’ve been to many protests, seen the good and the ugly—like the time in Ferguson, MO, when a driver ran over a female protester with his mini-van and the time, while in Cleveland, OH, when neighbors and community dwellers brought food, blankets, and gloves to distribute to every protester.……withstanding the cold temperatures to show solidarity for 12-year-old Tamir Rice (Rest In Power).
Fortunately, after many protests that I’ve participated in, I was able to safely walk away or go back home to resume my “normal” life. However, from what I’ve been hearing……happening in Columbia, not every protester shares that kind of privilege—-of being able to return home with their life.
In Columbia, the labor movement, because of intimidation, neoliberal restructuring, and other factors that I will get to later, has seen their membership drop dramatically—-4.4 percent of the national workforce today, down from 17 percent three decades ago. As the movement shrunk, teacher unions started taking its place. Teacher unions now make up about half of the membership of the Central Unions of Workers, Columbia’s main federation of unions. But these growing body of teachers, who only want to stop the commodification of their schools, like, the emphasis of standardized testing, and the narrowing of curriculum, which edges out all-important issues such as social justice and critical thinking, has been met with fierce opposition by the Columbian government.
According to Columbia’s National Union School (ENS), more than 1,000 teacher union leaders were killed between 1977 and 2014. The ENS has also documented over 14,000 incidents of violence against labor activists, ranging from assassinations, to beatings, kidnappings, and torture. Things were so bad, that when the US-Columbia free trade agreement was hatched in 2011, there was a special provision set aside to protect workers’ rights and labor movements. Provision of the Labor Action Plan, called for measures to prosecute perpetrators of anti-labor violence and increased protection for activists, including government funding for bodyguards and armed cars.
Bodyguards and armed cars to protect protesters, activists being assassinated, kidnapped and tortured…..all for what, freedom of speech? How can one continue to risk their lives over and over again for the sake of moral release, justice and for some kid to have books to read or workers to have safer working environments? Something else, perhaps, hope, must be driving these activists to commit labor suicide, like this. I, for one, would have gotten the memo the first time someone threatened my life with a phone call, email, or text message. Color me cowardly, but I know I’m not the only one who thinks like that.
Meanwhile, protesting in America is like a sporting event. There’s always food, artistry, clothing, books, memorabilia, some stranger with a boom-box, people dressing their best, and taking plenty of selfies. Protesting for my generation, has become a time to remember and share on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Yes, we may be enraged by Wall Street’s greed, the killings of unarmed black men by police, or, more recently, disgruntled over the fact that one candidate does not get fair coverage by the media (Bernie Sanders), but we always know, in the back of our minds, that after every outcry we can return home safely.
Such a notion—-sprout by the many protectionisms in the constitutions that guarantees the rights for people to assemble and voice their opinions—is taken for granted every time we gather for a demo.
Can you imagine, the next time you or either someone you know gathers for a protest and out of nowhere some armed vigilante hops off a motorcycle and opens fire into the crowd? Or how about being chased into some random building and then gunned down like an animal? As a Millennial protester, I know that may be hard to imagine, but in Columbia that was the faith of Hector Abad Gomez and Leonardo Betancur, two well-known human rights activists.
As a protester living in America, I have seen the good and the ugly……but nothing will ever compare to what some labor activists faces in Columbia. Sure, I’ve seen my fellow protesters arrested, pepper-sprayed, brutalized by police……but nothing will ever compare to what some labor activists faces in Columbia. I’ve heard stories of people’s rights being violated, police shooting rubber bullets, and tear gas into the crowd, being spat on, and forced to hand over their cellphones, and whatnot……but nothing will ever compare to what some labor activists faces in Columbia.
At the end of the day, all those victimized by the police or by overly-passionate vigilantes, shares the same American privilege—-being able to walk away with their lives to continue the struggle for another day. And for that, my friends, I am proud to be an American protester!