Jackson Heights community members call for an end to police violence in Colombia

Activists protest Columbia unrest
Jackson Heights community members protested the ongoing unrests in Colombia on May 7. Sign reads “It hurts me to see those killed in my country.” (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

Hundreds of protesters marched from 93rd Street down 34th Avenue to Travers Park in Jackson Heights on May 7, demanding an end to the ongoing police violence in Colombia.

For over a week now, thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets to express their anger over the country’s current government, led by President Iván Duque Márquez.

Sign reads: “Colombia, we’re with you. No more corruption, change in government, lower the salary of politicians, find alternatives that don’t jeopardize the people.” (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)
Sign reads, “Colombia resist.” (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)
Sign reads, “One who doesn’t love their homeland doesn’t love their mother. Cali, resist.” (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

The protests, which began on April 28,  were triggered by a proposed tax reform that would have hit an already struggling low and middle class. Nearly 43 percent of Colombians live in poverty, and the reported unemployment rate is currently at 16 percent.

After four days of nationwide demonstrations organized by labor unions, Duque withdrew the controversial bill.

However, Colombians have continued taking to the streets nationwide, demanding improved working conditions, pension reform, protection for human rights activists and the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and guerrilla group Farc.

But the protests have taken a violent turn. According to the latest report by Temblores, a nonprofit organization, 39 people have died, and 1,814 have been injured in violent clashes with heavily armed police forces. More than 80 people have been reported missing, according to reports.

New Yorkers with Colombian roots are gravely concerned about the latest developments and fear for their families and friends in Colombia.

Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Activists protested the ongoing unrests in Colombia. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

Community members, some wrapped in the Colombian flag, arrived in Travers Park, chanting “New York, Colombia needs your help” and “Uribe is a killer,” referring to the former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez, who was in power from 2002 to 2010. During his tenure, the military killed thousands of civilians claiming they were guerrilla fighters.

The march and rally was organized by youth leaders in the community, including Tatiana Hurtado, Melissa Garcia Velez, Julius Gomez and Kaleidospace, a Jackson Heights-based arts collective.

“We support this march and others like it because we want to send out a message to the Colombian government and to the American government, letting them know that when the police murder our Black and brown communities, we stand up and fight back,” said Manuela Agudelo, artist and founder of Kaleidospace. “The love and protection to our communities is number one and we will always champion love over hate.”

Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Agudelo also emphasized that they were raising awareness of fundraising efforts of those on the front lines in Colombia.

Protesters lit candles remembering the victims who died and whose names were written on white wood, while others placed banners they had carried along the march route and an oversized Colombian flag on the ground.

Hurtado, one of the organizers of the march, said every artistic presentation at the event, which included traditional dance and songs of Colombia as well as spoken word, paid homage to the killings at the hands of the state as well as those who are missing. Hurtado said they’re urging the government there to “do its job” and hear their demands for “justice for all without exception.”

“We advocate for peace, for a quality and public educational system, for a decent health system, for better job opportunities, gender equity, for the strengthening of the agricultural economy, for the dignity of our working and indigenous people, for respect for the Afro community, among other things that are essential for the country to truly progress,” Hurtado said. “Otherwise, this would only be the beginning of the social outbreak, the discontent will not pass if none of the above changes.”

Protesters light candles for the victims of the ongoing unrests in Colombia. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Listening to a slew of speakers and musicians, Miguel, who immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 4, shared that he was worried about his grandparents, uncles and nephews who still live in Colombia.

“I talked to them and asked them, ‘How is everything?’ They’re telling me that it is sad because they see people that they know are dying. Like people that they are associated themselves with are dying because they protested for something different,” Miguel said.

Camilo said that people are fearful because the government is supposed to protect them, and the police are against them. He reported that a friend from Cali, which has seen the most violent clashes with police, told him that they couldn’t sleep because of the gunshots and the ambulance sirens.

He shared that people are outraged because the government doesn’t respect them.

“What [do] you have to lose? That’s why you have a bunch of young kids fighting in the first lines of the protests because they know there has to be a change,” Camillo said.

Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

He also lamented the lack of reporting about the unrest and that it took Thursday’s gathering in Times Square to draw attention to the grave situation in Colombia.

Several local elected officials attended the protest, including state Senator Jessica Ramos, who is of Colombian descent, Assembly members Jessica González-Rojas and Catalina Cruz, who was born in Colombia, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (middle) joined Assembly members Catalina Cruz and Jessica González-Rojas at a Jackson Heights protest demanding an end to the ongoing unrest in Colombia. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

“The history of oppression [and] use of force by the [government] against Colombians goes back decades,” Cruz wrote in a tweet. “The right to protest against unjust policies should never cost you your life.”

Jackson Heights Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas said the events in Colombia were terrible.

“I mean, it’s the working class that has been targeted,” González-Rojas said. “There’s been murders and thousands of people harmed by the police. This is just not OK. It’s unacceptable.”

Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

In a statement last week, Ocasio-Cortez condemned the police violence Colombian protesters have endured.

“We stand with our Colombian brothers and sisters, in NY-14 and abroad, against the state killings of protestors,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “All people should have a fundamental right to demonstrate against their elected leaders. These citizens were protesting against anti-working class reforms and, for that, they lost their lives. There must be accountability for the long string of human rights abuses exercised by the Colombian government.”

Additional reporting by Angélica Acevedo.

This story was updated on May 10 at 7 p.m.