Skip to content Skip to footer

A Shirt With a Heart Seized in a Heartless UN Building

After a nine-day hunger strike in front of the UN, Mexican activist Leobardo Santillu00e1n almost arrested for his shirt.

“You cannot videotape anything in here,” the female security officer inside the United Nations reception booth shouted at me. Meanwhile, Leobardo Santillán, a former Mexican Marine, was being handcuffed by two other officers. She then forced me to delete the video and the picture I had taken of Santillán initiating nonviolent resistance on the floor, in which he declared, “I won’t leave until I drop the letter I brought.” All tourists and visitors waiting in line were immediately evacuated from the area. Santillán fainted. The officer ordered me again to remain silent and step back when I tried to explain that Santillán was passing out because he has a heart condition and had not eaten anything for nine days. All of the officers interrupted us, yelling every time we tried to explain why we were there. We were temporarily detained, our faces photographed like criminals.

The security forces working for the organization chartered to “maintain international peace and security” arrested a man who had just spent nine nights sleeping at the Katharine Hepburn Park in front of the UN building, enduring the cold East River winds and early morning storms, to protest for the kidnapping and murder of 43 Ayotzinapa students, and against Mexican impunity. Santillán kept yelling “Ayotzinapa vive,” even though he couldn’t move, while the security officers realized they had to call for an ambulance. Some of them made fun of him. “He must not be so weak if he can yell like that,” they joked. When an ambulance arrived, I was eventually allowed to speak, just to answer the paramedics’ questions about his medical condition.

Finally, Santillán was carried by two men and transferred to a stretcher, as another man arrived on the scene. He had the authority to decide what was going to happen — you could tell that by the way the officers and even a lieutenant looked at him. He was the only one who asked me what our cause was about. As soon as I explained, he said, “Let them go.” Had they allowed us to tell them that before, none of this might have happened. Then the female officer who had been shouting told me that I was now banned from the United Nations, as were all of the activists accompanying us. The officer demanded our addresses. My ID was photographed. They gave me back my tablet, but without the video and the picture of them handcuffing Santillán.

I no longer have pictures of what happened inside the UN, but I have a brain and memories of what I saw. I hope the UN officers don’t try to delete them, too. I remember that only one police force representative had a name on his badge. I recall they confiscated Santillán’s shirt, as well as another t-shirt that we were wearing with the word “Ayotzinapa” on it. Leobardo Santillán spent the night at the hospital, and the first thing he asked while recovering was, “Where is my shirt?” It had been signed by fellow activists and supporters while he was on a hunger strike. Perhaps all these names will be banned from the UN as well.

The Shirt of “Discord”

Why was Santillán treated like a criminal after entering the UN to peacefully mail a letter to the General Assembly president? It is hard to believe that it was all due to a shirt, but that’s exactly what happened. We were told by two different officers at the gate that the right way to deliver a letter addressed to Mogens Lykketoft is by getting a visitor’s pass. And that’s what we did. According to normal procedure, you should buy a special envelope and stamp inside the facilities to deposit your letter in a designated mailbox. That was Santillán’s plan. Nothing more. We were even joking that having such mailing system for complaints seems to be pretty good business for the United Nations, by making money from all the injustice in the world, since every political group, social organization or community representatives need to buy special envelopes and stamps and get in there. We know doing so is just a formality; it is not going to solve the longtime system crisis in Mexico, but we wanted to do it anyway.

So what went wrong?

Too much solidarity and love seemed to be the “problem.” During his hunger strike, Santillán’s determination and courage, along with his charming personality, conquered the heart of the Mexican community in New York City — from all of Mexican workers who have been protesting for Ayotzinapa and against Mexican impunity for over a year, each month, in front of the Mexican Consulate, to casual pedestrians, Latino neighbors and service employees who saw him every day camping at the same spot. His strike was heroic for many people who read the fliers about the cause, stopped by and spoke to him. They started to get worried as the weather got worse and the striker didn’t move. Santillán made lots of friends, and asked them all to sign or write whatever they wanted on his shirt with a marker.

At the UN checkpoints, visitors must take off their coats and put all their bags and belongings on a tray, just as passengers do in an airport. It was only normal that Santillán took off his jacket. His shirt with the many signatures attracted one officer’s attention. “What is that?” he asked, without waiting for an answer. “You have to take that off,” he ordered.

“What is this?” other officers asked to another activist wearing an Ayotzinapa t-shirt. “You cannot get inside with that t-shirt.” We gave them what they asked without opposing resistance, but they kept asking for the purpose of our visit. We said we just wanted to drop a letter to UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft in their mailbox area, and they said we couldn’t do that; that the only way to send a letter to the United Nations GA president was by ordinary mail or FedEx.

“You have to leave now. You cannot leave any letters here. You cannot get inside,” they kept ordering. We tried to explain that two officers at two different gates told us we could mail the letter inside the building by just getting our visitors’ passes — which we did — but they kept interrupting us, telling us we could not get in. So basically, what they were saying was, if you go on a long hunger strike, make sure you are not wearing a shirt with lots of hearts and signatures, because you won’t be allowed to enter the United Nations building to mail a letter to the president of “the main deliberative organ” designed to “maintain international peace,” as their own definition goes.

Leobardo Santillán refused to leave without delivering his letter. He sat on the floor and started an instant civil disobedience act. I started videotaping it. My video was deleted.

“Not knowing the rules does not make your actions legal,” another officer said. We know that, but we also wonder, is it legal for the United Nations to have several officers giving you inconsistent guidelines about the rules and then treating you like a criminal because you did follow their instructions? When or where it is not allowed to wear shirts with signatures, like when you break an arm or leg, to visit the UN headquarters to mail a letter at a designated area?

When I started writing these lines, the hunger striker was still in the hospital as a result of his delicate heart condition. By doctor’s orders, he was told to spend the night there. Was this really necessary because of a handwritten shirt, decorated with solidarity messages? Is it legal for the UN to take off your shirt and keep it?

Leobardo Santillán started his hunger strike on March 21, 2016, at noon. As of that date, every day at that same time he rendered an honor guard to each one of the disappeared students. He came to this city in solidarity with Antonio Tizapa, father of Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, who has been demanding for over a year the return of his son and the other 42 students kidnapped on September 26, 2014, in Iguala City, Guerrero.

Santillán demanded justice for other disappearances and massacres, which are state crimes and remain unsolved, like Acteal, Aguas Blancas, El Charco, Tlataya and Atenco, to name a few; as well as the murders of thousands of women in Ciudad Juárez and other Mexican cities, and 19 murders of journalists in Veracruz.

Santillán’s sacrifice was barely noticed by the media. In return, he was humiliated and almost arrested by the United Nations, and had to spend the night in a hospital due to the shock they caused to him.

The handwritten hearts on his shirt were too visible for an organization without heart.