Winning on Both Counts: How Colombian Students won by Rooting Out Violence from Student Protest
On October 7, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was starting to get media attention in the United States, Colombian students held a big mobilization, inaugurating a series of massive nationwide protests and events. Despite a government smear campaign that was echoed by the media and the actions of a few violent provocateurs, the students’ protests succeeded, offering a powerful lesson on the power of nonviolence to achieve social change.
The protests were motivated by a bill introduced in Congress by President Juan Manuel Santos to reform the underfunded higher education system using a controversial market approach that relied on loans offered by the financial sector, with a close resemblance to the Chilean model that has also sparked massive protests. The students for months had been unsuccessfully voicing their opposition to the bill. So, soon after it was sent to Congress they declared a student strike, and classes at almost all public universities were suspended as protests continued in the succeeding weeks.
As soon as students announced their mobilization, the Colombian Government responded by attacking the legitimacy of the mobilization: President Santos warned of intelligence indicating that protests would be infiltrated by terrorists. Although the student protests were mostly peaceful throughout the country, there were a few violent incidents, such as the end of the October 7th marches in Bogota, when most protesters had already gone home after heavy rain showers. Those initial student protests resembled May Day protests in Bogota, which over the past decade have sadly become an activity not appropriate for children, as some turn into melees and the riot police respond with tear gas. Not surprisingly, following the protests, the mainstream media focused on the tear gas, broken windows and clashes with the police, rather than on what students were protesting about in the first place. (3)
Two weeks into the strike, students organized in the Alternative National Education Board (MANE) decided to try a different strategy for their protest to underscore its nonviolent character: As one of the student organizers put it, their plight had gone beyond the content of the higher education reform bill: it was also part of a deliberated effort to root out violence from their actions. They adopted tactics for preventing clashes with the police (and provocateurs). Students would line up “protecting” the police, acting as “shields”, to deter anyone from throwing rocks at the riot police (and therefore unleashing a riot control response), or used colors to paint the shields used by crowd control police. On October 26, in Bogota and Cali, instead of their traditional marching since mid-morning from several points in the city, converging in downtown (Plaza de Bolivar, in Bogota), and disrupting traffic, they held a night vigil with candles, from 5 PM until midnight. Their tactics to ensure nonviolence continued evolving: the human shields that lined up or painted over riot police shields were replaced by a “hug-a-thon” and “kiss-a-thon,” students massively hugging the riot police in Bogotá or kissing them in Cartagena.
Protests continued and another National Day of Protest was called for November 10. On the eve of that mobilization, media continued acting as a channel in the government’s efforts to delegitimize the protests, broadcasting what was clearly a set up by the National Police - pictures of guerrilla emails detailing the armed group’s plans to infiltrate the students’ protests. Inexplicably, several major media outlets didn’t disclose that the police’s “smoking gun” emails were dated 2010! Hours before the protest was start, former vice-president Francisco Santos, now director of the RCN radio news network, posted a video-blog criticizing the government’s soft stance on social protest and calling for the use of electric shocks to control student protests, sparking ridicule and anger in social media.
The strength and nonviolent character of the protest prompted president Santos to eat his own words. Four weeks into the protest, he said, “why are [the students] protesting? There is nothing to protest about,” and by November 9, the day before another national mobilization, hoping that students would call off the protests, he announced that his government would withdraw the bill from Congress if students ended the strike and returned to classes. A couple days earlier, Congress, where Santos holds an over 80% majority, also announced it would not be backing the bill until a consensus with the student movement was reached.
On November 10, despite heavy rains, students marched as planned, hundreds of thousands peacefully demonstrating throughout the country. The Colombian media finally came around and turned to the student’s favor, as dozens of editorials were published recognizing the value of the students’ movement, and how the students, through nonviolence, have succeeded in putting education on the table not only for decision-makers, but for the nation as a whole.
With the bill tabled, students have clearly articulated that they are in for the long haul to fight for education as a right, not a commodity, to build a public education model that contributes to closing the gap between the haves and haves-nots (Colombian inequality is only surpassed in Haiti and Angola). As they look forward to working with the government to build a comprehensive education reform, students are reclaiming the resources Colombia spends on the war and questioning the celebration of the army’s recent killing of Francisco Cano, the guerrillas’ top commander. And they say, “We want education for peace, not for brutality.”
The next mobilization has been scheduled for November 24, this time as a Continental action. The Colombian and Chilean student movements are calling for a day of mass demonstrations across Latin America in defense of education as a right and in an effort to mobilize solidarity and strengthen the political influence of the youth in the region.
Note: The pictures in this article were taken by Camila Castillo, student at Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano, in Bogotá.