On the 21st of November of 2019, a mass mobilization known as “El Paro Nacional,” the National Strike, took to the streets of dozens of cities all over Colombia. The Paro emerged amidst widespread discontent, including opposition to right-wing President Ivan Duque’s proposed package of neoliberal policies for Colombia (the reform of the national pension system, a new labor contract law and a financial reorganization of public enterprises), the uncertain future of the Peace Agreements signed in 2016, the increase in the killing of social leaders in rural areas or the lack of funding for the public education system, among others. On the evening of the 21st of November, the peaceful marches turned to face-offs with the riot police. On the third day of protest, November 23, the killing of a student, Dilan Cruz, by the Colombian anti-riot police (ESMAD) shook the country. In the following weeks, protesters took to the streets again and again and neighborhood cacerolazos – public gatherings centered on hitting cacerolas or pans – turned into an extended mobilization. In a city traditionally characterized by a North-South spatial segregation by class, cacerolazos were heard loudly both in the South and in the middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods of the North.

The Paro was unprecedented in many ways. It was one of the largest marches in recent Colombian history, both in terms of its numbers as well as in terms of the number of cities simultaneously involved. The duration of the paro – a week of daily and nightly protests in several major cities – was unlike anything ever seen in Colombia. But the difference was not only in terms of the scope and scale of the protests, but also in the diversity of sectors represented. Students, labor unions and leftist parties have traditionally led protests, but the paro nacional forged novel alliances between emerging social movements such as the feminist, LGBTQ and environmentalist movements; urban collectives such as soccer club fans and hip hop groups; and also by large numbers of middle-class individual citizens, many of whom had never participated in a protest before. Amidst this uprising, Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá became the epicenter of protests. The streets and public squares of the city became a laboratory for new repertoires of non-violent protest, which facilitated the emergence of new expressions of citizenship and inter-class solidarities. The result was a strike with unprecedented public support: 70% of Colombians supported the Paro.

Christmas holidays and the pandemic brought the protests to a halt. While several massacres took place in peripheral regions of the country during the pandemic, massive protests in the streets were absent. However, the murder on September 9, 2020 of Javier Ordóñez, a law student who worked as a taxi driver, at the hands of Bogotá’s police for violating a Covid19 curfew sparked a new wave of protests and riots around the city. Javier’s words to police agents ”I can’t breathe, please release me”, recorded on video by one of his friends and widely circulated on Twitter and mainstream media, was a chilling echo of George Floyd’s murder. The night of September 10, groups of protesters set several police stations in Bogotá on fire and were met with a brutally violent response by the police, who opened fire onto the protesters, sparking further outrage. By the end of the revolts of the following days, 13 civilians had been assassinated by the police, over 580 wounded, and a third of the small police stations known as CAIs burned. On September 21st, 2020 a new Paro Nacional took the streets of Bogotá again, the first massive protest in the city during the pandemic.

Who gave the order to massacre Bogotá’s youth? Paro Nacional on September 21, 2020. Photo: Sergio Montero, 2020.

During 2019 and early 2020, analyses of the Colombian Paro Nacional protests proliferated in different national and international media outlets and academic blogs. These analyses have highlighted the size of the protests, the diversity of claims, the “awakening of civil society,” the militarization of cities or the violent response of the state to the strikes. In this brief essay, we highlight an aspect that has not been analyzed as thoroughly yet in these analyses: the role of urban public spaces and the circulation of South-South urban repertoires of protest, particularly from Chilean cities, in facilitating the protests and, more specifically, the politicization of the emerging Colombian urban middle-class. Although protest dynamics have changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic, the deep political and economic discontent that it exposed, the political potential of the newly mobilized citizenry, and the new uses of public spaces that emerged in Colombian cities may have a lasting impact. We take the case of Bogotá to specifically analyze the role of the city in facilitating new expressions and practices of citizenship among the Colombian urban middle class. While the ideas in this text emerged before the coronavirus arrived in Colombia, we conclude with some reflections on how the recent revolts against police brutality in Bogotá in September 2020 show the contradictions of protesting in public space during a pandemic, the increasing role of the judicial branch as a guarantor of protest rights in Colombia as well as the connections of Bogotá protests with recent global mobilizations against racism and police brutality.

