Home Violence Observations on Colombia’s Latest Wave of Protests

Observations on Colombia’s Latest Wave of Protests

by Ricardo Pachon
6 minutes read

The events of the last 72 hours in Colombia revolve around three key groups of characters:

  • Those who hit the streets on Thursday, protesting against the government for reasons X, Y, and Z.
  • Those who came out on Friday to throw stones, set Transmilenio bus stations on fire, loot stores and apartments, steal a bus, and by the end of the day, force the capital’s mayor to impose the first curfew in over forty years.
  • Those who came out to the streets on Saturday, to chide Thursday’s crowd for the chaos caused by Friday’s group.

One might think Thursday’s and Saturday’s folks have nothing in common, but they actually agree on at least three points:

  • Protesting is legitimate.
  • Violence is not acceptable.
  • Friday’s crowd is the minority.

Having pointed out these somewhat obvious facts, I’d like to highlight another, equally trivial one that many seem to be forgetting: If Thursday’s group is truly serious about their goals, they’re going to have to start getting comfortable with events like Friday’s and backslashes like Saturday’s.

The protests shaking Colombia cover a wide range of grievances that won’t be resolved after just one day of marching. Chile, leading the way on how to do this, shows us that we’re talking about months of sustained, high-impact actions. This means that if the protesters believe it’s a crucial time to rebuild the Republic, or at least to remove the current government, this is just the beginning, and what happened this week will have to be repeated over and over.

The essence of mobilization in Colombia is peaceful, but that doesn’t mean its promoters can prevent the violence that can break out when hundreds of thousands take to the streets aiming to dismantle rigid and ancient social structures. Protesters are not homogenous in their methods or demands, forming a continuum from pacifists meditating during the protest to the lovers of chaos.

Sure, we can find examples from all over the world of relatively peaceful mobilizations that haven’t spiraled out of control, but considering recent examples from neighboring countries, it’s not far-fetched to think that a massive protest wave in Colombia could be accompanied by violence. Our country is home to criminal organizations of all sizes, from gangs of a few delinquents to armies with territorial control. Would it really surprise us if some of these groups found fertile ground for their actions amidst the chaos of protests? Of course, the state should guarantee security at all times but (and I hope you catch the irony) this protection comes from the same government the protesters aim to remove for incompetence.

Those who protested have sought to distance themselves from the violent: they are Thursday’s crowd, not Friday’s. However, in their eagerness not to be lumped with the agitators, they’ve fallen into the trap of imagining the movement as angelically pure, fundamentally incompatible with violence. It only took a couple of confusing videos and the magic of social media for a message of denial about everything that happened on Friday to be amplified. They seem to say, “The movement is not to blame, the havoc was staged.” But thinking this way is a grave mistake because such naivety creates a blind spot where they can inflict terrible harm on themselves and others.

Protesting in these times, with such ambitious demands, is no small matter, and therefore, some minimum responsibilities must be assumed that don’t simply evaporate by saying, “I go to the march and condemn violence”. It’s essential to recognize that these actions involve risks, and one of them is that chaos, like the one we saw this week in Colombia, or over the last few months in other countries, might occur.

The value of identifying the risks is that it puts into perspective the reward one seeks, giving dynamism and determination to subsequent actions. For instance, a protester may calculate that the risk of making room for violence is small, but the potential social changes are enormous, and therefore, some collateral damage is acceptable. Another might see the price to pay for moving forward as too high and decide not to participate in the protest. And there will be others who understand that there is indeed a risk of stirring up the masses but decide to minimize it as much as possible.

Here in England, we’ve been dealing with Extinction Rebellion’s actions all year, an environmentalist movement advocating civil disobedience to force the government to act on climate change. ER’s actions are illegal, effectively paralyzing cities for hours, and many activists have ended up in jail. You can think whatever you want about ER, but one thing you can’t accuse them of is lacking clear understanding of the risks they take with their acts, the impact on others—especially those outside the movement—and the price they’re willing to pay to advance their agenda. This is all perfectly outlined in their book “This is Not a Drill,” which covers not just reflections on the ethical and economic aspects of environmentalism but also practical advice on organizing a protest and what to do if arrested.

Colombians have a complex relationship with violence, having been immersed in it for decades. A mere suggestion of being a facilitator immediately draws vigorous rejection – understandably so. But if those who protested in Colombia are realistic and convinced this is the chance they’ve been waiting for to reset the country, they also need to understand that violent factions want to take advantage of the moment. Deciding whether this is enough reason to discourage one from exercising their right to protest is a personal calculation. What one cannot do, under any circumstances, is turn a blind eye and ignore that any of our acts (especially those seeking to change the status quo) produce ripples spreading throughout the social fabric.

The specific events of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are significant but not important in the long run. Colombia’s history didn’t split in two after a few days of protest, violence, and reproach. What really matters is what happens in the coming weeks. The president has already called for dialogues with all factions, which will surely leave everyone unsatisfied, even before getting to the negotiation table. Everyone knows that more protests are on the way. With the information we have, what remains is for each person to decide what their next action will be when we’re called to take to the streets again.

Leave a Comment