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Freedom of Speech*

There’s a dozen of us standing on a street corner outside of the US Embassy in Bogotá. The signs in our hands address sexism, racism, homophobia, and the current political climate in the U.S. Most of us are somewhere on the spectrum of Gringo–Colombians who have lived large parts of their lives in the US, Gringas born to immigrant parents, and US teachers now living in Bogotá. And we’re not happy with politics in that shared home of ours.

Across the street stands a row of police, dressed in fluorescent green. Through most of the protest they outnumber us. Off to the side, there are four observers in red jackets with “Bogotá Mejor” patches on their chests. They were sent by the city to ensure our right to freedom of speech, to protect us from police, and to protect property and police from us. This Saturday, however, they won’t have much to do. We are a calm, albeit saddened bunch. Still, I felt watched.

The embassy’s private security circled around and take pictures of us on cell phones. They circle around and repeat. The press comes. Some of the protesters raise their signs to cover their faces for the pictures – visas and jobs are cited as reasons for anonymity.

Then there’s the permit. A few days before, I marched down to city hall with a typed letter notifying the city of our intention to protest. It’s got my name, address, ID number, e-mail and phone number on it. After running up and down three flights of stairs and having four people read my intention to protest the incoming president and his proposed policies, I’m finally taken to the right window.

Two days later I receive authorization in the form of a PDF, sent to my e-mail, with a helpful list of rules protestors are to abide by. And a legalese point in Spanish that I think means I am responsible if anything goes wrong, and to be honest, I have no idea what that means. I’m expecting half a dozen English teachers and I know it’ll be very tame. But still.

The morning of the protest, a friend and I get off the bus by the embassy. Police are abundant, and a motorcycle with two cops - standard motorcycle entourage in Colombia - pulls up on the sidewalk. He asks for our IDs – also standard here from what I understand. They record our names, take a picture of our permit, make some comment about not having explosives in our bags, and have me show the inside of my backpack. I stood there hoping they didn’t confiscate my scissors. Turns out the explosives thing was a joke.

My friend, also a foreigner, thinks we got over-policed. I, after an adolescence in the US, don’t. Still, I’m white, and so is she, and that has an effect on how we are likely to experience policing in the countries where we grew up. Because there, the power status quo is also white.

This isn’t a comment on what is “normal policing,” but rather, a reflection on how different our expectations of normal policing can be, depending on country, race, socioeconomic status, gender, and other outward markers. At first I think my friend is naïve if she doesn’t expect a bit of muscle-flexing from the police. Then I start to think that I’m the one from a skewed, twisted reality, where killings by police give rise to social movements, and that her expectation represents some kind of healthy, alternate universe.

Everything went off as planned and we were treated, in my opinion, well. The Bogotá city hall folks were helpful in getting our permit set up and, reading between the lines of their professionalism, I think they were with us in spirit and cause. Beyond being asked for ID and stared at for two hours, we were not hassled by the police. Only the U.S. Embassy’s private security who took photos, but they weren’t police.

We were a dozen middle class professionals protesting on a sidewalk; probably among the least alarming protests in the world that day.

Then why, even in this easiest of circumstances in which to protest, exercising a fundamental right to express our opinion, guaranteed by both the US and Colombian constitutions, and doing everything by the book, couldn’t I shake that adolescent feeling that I was implicitly “in trouble,” just a bit? That what I was doing was legal, certainly, but not encouraged? And that somewhere inside that embassy, my name was written up on some list next to that cell phone picture snapped by the private security, and that I had no way of knowing what that meant?

“Don’t overstate your own importance,” I tell myself. Then I counter, “don’t be naïve.” The Panopticon survives on mystery. Nobody in our group was an Abbie Hoffman or anything close. We were unimportant, not-wanted individuals. Still, not wanting one’s picture taken by security or press must have implied that my fellow protestors, too, thought they were doing something that somebody in power might deem punishable. Clearly, my uneasiness wasn’t mine alone. Nobody was risking prison or beatings. We could go home and watch Netflix in the afternoon if we wanted to. But even in those circumstances, exercising freedom of speech seemed to come with an asterisk and some unspoken fine print. Nobody knew exactly what that fine print said. And you probably don’t just knock on the Panopticon’s door to ask.

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