An Urban “Paro”

Paradoxically, the two Latin American countries that experienced the largest protests and riots in 2019, Chile and Colombia, are often counted among the economic success cases in Latin America in terms of poverty reduction. Between 2002 and 2011, household real income increased 36% in Colombia, the poverty rate dropped from 50% to 34%, and the middle class rose from 16% to 27%. And yet, despite projections that a bigger middle class should serve as a social stabilizer, protests in Colombia and Chile show that economic conditions and frustrations must be understood relationally, that is, not only in terms of absolute income but also in terms of inequality and the fragility of middle class aspirations in the context of a deeply unequal and precarious economic and labor structure deepened by neoliberal policies in the public social safety nets. In Colombia in particular, the Gini coefficient hovers around 0.5, making it the second most unequal country in Latin America. Cities are microcosms of the tensions of inequality: while Bogotá’s urban growing middle class might enjoy more access to certain public services such as education or pension schemes in comparison to Colombians living in rural areas or poor urban peripheries, they also find themselves increasingly frustrated that their social mobility does not provide the security that they were promised. During the Paro, it was striking not only the high numbers of protesters in the streets but also the unprecedented participation of middle-class people. This sent a powerful message against traditional narratives of right-wing politicians in Colombia that have sought to associate protesting with “vándalos” (vandals) or “guerrilleros” (guerrilla members).

Cacerolazo in the streets of Bogotá, November 2019. Photo: Isabel Peñaranda, 2019.

In a country where 80% of the population is now urban, cities are playing an increasing role in creating the conditions for new forms of citizen mobilization by providing the medium through which the broad diversity of demands can be articulated. Some of the most important strikes in Colombia in recent decades have been led by agricultural workers, such as the agrarian strike of 2013, and the coca-growers’ strike of 1996. The countryside was able to effectively mobilize massive groups of farmers, campesinos and rural workers precisely because vast territories were united by shared structural conditions. While previous strikes and protests established links between different groups, most of these shared a common set of demands, or came from a particular sector. In the case of cities, for example, the most massive protests have been led by the student movement (2011, 2018), in support of the peace agreements (2016) and—on the opposite side of the political spectrum—protests rejecting the FARC’s kidnappings (2008). This November paro marked an important difference: there was no single issue which predominated the paro – evidenced by the list of 104 demands. Although cities have always played an important role in protests, given the visibility and proximity to power they afford, urban space played a new and important role during “el Paro” in Colombia. Protesters spontaneously appropriated urban spaces and organized creative forms of mobilization on city streets and public spaces rarely seen before. The usual protest hotspots in Bogotá – such as the historic Plaza Bolivar in the center of the city – were joined by new circuits and points of gathering and confrontation, including the middle-class neighborhoods of Chapinero and Teusaquillo. These spaces became a laboratory for experimenting with new forms of protest and the appropriation of urban space in a city long characterized by a fear of public presence due to a legacy of violence and high rates of crime. Musicians and artists took to the streets and performed in different squares of the city. Professors from different public and private universities took their classes out to the streets and public spaces.

Artists and musicians protesting in Bogotá’s streets, November 2019. Photo: Isabel Peñaranda, 2019.

As artists, professors and middle-class protesters went to the streets and squares of Bogotá, they also adopted many of the iconic repertoires of protest used in Chilean cities. While academics have criticized how the South-South circulation of urban policy knowledge and “best practices” is increasingly co-opted by elite actors situated in the Global North, Chilean tactics of protest circulated virally in Bogotá through TV and social media and were soon adopted and reinvented by local activists and neighborhood groups. Cacerolazos, or pan banging in the street, which was an iconic form of protest during the recent Chilean protests also became a way for neighbors to meet and protest together in Bogotá. The different “Neighborhood Assemblies” that sprung up spontaneously all over the city enabled this basic urban territorial unit—to become a focal point of organizing and participation. Bogotá feminist groups also used and reproduced the performance “Un Violador en tu Camino” (A Rapist in Your Path) from the Chilean feminist collective “Las Tesis,” in different urban public spaces of Bogotá to denounce sexual violence against women and the complicit role of the state. Chilean repertoires helped inspire and change the ways in which protests took place in Bogotá and helped make the feminist movement visible in Bogotá in new ways. At the same time, Chilean tactics were also reinvented on Bogotá’s streets and middle-class urban spaces. On November 27, the seventh day of protests, a cacerolazo sinfónico took place in Chapinero’s Plaza de los Hippies, where professional musicians joined hundreds of protesters banging pans to play Colombia’s anthem and other classic Colombian songs.

A crucial political conjuncture

The new repertoires of non-violent protest in the streets and public spaces of Colombian cities were a result of the recent national strike of 2019 but they might also be understood as part of a larger history of the ongoing democratization process in Colombia and, more broadly, in Latin America. Caldeira and Holston (2005) have argued that, as Brazil moved away from the previous modernist and dictatorial regime, the main mark of democratization in the country was not electoral politics but rather “the explosion of popular political participation and the massive engagement of citizens in debating the future of the country” (Caldeira and Holston, 2005: p. 402). Limiting the definition of democracy to electoral politics has fed the naïve belief that Colombia has been a democratic country since 1958, despite sixteen years of elitist government of Frente Nacional, a national agreement between the two traditional parties that enabled them to govern the country jointly for sixteen years (1958-1974). The democratization of the state in Colombia remains a process in the making, with an important milestone being the enactment of the new 1991 Constitution as well as different laws and forms of mobilization that have been taking place in the country in recent years, most recently, the Peace Agreements signed by the Colombian government and the former guerrilla FARC in 2016. The national strike acted as a crucible for forging new middle-class political subjectivities and urban public spaces were key to creating bonds between people with different political views and demands but with a shared feeling of frustration and of resistance. As Tilly and Tarrow (2015) have argued, through a shared opposition and experience on the street, previously fragmented individuals forge new identities. This is particularly important in a society like Colombia in which social protest has been historically criminalized, associated with the armed conflict, and stigmatized as related to leftist guerrilla groups.

