democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Anger in Colombia: why are some lives worth more than others?

The police brutality in Javier Ordóñez's death shocked the country. We should have reacted the same with Anderson Arboleda, Janner García and others who were humble, Venezuelans, and indigenous people, and did not receive dignified treatment and public indignation. Español

Beverly Goldberg
16 September 2020
Monument to victims of September 9 attacks
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Beverly Goldberg

The sound of the taser the policemen used on Javier Ordoñez in Bogotá in the early morning of September 8 has been going round in my head for days. The crackling sound that until last week was something harmless and unidentifiable for the majority of Colombians can no longer be separated from Javier's screams, begging the police to stop, because he could no longer bear the electric current they were administering him long after he was incapacitated, face down, against the concrete. Javier was taken to the police station of Villa Luz, where he was allegedly tortured and beaten by police officers, before being transported to the Partenón Clinic where he died at 1:20 in the morning.

These brutal images outraged Bogotan citizens, who organised protests in front of various police stations on the night of September 9 and 10 to demonstrate their nonconformity with police brutality in the country.

The fact that his murder caused so much pain and indignation among Colombians is undoubtedly related to the publication of the video of the violent actions that Javier suffered at the hands of two Bogota police officers, reaffirming the impossibility of human beings to ignore brutality when it happens before our eyes and in such an explicit way. But another perverse idea began to spread in national media outlets and social networks shortly after his death, and it is related to the fact that, in Colombia, not all lives are worth the same, and that many people continue to think that the death of some must cause more outrage than others.

The coverage of Javier's death focused on the fact that he was a family man with a university degree in Aeronautical Engineering, that he had always worked very hard to raise his two children

The coverage of Javier's death focused on the fact that he was a family man with a university degree in Aeronautical Engineering, that he had always worked very hard to raise his two children, and that he was about to graduate from law school. Images with phrases like 'no university degree can protect you from police brutality' became viral on social media, and headlines such as 'Who was Javier Ordóñez, the lawyer who died after a police process in Bogotá?', and 'This was Javier Ordóñez, the lawyer and father who died after being beaten by police in Bogotá' appeared in both national and international media outlets. Although this coverage gives the victim the dignity he deserves and should be this way in all cases, it is very different from the coverage that most other victims of police brutality in the country have received, victims whose deaths did not provoke the same outrage that Javier's death did due to their differing life circumstances.

The case of Anderson Arboleda in Puerto Tejada, about 500 kilometers from the country's capital is one of the most recent. This young Afro-Colombian man, only 19 years old, was allegedly brutally beaten to death by the police for violating quarantine rules. Anderson was a hard-working young man finishing high school to help his family get ahead, and he was serving in the military while selling clothes and sneakers to make ends meet. A sociable and cheerful young man, he loved spending time with his family. Anderson had a good relationship with everyone around him.

Shortly after, in Puerto Tejada, another 22-year-old Afro-Colombian man, Janner García, was allegedly murdered by police officers. Janner was a professional athlete with a very bright future ahead of him as a goalkeeper, and he was also working very hard to give his family a better future. The coverage of both deaths focused much more on how they were killed than on who they were, and although a small protest against the brutal murders was called in Puerto Tejada, habitants of the capital, Bogotá, decided not to take to the streets this time. So why weren't we as outraged when Anderson and Janner were killed? Who decides which victim of police brutality is more worthy, and which is less?

We have to be outraged by every case of police brutality that occurs, and not fall into the trap of thinking that some lives are worth more than others

The case of a group of trans women sex workers who said they experienced serious police abuse in Bogotá on June 20 also did not receive the humanizing coverage Javier received in the media, nor did it cause outrage outside of the city's trans rights networks. The ‘Trans Community Network of Bogotá’ uploaded a complaint to its social media accounts of several trans women — whose identifies were protected— who said were shot with rubber bullets by a group of police officers while they were working on Calle 22 with Caracas. They reported that the policemen began to insult them, shouting "fags, motherfuckers, get out of here", before starting to shoot and assault them. Although the ‘Trans Community Network’ organised a march against the violence experienced by trans people in the city and the country, few people include these human rights violations within their definitions of police brutality, which reflects how in Colombia, some lives continue to be valued above others.

Being outraged is necessary to achieve lasting and necessary social change, and in this case, to achieve structural changes within the police force so that no police officer uses excessive force against a citizen they have the responsibility to protect ever again. However, we have to be outraged by every case of police brutality that occurs, and not fall into the trap of thinking that some lives are worth more than others. The protests that Javier's murder triggered were fundamental; however, this cannot allow us to continue being indifferent when the victim is from a low income background, is indigenous, Afro-Colombian or is seeking refuge from Venezuela in our country.

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