The national strike was promoted throughout the streets of Medellín, and at the university phrases where written in the hallways to encourage students to join the march. On social media my friends shared information and motivational video’s to stimulate their friends to come. The strike was promoted through all possible means and therefore it was no surprise that the strike was attended by hundreds of people in Medellín alone.
That morning we were sitting on Marian’s bed having a coffee and talking about today’s strike. Marian said that she was hoping that the police and the ESMAD (the Colombian anti disturbance squad) would not use teargas and violence. I was surprised by her comment and asked her if it was common that those institutions used such strong measures. It was! She started to tell a story about the previous protests in which she had participated, where she had to run away from the police but was coughing so badly due to the teargas that she was unable to run and lost her friends. She described her fear and the craziness of the situation. She continued saying that I had to remind her to bring cigarettes. It helps to blow smoke in your eyes when you have inhaled teargas. Smoke takes away the burning feeling.
Marian and I went to the strike with cigarettes against the teargas, identity cards because “you never know”, and good walking shoes. She told me to stay close, it would be dangerous to get lost and she instructed me to always stay with the group. The risk of participating in the strike soon became clear to me. We arrived at the start of the strike, the police and the ESMAD were standing on every corner and two apaches of the police and the army were circling above the strike. Whereas for me – coming from the Netherlands – these institutions mean security and control, for the students these institutions are their opponents that are representing and defending the corrupt neoliberal government. Using your voice and protesting against this same rightwing neoliberal structure is therefore risky. Because – according to my respondents – the “controlling institutions” will use violence without reason, that will in turn trigger violence and the situation can escalate.
The messages the marching people were addressing concerned the need for equality, social justice, education, human security, and health care. The expressions of the messages differed. Some participants used graffiti to spray on the walls, leaving permanent marks with their claims. Others used banners to make their claim with one strong one-liners.
The visual messages were to the point and captured the essence of their claim with one image or phrase. However, hearing my friends and all of the people marching along screaming and shouting about justice, fair democracy, peace and the necessity for change was much stronger for me. Through the songs I felt and experienced their pain. “You should see the things that happen; you should see the turns they take. With a nation that is walking ahead and a government that is walking back.”
The students – and with them many other Colombians – made their claims through all means and strategies possible. Whereas protesting directly implied risk the students took the risks for granted, united and made their claim for a just and peaceful Colombia.
Lieke Prins holds a Master’s Degree Social and Cultural Anthropology. Her thesis (2016) was entitled: “Studying for the revolution: The political ideology of Colombian social science students as a trigger for action” (Medellín, Colombia.)