Frontline protestors in Medellín, Colombia, on May 28, 2021. Photo credit: Roger.Rondon / Shutterstock.com
To learn more about the protests and general strike in Colombia, read Julián Gómez Delgado’s essay“The Decline of Colombia’s Centaur State.”
One of the most important phenomena of this year’s national strike in Colombia has been las primeras líneas, or “first liners.” Men and women, some reported to be as young as 14, donned shields and helmets to protect themselves and other protesters from the violence of Colombian anti-riot police (ESMAD). They organized the protest, blocked streets so that protesters could assemble and feel safe, brought milk and baking soda to neutralize tear gas, and maintained the protest despite police violence. They have become the image of politicized youth that want social change in Colombia.
The “first liners” volunteered to be targets, a shield between the police force and those demanding improvements for an entire society. Because of them, the protests in Colombia are still alive.
But where did they come from?
While grassroots protesters have been deploying medics for decades, we can trace the emergence of these activists to the Chilean demonstrations of 2019, where organizers coined the term “first liners of the protest.” This group of protestors confronted the Chilean riot police with acts of civil disobedience and made visible the mutilation of protester’s eyes from the rubber pellets fired by police.
Colombia’s “first liners” began to organize in the same year, but it was only in 2021, when the national strike erupted, that they began to have an impact. “In November of 2019 I was invited to Universidad del Valle to accompany the protest,” one first liner recalled in an interview. “It was at this moment where I learned about the possibility of being a first liner…. there are second, and third lines, but I like being part of the first one [because] we are defending the masses from the riot-police.”
“First liners” come from many different backgrounds. Some don’t have access to education, while others have a college degree. Some are hip-hop artists, soccer hooligans (barras bravas), or rooted in community service work; others are linked to gangs and small drug dealers, or even ex-combatants of the guerrilla groups that signed the peace agreement five years ago. It’s a motley mix of political interests that have suddenly moved to the center of Colombian politics. Because there are multiple actors with various backgrounds and needs, there is also not a single political or ideological goal. They don’t want to be part of any political party and reject any connection with one.
Perhaps the “first liners” one unifying feature is their origin in marginalized neighborhoods on the periphery of big cities, where social inequality and economic vulnerability are endemic. Youth unemployment is at more than 20 percent: under the current system, many young people lack education and hope in their future. They saw taking over the streets as a necessary strategy to tackle their needs for food, money, and education.
The organizing structure of “first liners” can be opaque to outsiders. Like many of the political coalitions that have emerged globally since the 1990s, their organization is defined by a horizontal division of power: first liners make communal decisions and act on them without a designated spokesperson or leader. Everyone has a different role in the group, a role that is determined by what they do at a protest or at community meetings. Some run social media and broadcasting, while others do the tough, and more public-facing, work of defending the protesters. As the demonstrations change, each person’s role changes. Currently, some see their mission as starting an education, formally or informally, finishing degrees, giving interviews and leading discussions, or building community networks.
After almost five months of Colombia’s national strike, “first liners” have not only created solidarity, they have cultivated broader support networks to sustain the protest, maintain the resistance, and consolidate the political role of the protesters themselves. Cali, Southwest Colombia is one of the cities where the strike has lasted the longest and where the “first liners” have organized and defended permanent points of resistance. What was previously known as the protesters’ blockades have now become community meeting points.
At these points of resistance, activists perform tasks that illustrate what a just government would do. In Cali and other cities, “first liners” are often Afro-Colombians who live in neighborhoods marked by injustice, social violence, unemployment, lack of access to education and economic opportunity, and police brutality. Death is a fact of daily life in their home communities but as “first liners” they can at least win a plate of food for their families while fighting for systemic change. There are more than 15 resistance points in Cali that include community kitchens, communal libraries, and forums for discussing their lives. They have a “first liners” soccer team, a college education for the poor program called “University to the neighborhoods” (Universidad al barrio), political electoral education projects, a group of human rights defenders, and more.
Perhaps predictably, the government portrays “first liners” as terrorists. On different occasions, President Ivan Duque has stated that these activists are new armed groups connected with narcotrafficking and guerrilla networks. This refusal to understand and respond to the demands of protestors reflects the government’s failure to understand and respond to ordinary Colombians more generally. Thus, the Duque government encourages a false reality in which Colombian elites are completely disconnected from the larger national context.
But the “first liners” have a lot to teach us still. They demonstrate how those on the edges of power begin to talk and form effective political coalitions. They have become an example to others who, denied a life of dignity, see the demonstrations’ ability to make their messages heard and bring about substantial change. “First liners” speak in the people’s language: using slang, codes, and the language of daily life to effectively counter the power of the government.
As James Scott argued in 2009, the people at the edge of the state, in the periphery, have three possibilities: assimilation-absorption, rebellion, or to disband after a failed resistance. In Cali, we may be seeing something else: if successfully defended, the points of resistance could create a permanent revolutionary culture. The protestors know what they want, compiling a list of goals over the last month.
Young Colombians involved with the protests don’t believe in the government as it is, or the national future it represents. They want to change how the state sees them. They want an end to violence, and access to human dignity. They want education for everyone at all levels, economic sustainability, a better quality of life, and they want their new power and leadership to be respected. They are using political education for everyone to participate in the coming electoral process.
“First liners” are arriving at new agreements to reach these goals through discussion (you can see some of these discussions in the records of the popular assembly held in Cali in July, 2021.) With their slogan “We all are first liners” they express the determination of a newly-politicized youth and invite all of Colombian society to join them.
A note from the author: I want to thank the Colombian Human Rights Network and the Coordinacion Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (The Coordination Colombia-Europe-USA) for opening the door to connect with human rights defenders and first liners in Cali, and all the first liners that shared their testimonies about the movement.
Aura Angélica Hernández Cárdenas is a PhD Student in the sociology department at The New School for Social Research. Her research interests are connected with historical, rural, and political sociology, critical agrarian theory, and Global Critical Theory with a focus on processes of resistance in rural communities in Latin America.