Shooting in the House
It was a dramatic moment. The historic photo above was taken on March 1st, 1954, just two minutes after the Puerto Rican nationalists fired 30 rounds into the U.S. House of Representatives chamber; the time exposure was taken from the very same visitor gallery (Ladies’ Gallery), only 10 feet away from where four shooters stood.
At the moment picture was taken, the gang was being captured in the corridors. Rep. Alvin Bentley, most seriously wounded of five wounded Congressman, was on the floor at lower center, obscured by congressmen bending over him. Rep. Benton Jensen, a bullet in his back, had staggered out at lower right. Rep. George Fallon has been carried up aisle at center. Two other wounded representatives, Kenneth Roberts and Clifford Davis, were in the next aisle. Speaker Joe Martin was on rostrum, gaveling for order over this tableu of pandemonium.
Today, with the congress protected by anti-car bomb barriers and metal detectors, and members’ seats by bullet and bomb-proof plating, such an attack on the Capitol Hill is unthinkable but back in 1954, security guards were more concerned about cameras than guns. Although now largely (and undeservedly) forgotten, this attack at the heart of US democracy sent shock waves through the United States at the time and was front-page news for weeks. Newspapers widely speculated about a communist connection, and claimed that their weapons were supplied by Reds. The fact that the shooters’ leader was an exotically beautiful, elegantly dressed, Puerto Rico-born New Yorker beauty-queen named Lolita Lebrón also added some excitement. Immediately after the bullets had wounded five Congressmen and several aides, Lebrón unfurled and waved a Puerto Rican flag and shouted “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!”
Lebrón and her three co-conspirators were branded as “terrorists” and given hefty prison sentences; they were not released until the late 1970s. Lebrón became an iconic figure in Puerto Rico and beyond; even Che Guevara said he was inspired by “the gun-toting lady in the silk scarf, dangly earrings, bright lipstick and high heels”. Yet, the cause she championed would prove to be unpopular even within her tiny island nation which the United States had occupied since the Spanish-American war of 1898; in each of the three plebiscites held since 1967 on the island’s status, independence garnered no more than 4.4% of the vote.