The Power of One Professor Changed a City

Aaron Tukey is a former resident of Colombia. Send your thoughts to [email protected]

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To a packed audience that over flowed into the corridors of an embarrassingly small venue, Antanas Mockus, the innovative two-term mayor of Bogota, Colombia, spoke Friday evening at the conference on "Violence and the Americas," hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies. His talk on "Law Enforcement and Citizenship Building" focused largely on enlisting collective social disapproval and participatory stake holding-instead of legal penalties-to help shape civic behavior. While obviously proud of the reduction in violence experienced in the unruly capital city during his tenure, the ever-humble and self-deprecatory former mayor gave only a modest hint of how his creative strategies have empowered Bogota's 7 million inhabitants.

When I first arrived in Bogota in 1995, the city was a metropolitan nightmare plagued by eternal traffic jams, truly hair-raising crime, choking pollution, ugly gray concrete devoid of greenery, and more than anything else, a sense of despair and alienation that seemed to permeate everything. As corruption drained city coffers, cynicism, rampant tax evasion and a general shirking of civic responsibility had become the norm. Few people spoke or even made eye contact on the streets, and people watched with resigned indifference as their fellow citizens fell prey to marauding gangs in broad daylight. It was a hardscrabble, dog-eat-dog kind of environment that to many residents seemed beyond hope. Fed up with the corrupt status-quo politicians and desperately seeking a way out of the chaos, the citizens of Bogota turned the keys of the city hall over to a diminutive professor of mathematics and philosophy with a reputation for honesty and eccentric antics.

I first became acquainted with Mr. Mockus when he appeared on my TV one morning, making an impassioned appeal to Bogotanos to give up their handguns. I watched with fascination as this nerdy, Amish-looking fellow debated the single issue of gun control for nearly two hours with city residents. I was impressed that Colombian media would give an elected representative the space to dialogue with the citizenry like that, and was amazed as well that a politician would sit and answer uncensored questions at such length on just one issue. Compare that to the 30-second sound bites we typically get here in the U.S. on issues of great complexity, or to President Bush's carefully orchestrated "town halls" on Social Security featuring obviously scripted questions from a handpicked crowd of party loyalists.

In the following months we were treated to some delightful street theater from Mr. Mockus. To raise civic-mindedness, he dashed from one end of Bogota to the other sporting a caped superhero outfit emblazoned with a large red "C" for "El Hombre Civico." He deployed hundreds of mimes to "enforce" traffic laws, showered on national TV to teach about water conservation, closed all city streets on some Sundays to bicyclists only and gave the entire city over some designated nights to only women. Lots of people laughed at Mockus. More than a few were convinced he was absolutely crazy. But such antics also made people think, and the laughter had the intended effect of melting away the layers of cynicism that were corroding civic participation.

Intuitively, Mockus sees the mission of political leaders as collaborating with citizens to build a sense of civic solidarity, to capture people's imagination and sympathy through art and humor and to always appeal to our better selves. "Enforcement" of the new terms of civic conduct was left not to men with guns, but largely to collective moral peer pressure.

When I returned to Bogota in the summer of 2001, I thought I was in a different city. The traffic situation had improved dramatically and parks had sprung up everywhere, even in the traditionally neglected, impoverished southern suburbs. There were hundreds of miles of bike paths and an innovative public transit corridor had just been inaugurated. But most of all, the pall of fear had dissipated-people had hope again, and were proud to be Bogotanos.

Most importantly, the homicide rate in Bogota had plummeted by an astounding 70 percent.

Towards the end of his presentation Friday evening, Mockus underscored that the diminished violence was accomplished without the death penalty and without expanding the prison population. With a touch of ironic humor, he pointed out that to follow the American model, Colombia must build five times as many prisons. The diplomatically subtle reference to the furious rate of prison construction going on here in California was not lost on the audience. At a time when we hold ourselves up as a model to be exported to the entire world, it might be that we are the ones who could learn from the experiences of our southern neighbors.

Jerry Brown, meet Antanas Mockus.


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