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  • Two Anthems and a JokeSounding the Colombian Uprising, 2019–2021
  • Daniel F. Castro Pantoja (bio), Beatriz Goubert (bio), and Juan Fernando Velásquez Ospina (bio)

Some of the most acute moments of urban social unrest in recent Colombian history took place during and around the recent nationwide strikes of November 21 (2019), September 9 (2020), and April 21 (2021). In record numbers, university students, Indigenous and Black communities, LGTBQ+ movements, environmental activists, and artistic collectives—alongside unionized laborers and teachers—participated together in sit-ins, nonviolent protest marches, public and digital concerts, cacerolazos (protests in which people bang pans and pots), and the toppling of statues of Spanish conquistadors and political figures. These diverse actors first came together when the Colombian government, headed by President Iván Duque, pushed for unpopular tax and health reforms during times of extreme economic precarity.1

While many citizens flocked to the streets to oppose these reforms, protesters also joined the strikes because they perceived that Duque had not fulfilled promises made by previous administrations. Chief among these broken promises were the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).2 These strikes also coincided with a perceived reemergence of a "semantics of terror"3 across the national territory (e.g., forced disappearances, torture, dismemberments, and extrajudicial assassinations), which the peace accords sought to bring to an end. Moreover, during the strikes, the police, alongside armed civilians, met the increasing enthusiasm of protesters with unrestrained violence, including the use of music and sound to torture protesters who were arbitrarily detained.4 Thus frustration also became a key factor in motivating new protests, like those that followed the assassination of Javier Ordóñez, a forty-six-year-old lawyer murdered in police custody on September 9, 2020.5 According to the NGO Temblores, during the 2021 protests there were 4,687 verified cases of police abuse, including the murder of at least forty-four protesters, allegedly at the hands of police.6

Like the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Occupy movement, Colombian protesters have made creative and extensive use of [End Page 58] sound to contest state repression.7 Benjamin Tausig has theorized that during times of social uprising, citizens become agents that shape multiple, ephemeral, and changing clusters of sound by adapting local and global ecologies of political expression to the logic of social dissent.8 On the night of November 21, 2019, after local authorities declared curfews, citizens organized through social media to perform a massive cacerolazo, a practice that in Latin America harkens back to 1970s Chile.9 Protesters in several Colombian cities banged on pots and pans to make noise from their homes, challenging the enforced silence and the government's refusal to talk with the protesters. Along with the cacerolazo, other uses of sound became important mechanisms of protest and dissent, including the online organization of symphonic concerts on the streets; the composition, intervention, and performance of new and old anthems and protest songs; and the creation of choreographed dances based on chants ridiculing Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, Duque's mentor and leader of the political party Centro Democrático.10

Although the national strike is ongoing, we feel an urgency to write about these forms of protest, envisioning this effort as part of a larger scholarly commitment to create spaces for discussion that can lead to meaningful solutions to the current crisis. Our methodological approaches include ethnography, digital ethnography, semiotics, memetics, and musical analysis. Additionally, we participated in some of the 2019–21 protest activities, closely followed their developments through digital media, and made use of our previous academic research on sound and politics, all of which influenced the reflections we present here.

In this article we are primarily interested in how the conjunction between sound, listening, and digital technologies and their articulation into different forms of protest contributed to the constitution of new democratic practices. Exploring three case studies that trace distinct sonic practices and listening habits that have become politically marked in the public sphere during the uprising, we inquire into the political effects and limits of these forms of protest during the...

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