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51 Coffins in Front of the White House: Protesting the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia

By Courtney Johnson Witness for Peace Intern – Washington, D.C.

I had been working for Witness for Peace for less than a week when I arrived in Lafayette Park for the July 11th protest against the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. Although I have participated in local activists movements, this was my very first time in front of the White House itself.

After a couple hours of preparation, I found myself in the middle of a vivacious protest. Reverend J. Herbert Nelson opened the rally with a commanding voice pronouncing that we are all brothers and sisters in this fight for basic humanity. This message of solidarity was sustained as one speaker after another expressed their concern for Colombia and the importance of uniting to protect the unprotected. For example, a member from the Colombian Trade Union took the stage and timidly recounted his story of abuse. While he was eating dinner with his wife, his phone rang. The message was clear: “If you do not quiet yourself, we will cut out your tongue and quiet you ourselves.” But like the enthusiastic participants of the rally, he believed in the right to unionize and the right to freedom.

As the speakers energized the crowd from a lofty platform, 51 black coffins stood behind them.

At about six feet tall and built from cardboard, these coffins represented the 51 union members who were killed in Colombia last year. In a country where basic human rights cannot be guaranteed, the protesters recognized that the passage of the FTA would only escalate the abuse. Lead in a chant, the crowd responds to a long list of groups who oppose the FTA. “Human Rights, Unionists, what do we say? Down, down, down with the FTA!”

Replicating a mourning ceremony, the precession to the White House was lead by two trumpeters playing taps while the names of the 51 union members were read. The sight of 51 coffins being carried across Pennsylvania Avenue was both eerie and powerful. Once stationed in front of the White House, the group began chanting again, only with more passion and vigor- “Down, down, down, with the FTA!” Those among the most resolute took center stage behind the coffins which had been lined up on the street, a message to the White House. These five participants were prepared to risk arrest in order to increase awareness of the injustice of the FTA.

The police were notified and prepared for this resistance so the next few minutes were disconcerting but functioned smoothly. The 150-strong protest was gated in on all sides with steal fences and caution tape while the police gave orders to evacuate the area. As the protesters flocked into the safety of park, their voices rose in solidarity against the repression of free speech. But the five protesters were well aware of the consequences of breaking any fraction of the protesting rules. By resisting the demands of the police, these protesters, activists, or martyrs exercised an act civil disobedience. The rest of the protesters chanted support and sang traditional Colombian songs over a megaphone while the five people committing civil disobedience were handcuffed and driven away to incarceration.

I witnessed a great deal that day. Not only did I appreciate the strength of individuals like the brave Colombian trade unionists, I also witnessed the power of solidarity when organizations and people from all over the world come together to fight for basic human rights. Now a witness to civil disobedience, I am certain that justice would never be realized if not for those who give time, dedication, or their judicial record to spreading the message for justice and peace.


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