The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rare sedition charge filed against Oath Keepers was used before — against Puerto Rican nationalists

Trump supporters stand on top of a police vehicle on Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol Building. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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Earlier versions of this article misspelled the first name of one of the Puerto Rican nationalists. He was Irvin Flores Rodríguez.

Hundreds have been charged after a pro-Trump mob stormed the United States Capitol, but on Thursday federal prosecutors filed seditious conspiracy charges for the first time in connection with Jan. 6 investigations, against the leader of the far-right organization Oath Keepers and 10 suspected associates.

It marked one of the few instances in which the law — aimed at protecting the government from attacks — has been applied in the nation’s history. While seditious conspiracy charges are rare, they were often used throughout the 20th century — to prosecute Puerto Ricans.

Before the Oath Keepers, there were Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irvin Flores Rodríguez — armed Puerto Rican nationalists who opened fire against members of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954.

In a time when gag laws were being enacted to quash dissidence in the politically shifting island, some took to revolt, bombings and even a presidential assassination attempt in what they said was a fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. But whether their actions amount to sedition is a question that remains.

Sedition charges are rare not only because people “don’t try violently overthrowing the government every day” but also because of how hard the charge is to prove, said Jenny Carroll, a law professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and at Yale Law School.

What is sedition?

In the 1930s — three decades after the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain — Pedro Albizu Campos, a graduate from Harvard University, became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Believing that the island’s colonial situation “caused the material and moral misery of his people” and that “the only way to redeem this besieged group was through insurrection,” he turned the party into a militant grass-roots organization.

Strikes and revolts were met with harsh repression, such as the 1935 Río Piedras massacre. In 1936, Albizu Campos and other nationalist leaders were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the United States. After a decade in prison, he returned to the island and organized an armed revolt in 1950. But his plan was never realized, mostly because of the “Gag Law” that criminalized showing any outward support for independence.

However, the Nationalist Party reorganized in the mainland and undertook a slew of violent acts. In 1950 — the same year Congress established the island’s constitutional self-government — Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola tried to kill President Harry S. Truman. Four years later, the sound of “pop-pop-pop-pop” rang through the Capitol as congressmen debated an agricultural law, recalled House Page Bill Goodwin. Nobody was killed, but the group of four nationalists wounded several representatives. The nationalists were all charged with seditious conspiracy.

A Terrorist in the House

Between the 1970s and 1980s, a hodgepodge of clandestine groups attacked “symbols of capitalism and the U.S. government” to promote the cause of Puerto Rican independence, according to a 2012 Department of Homeland Security study. Among them, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) focused its efforts in New York and Chicago — setting off “two actual bombings, 40 incendiary attacks, 8 attempted bombings and 10 bomb threats, resulting in 5 deaths, 83 injuries, and over $3 million in property damage,” a 1999 House Committee on Government Reform report found.

The acts resulted in Puerto Rican nationalists receiving lengthy sentences, ranging from 35 to 90 years, on charges of seditious conspiracy — though none was found to have connections to actual attacks. Even then, some wondered whether their acts amassed to an attempt at overthrowing the government.

A 1980 Chicago Tribune editorial noted, they had been “out to call attention to their cause rather than shed blood.” A year earlier, President Jimmy Carter had granted commutations to the four 1954 attackers. In a similar move, President Bill Clinton granted clemency to a dozen nationalists in 1999 — saying they were “serving extremely lengthy sentences … which were out of proportion to their crimes.” One who declined that offer had his sentence commuted in 2017 by President Barack Obama. This cycle of action and pardon underscores the barriers to prove sedition and the oftentimes murky and changing line under which the charges are applied.

For years, Puerto Ricans said they were punished not for what they did but for what they represented. Looking back through a modern lens, Carroll said, one could possibly derive the same conclusion.

As generations have come of age in different points in time, so have the country’s perceptions. The America of Albizu Campos and Lebrón was less inclined to tolerate disagreements with the government, Carroll said. But today’s society is more willing to accept pushback against policy as an essential part of democracy.

“It’s the difference in a country that’s 200-plus years old versus 10 minutes old,” she said.

Over the decades, those accused of sedition have spanned the political realm. But while drawing historical lines across diametrically opposed groups is challenging, what unites both is how they firmly stand at the fringes, Carroll said.

“We’re still a country that no matter what political divisions we may have, we’re still able to differentiate people as ‘you look to me like you do pose a fundamental threat to all of us’ versus ‘you just look like you’re some guy who is upset about something,’ ” she said.