national perspective. I come from a naval family. My father and uncles were in the Navy and held this service in the highest regard. In my household my parents taught us the naval ballads and fight songs and successfully schooled us to love the Navy. I love my country. I believe we need a strong national defense and that we need to prepare our troops for battle with adequate training at the best sites to practice live ordnance maneuvers. I am an attorney and a law professor and I love the law and the idea that America's justice system is a global paradigm. But I also believe that those individuals who most love an institution should be the first to criticize it when it does wrong.

I first became involved in Vieques because of the environmental issues raised by the Navy's activities. Military maneuvers on the island include what I consider to be clear and undeniable violations of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. When I visited the island I found that these violations were causing serious environmental problems. Vieques' incomparable mangrove estuaries were being filled and destroyed. One of its two world-class bioluminescent bays was already extinguished. Naval bombardment had pulverized its unique tropical rainforests, contaminated its aquifers and threatened to eliminate thirteen listed, threatened and endangered plant and animal species.

Even more disturbing were the impacts on Vieques' nine thousand three hundred human residents. A series of scientific studies -- despite the Navy's public relations campaign to discredit them, these studies mainly employ rigorous scientific protocols and standards -- suggest that Vieques has the highest cancer, infant mortality and overall mortality rates of any municipality in Puerto Rico, and that island residents carry dangerous concentrations in their flesh and organs of cadmium, lead arsenic, uranium and other toxic substances associated with the detonation of naval ordnance. Food plants grown in the residential areas of Vieques are also contaminated, as are the fishing areas upon which Vieques residents rely for food and commerce. The federal government has just confirmed that Vieques' groundwater is widely contaminated with dangerous toxics. A recent study indicates that Vieques' residents of both sexes and all ages may suffer from a potentially lethal heart ailment caused by the naval maneuvers.

But perhaps the most toxic residues of the Navy's history on Vieques are the impacts on our democracy. The people I met in Vieques -- who are now my clients -- are United States citizens, but the Navy's abusive exercise of power on the island has left them demoralized, alienated and feeling that they are neither part of a democracy nor the beneficiaries of the United States system of justice. I found a population largely convinced that naval power could trump every law and political institution and could control every judge and every judgment that was relevant to their daily lives.

There is a long history of naval abuse and I will not burden the Court with an inventory today, but I will mention one example that is fresh in the minds of most of my clients in Vieques. In 1983 under pressure from a series of federal environmental law suits brought by the Commonwealth, the Navy signed a settlement agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding which was intended to allow the Navy to continue its maneuvers while mitigating the extreme economic, social, cultural and environmental cost that these maneuvers were imposing on the island's population. In the 1983 MOU, the Navy agreed to make substantial investments in Vieques' disastrous health care, make "best efforts" to create jobs so as to achieve full employment on Vieques, provide decent housing to Vieques' residents and take concrete measures to study and safeguard the island's endangered species and other natural resources. The Navy has altogether ignored this agreement. Indeed the Navy has openly and notoriously violated every single commitment, promise and provision of that agreement without any legal consequence and with absolute impunity. It is no wonder that the island's residents are disillusioned with American justice. It is no wonder that they smirked when I spoke to them of the protections and guarantees of the due process on one of my first trips to Vieques. I showed them the laws and how the Navy was violating the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and I assured them that in the federal courts we could force the Navy to comply with those laws. I told them that no entity is above those laws, not even the Navy.

In October of last year I filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. For eight months this Court sat on those papers and refused to make a decision, allowing the Navy to bomb the island and break the laws again and again. This Court ignored my repeated motions that it adjudicate this case. I had a great sense of frustration that, eight months and two naval bombardments after filing this motion, I could still not get my clients their day in court. That frustration led me finally to engage in civil disobedience. I had promised my clients that our system could work for them. When I could not make the system work to protect my client's rights, I felt my only option was to suffer with them.

I engaged in civil disobedience for a single purpose: to prevent a criminal act by the United States Navy which this Court has refused to redress. I know that you will empathize with those feelings your Honor when I recall the conviction with which you explained to Senator Fernando Martin during the early days of the civil disobedience the special obligation by those of us who enjoy the benefits of democracy. You instructed him that we must first exhaust all legal and political remedies before civil disobedience can be justified. I know, that at the time you issued this reprimand, you believed those remedies existed for the people of Vieques. And yet, events have confirmed that these men and women often have no place at the table where the destiny of their community is being determined. They have no elected representative in Congress. Every elected public official in Puerto Rico opposes the Navy's use of Vieques. They have exhausted their political remedies. They have also exhausted their civil remedies to no avail. Using all my powers as an attorney I could not even get them access to a courtroom.

It was only with great hesitation, trepidation and sadness that I engaged in this civil disobedience. I am an officer of the court; I am a law professor and a lawyer who loves the law. And I do not believe that an attorney should lightly engage in civil disobedience. Here, however, I believe we exhausted all legal remedies in an effort to halt an illegal activity. In this case a critical public trust resource, the airs, waters, endangered species and groundwaters of Vieques were being destroyed without an opportunity for due process or political relief. In such circumstances I believe that those of us who live in a democracy and love our laws and our country have not only a right, but an obligation to engage in civil disobedience.

Since I have followed my conscience in this instance, I will gladly accept the sentence of the court and I will serve my time with peace of mind.