Do Demands in Dover Make a Difference in Colombia?
Driving through the main street of Dover is a commuter’s nightmare. Bikes, pedestrians, and the standard New Jersey driver who doesn’t seem to give a fuck about themselves or the people around them all crammed into a dense, one-lane free-for-all of a main street. I avoid driving through this damned street whenever I’m in Dover unless it’s necessary, which today it was. Today, I was joining a protest against Colombia’s right-wing authoritarian regime of President Ivan Duque.
Now, some might wonder, why would a protest over the Latin American country’s government be held in the backwater town of Dover, New Jersey, which wasn’t known for much other than being the end-of-the-line for most westbound NJ Transit train routes out of Manhattan. Well, the population of the Dover area is largely Colombian. In fact, Dover and the neighboring town of Victory Gardens are the two densest populations of Colombians in the United States, each one with over 30% of people identifying as Colombian or of Colombian descent. New Jersey overall has the second highest population of Colombians in the country, making our terrible state a home to many beautiful people.
The primary reason for my being at the Colombia protest was not because I was Colombian. I’m Portuguese-American. But, I do have a strong distaste of right-wing governments (including our own, which claims to be “democratic” under people like Biden and Obama, but is actually so far to the right that we are beginning to look more like the Fourth Reich and less like the ancient Romans and Greeks we used to base ourselves on). A second reason was my adverse sentiment towards extrajudicial murders by police and military (again, including our own). There have been at least 37 in Colombia—including several deaths from cowardly assassins shooting indiscriminately into crowds from helicopters.
But, aside from those “progressive” ideologies like “governments shouldn’t murder innocent citizens”, I also have a strong affinity for the Colombian people. Some of the closest people in my life have been Colombian, and I had the luxury of exploring the northern area of the country for a couple of weeks in 2018. Colombians have always treated me well. They’ve been kind and humorous—two qualities that are difficult enough to find in a single individual, let alone an entire culture. They’ll also entertain me when I try to speak Spanish with them, and they don’t get so mad when I confuse a Spanish word for a Portuguese one. They make phenomenal foods, produce some of the greatest soccer players, and have the most beautiful women along with a geographically beautiful country. What’s there not to love about this nation and its peoples?
There were a few hundred people in the park, everybody masked up and most of them wearing the bright yellow jerseys of the Colombian national soccer team. The Yellow, blue, and red stripes of the Colombian flag waved in the strong wind that carried with it the voices of chanters and protesters as we prepared to march behind a twenty-foot-long banner that read #SOSCOLOMBIA.
I was somewhere in the middle of the crowd, which was several hundred feet long and thirty feet wide, and everybody chanted along as the man with the microphone hollered: “EL PUEBLO, UNIDO, JAMAS SERA VENCIDO” which loosely translates to “The people united will never be defeated.” There were scores of signs, some reading: “No mas abuso policial” (no more police abuse), “Cali tiene los huevos que faltan a Carrasquilla y a Duque” (Cali [the city in the epicenter of these protests] has the balls that Carrasquilla and Duque are missing). My favorite sign, one which I thought got the message across fairly well, simply read: “Presidente Duque es un pendejo” (no translation needed).
We marched down that damned and terrible main street that I spent the opening paragraph of this article complaining about and I couldn’t help but feel for the commuters. Driving down that road was anxiety-inducing enough without the added hazard of hundreds of angry Colombian-Americans (and one supportive Portuguese-American). But, as I walked down the road and took in my surroundings, I saw no anger in the faces of the store owners or the drivers. They had a stoic look of defiance, maybe even pride, as they watched us through their storefronts and their car windows. There were others in this town who, even though they weren’t Colombian, supported this cause. Maybe because they had faced similar issues in their native countries. Maybe because they support their continental neighbors. Or maybe it was simply because of that decade’s old adage, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” One old lady stuck her hand out of the window as we passed, and clenched in her fist was a Colombian flag.
I watched a Black man who was standing in a side street nod his approval at the chants, signs, and the sheer number of people before he joined in himself—clearly not entirely sure what it was we were protesting, but understanding from the signs that it was in response to injustice and murder. Did this not fall into the same spectrum as the BLM protests? Weren’t we all trying to hold armed officials accountable, and to demand that governments don’t murder innocent civilians? Is it not the same issue in every country, without regard for skin color, sexual orientation, or any of those other labels they stick on you to try to differentiate you from your fellow human? Are we not all just commoners trying to survive in places where the powerful fuck us daily? Of course we are. No government should be able to murder its civilians, but it takes a hell of a lot of civilians to make sure of that.
We ended the march at JFK park, and some of the Colombians in the community stood in front of the crowd to give speeches. One young lad was particularly inspiring. A high-schooler who spoke fluently and beautifully in both English and Spanish, he read out the politicians and representatives that we needed to contact, and he read out a list of demands. Among them was that our area’s representatives, Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer, condemn the actions of President Duque and his government, and for the Biden Administration to send humanitarian aid to the people of Colombia, who have seen their poverty rate double to nearly 45% during this pandemic, and who have suffered 76,000 deaths by the coronavirus with no hope for a vaccine in sight as a third wave ravishes the country.
I doubt that these demands will be heard or followed, but I’m a cynic. That’s why I write articles and could never truly be a political activist. To be a real activist, you have to be optimistic beyond measure, and you have to honestly believe that what you’re doing can make a difference. If there is a shadow of a doubt in your mind about all of these chants and signs and gatherings, then you’ll never get anyone to follow you, and you’ll never make a real change. I admire the people who do this kind of work because they have that sense of optimism and hope for change that years of political writing have robbed me of.
But, hell, maybe something can happen. Maybe we can stop propping up right-wing governments, condemn the murder of innocent civilians, and send aid to the people who need it. Maybe we can be the shining city on a hill that the great men and women of the twentieth century said we would be.
At the end of the night, I bought a bright yellow Colombia soccer jersey and an empanada. For a moment I felt proud to have joined the Colombians in this march, but then I wondered if my presence made a difference, or if even the march by those hundreds of Colombians would be anything more than a fleeting moment with no impact on the ever-turning wheel of global oppression. I hoped something would change, but I haven’t seen much real change in my lifetime yet, so I simply can’t be sure. I drank a cerveza in solidarity, wrote down my thoughts, and thanked my lucky stars that, as bad as my government is, at least they weren’t shooting at me from helicopters (yet), and I called it a night.
To read a more informational and succinct article that breaks down the issues in Colombia, click here
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