-OpEd-

BOGOTA — I recently heard someone liken the "acts of vandalism" taking place during the current protests against the Colombian government's tax reforms to a child's "tantrum" against its parents.

That comparison says a lot about how people see these protests. The state, in their mind, is a "father," and the protesters are "minors" exaggerating their methods to "get his attention." The assumption, then, is that if the demonstrators could only state their demands in a "mature" or "reasonable" manner — without shouting — it would all be easier. They would win the father's respect and he would reward them for their manners, treating them as adults!

But here's the thing: Protesting over human rights is no tantrum. For many, it is the only and last option because behind their hunger, illness or poverty, lies death. There is no benevolent father who wants the best for us. Instead, what we have in Colombia is an unequal concentration of power in certain groups who want even more of it, and hope to get it by exploiting the population. When this exploitation reaches intolerable levels, people come onto the streets to voice their rage.

The state sees stones, glass and bits of metal as more valuable than people's lives.

What must people do — peacefully — to bring about political change here, as people asked on an Instagram sequence (attributed to whatradicalized you, @literally.noam.chomsky and @socialstudies4socialjustice)?

It's a question based on the common belief that a "peaceful" protest is all that's need to bring about change. Except it doesn't work that way. No authoritarian or corrupt government was ever moved by the poetic sight of people marching in the streets to promise an end to extrajudicial killings! It's not that poems are useless or unnecessary. Artistic manifestations play a key role in strategies to bring about social change. But so does direct action, including breaking windows and daubing graffiti in protests.

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Demonstrators throwing stones at the police in Bogota, on April 28, 2021. — Photo: Daniel Santiago Romero Chaparro/LongVisual/ZUMA

Certain cultural actions, like images or songs, will help people understand and sympathize with the protests, or make protesters feel more visible and present. Direct action (which is also a cultural act) serves to disturb, makes the protest inevitable and highlights the fact that the state sees stones, glass and bits of metal, which are termed 'property,' as more valuable than people's lives.

The Instagram carousel provides a more realistic sequence of how social change happens:

1) People protest peacefully (in a way the government cannot ignore).

2) The state's repressive agents manhandle peaceful protests in public venues.

3) The wider population sees this, is angered and takes the side of protesters.

The carousel clearly explains what is happening in Colombia today. What people with cushy lives do not understand is that by supporting only 'peaceful resistance,' they are not actually taking a stand against violence. Instead they're just asking the rest of us to go out and expose ourselves to the state's violence and then do nothing about it, all for the sake of winning the government's approval.

It is senseless to compare the destruction of a cash dispenser with security forces beating an unarmed protester to death.

That is what happened with Gandhi's iconic protests, famous for their non-violent resistance. They were hunger strikes in fact, thus there was violence, but only against the protesters. And so again, when people say that they only support peaceful protests, what they're really saying is: "We only back protests where protesters are ready to be beaten in the hope of earning wider public sympathy." That, in turn, means that they only want demonstrations with no real power to bring about change. They support the people's right to protest, as long as it is useless.

This isn't to say that a protest must, perforce be violent. But it is senseless to compare the destruction of a cash dispenser with security forces beating an unarmed protester to death. Nor is it the case that the only effective protest is one with broken windows. The point, rather, is that differentiating between "good" and "bad" ways of protesting just serves to stigmatize protests in principle.

With the excuse of curbing 'bad' protests, the army came onto the streets of Colombia to brutalize civilians, regardless of whether or not they were engaging in vandalism. This is not about good protests versus bad protests. It is about Colombians facing down a government that is authoritarian, exploitative and corrupt. And for that, we need all forms of protest.


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