If the Paro Nacional was, as we have argued, related with the use and appropriation of urban space in new ways by an emerging politicized and precarious middle class, then the COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions which have struck its heart. Particularly strong quarantine measures taken in Colombia and specifically, Bogotá, have come at the price of radically restricting access to public space and limiting public gatherings, two elements constitutive of the Paro. However, that is only the surface. By reinforcing class inequalities in who is affected both in their health and economically, the virus has deepened the divisions bridged by the massive social mobilizations of the Paro. Colombia – historically militarized as a result of the armed conflict – has made a frighteningly smooth transition from a civil armed conflict to a militarized response to the virus. The virus has enabled not merely a naturalization of the military’s enforcement of the quarantine, but also what appears to be a systematic use of the limited citizen’s mobilization to resume the drug war, undermine central elements of the Peace Agreements, and even to justify the incursion of U.S. troops in Colombia. The 2020 revolts and the Paro Nacional on September 21, 2020 also showed how police brutality has become a more important concern for many civil society groups and concerned citizens.

In this context, the country is facing a preoccupying future, and where hope sprung in the Paro, uncertainty has taken its place. Colombian police brutality has been denounced on social media by several Afro-Colombian leaders, centered on the murder of Anderson Arboleda on May 19, 2020 by the Colombian police in Puerto Tejada (Cauca), and has to some extent reopened the debate on racism in Colombia. Beyond the difficulties of organizing on the street during the pandemic, another reason for this response is that in this country, critical reflections on racism have still a long way to go in permeating the public discourse. In Colombia, many of the most visible Afro-Colombian struggles are rooted in the defense of rural collective territories, while the struggles of the urban Black population have less public visibility and support. However, the brutal murder of Javier Ordóñez on September 9, 2020, recorded on a phone and widely circulated on social media, ignited general indignation and brought people to protest on the streets, even if significantly less in numbers than in 2019 (mostly students and young people).

Some conclusions

The Paro Nacional protests in 2019 and 2020 showed that the emerging urban middle class does not feel represented by the austerity and neoliberal messages coming from the right-wing government, particularly as the future and aspirations of this class are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and urban youth unemployment has risen to the historical rate of 35%. Now in 2020, this growing gap of legitimacy is further fueling the distrust of state institutions, creating an increasing antagonism in the crucible of the Covid19 restrictions. The militarized response to the pandemic enforced by the police only heightened existing fractures, making them more tangible for urban dwellers. Amidst these restrictions and health fears, social media platforms and particularly Twitter took on a renewed role in disseminating images of police brutality, connecting them with the Black Lives Matter protests, creating a shared language of indignation and eventually serving as an organizing space for going back to the streets. The streets are also extending to courts, as with the recent Supreme Court ruling on the case of Dilan Cruz’s death during the Paro. As the revolt against police brutality shook the streets, on the 23rd of September, 2020 the Court concluded that the police had been employing a “systematic, violent and arbitrary intervention” against protesters, and ruled that the government had to guarantee the right to peaceful protests and take specific measures to do so, including a public apology and the ban of the use of the weapon that killed Cruz.

In the current context and near future, progressive movements in Colombia will need to find new ways to engage and nurture inter-class solidarities in cities as well as to connect traditional forms of rural and labor organizing with the new diverse demands and forms of social organizing in cities. The traditional left will also need to better articulate critical reflections on race, feminism and police brutality beyond their more traditional concerns with inequality and political economy issues. Anti-racist demands in Colombia cannot be limited to the ethnic rural territories but must be – through a connection with the rejection of police violence, for example – understood in urban contexts and articulated with other struggles. Taking up the mantle of the Paro again in the current context require that citizens and activists reclaim the city in different ways, creating and adapting new repertories of protest that can travel between urban public space, smart phones, social media and the courts as well as forging inter-class and rural-urban solidarities in the face of new and old shared threats.

Sergio Montero (Twitter) is Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Development at CIDER, an interdisciplinary research center of development studies of Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. He has a PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

Isabel Peñaranda Currie (Twitter) is an anthropologist from Columbia University, and has an MA in History. She is finishing a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning in the Universidad de los Andes.

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