NEW YORK (AP) — Daniel Pedro came to the U.S. from Angola five months ago. He works construction in the New York City borough of Queens. Kadija Tyler made the journey from Senegal to Harlem. She works in sales in a department store.
Neither is a full-time activist. But they and many others this week spent the first days of the U.N. General Assembly holding homemade signs decrying what they call abuses in their homelands.
Outside the enormous perimeter of police and barricades that surrounds the United Nations this time of year, there is a park dedicated to U.N.-centered protests. And a variety of dedicated groups show up in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza throughout the year to draw attention to their causes.
The General Assembly, the most inherently international event, is also the most American — a place where people raised unfree come to speak out because they can.
In official protest locations and just plain street corners, the heavily secured streets outside the United Nations complex were filled this week with people who said they were there protesting injustice because, after years of repression, they are finally in a place where they can.
They acknowledged that their action might not make a direct, immediate difference at home. But in many cases, that seemed secondary. Simply to be there — and to represent — seemed their most important priority.
Here are some glimpses of those outside the formidable security perimeter at the U.N. General Assembly — their causes, their thoughts, their motivations, their hopes of getting noticed.
WHO: Daniel Pedro, 22, from Luanda, Angola and living in the New York City borough of Queens.
WHAT: Holding a sign protesting Angola’s ruling MPLA party and supporting the main opposition party — the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, known as UNITA. The MPLA won elections last year with 51% of the votes cast, extending its 47-year rule of the country, according to the electoral commission’s results.
Pedro and three friends said on a street near the U.N. that they saw that as a move toward dictatorship. That government's heavy hand stands in contrast to the liberty that Angolans experience in the United States, Pedro said.
“We don’t get freedom there,” he said of his home country. When people speak out, he said, “the police stop them. They cannot say nothing.”
“In Angola we don’t have freedom of expression. We are always tired of that, ” he said. “It feels good to be here to express myself.”
Simply speaking out on behalf of fellow citizens made him feel like he was fulfilling his duty, he said.
“I can do something for my country,” he said. “Even if it does nothing, what about my family?”
WHO: Christiane Diagne, 52, a social worker from Montreal.
WHAT: Protesting in Manhattan on behalf of jailed Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was put in intensive care last month after nearly three weeks of a hunger strike to protest criminal charges brought against him by Senegal’s government, his party said. Sonko was put in detention July 31 in advance of a trial in which he faces charges of calling for insurrection, conspiracy against the state and other alleged crimes.
Diagne and other Sonko supporters chanted in his favor in the designated General Assembly protest space. They said the direct effect of the protest mattered less than the fact that they were doing something.
“For us, we have to do that,” Diagne said. “We want to be able to choose who’s going to be our president.”
“Who do you want? Ousmane Sonko! When do you want him? Now!” the group chanted. Police and local media watched, but paid little attention.
WHO: Tiran Antaplian, 42, of Queens, and Michael Nazaryan, 30, of California.
WHAT: The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous, ethnic Armenian region inside the borders of Azerbaijan that has been a flashpoint since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The announcement of a cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh, just a day after Azerbaijan launched heavy artillery fire against Armenian forces, toned down fears of a third full-scale war over the region in the southern Caucasus Mountains, but not before people such as Antaplian and Nazaryan came out to to speak out on behalf of the Armenian side.
The region and sizable surrounding territories came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian military at the end of a separatist war in 1994. But Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself after six weeks of fighting in 2020.
“All of our friends and families are basically hiding in a basement,” Antaplian said before the ceasefire was announced. “I barely sleep two hours a day ... But I know they are struggling much more in a dire situation than myself.”
Given that, Nazaryan said, being out on the streets was a way to do even the smallest thing to feel better about.
“It’s a meeting of all the people who are making the decisions about the future and the safety of the world,” he said. “It’s my right to raise my voice. We’re here to raise our voice.”
WHO: Carmen Correa, CEO of Pro Mujer, a group that works for the financial and health empowerment of women in Latin America.
WHAT: Getting attention and funding for their causes.
The General Assembly didn’t draw just informal protesters who came to speak out on behalf of their causes on the streets outside. Many social organizations came to formally advocate for their causes at the U.N. or at one of the related meetings occurring along the General Assembly.
One was the 2023 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where leaders of a a wide variety of groups came together to take advantage of a critical mass that they hoped would help them get attention and funding for their causes.
“For NGOs, it’s a great space,” Correa said. “It’s a unique opportunity.”
After two years of meetings that were at first entirely remote due to the pandemic, and then partially hybrid, the 2023 General Assembly was providing an opportunity for organizations like Correa’s to meet and greet in a way that she and other NGO executive hope will benefit their clients.
“Simply being able to see each other again is really transformative,” she said. “They’re all here.”
Michael Weissenstein, an editor for The Associated Press in New York, is a veteran international correspondent who has been stationed in Cuba, Britain and Mexico.