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Chile | Occupied Stories

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The Art of Change


Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on ilovechile.cl, and is republished here with consent from the author.

Police clashing with protesters, shattered bits of glass from broken street lamps and bus stops littering the sidewalks, disemboweled traffic lights idling on street corners; the charred remains of a bus, lit on fire in Macul. These are the pictures circulating through the public consciousness following the October two-day national strike in Chile, images of the violence and destruction – the fallout from almost six months of education protests that have yet to yield any sort of concrete result.

In the nascent days of the education movement, when spurts of violence were just starting to make their way onto the streets and into the headlines, I remember hearing the justifications for such acts. They went something like this: The clashes and public vandalism are necessary because they are the only certain way to grab and maintain public attention. They also show the seriousness of the protesters, who have to make it clear that they will refuse to be ignored or shunted aside by an intractable government bureaucracy.

How pallid and naïve those arguments seem now, after this six-month (and counting) war of attrition. The seemingly never-ending stream of street confrontations between the police and the hooded, rock-wielding, Molotov cocktail-hurling encapuchados  or masked protesters have begun to alienate people, especially moderate Chileans fed up with the constant, sometimes dangerous disruption of their daily lives. Maybe at one point there was a justification for these acts. Violence was a useful little stimulant, able to rivet the country’s attention for short bursts. But like any harmful drug, habitual use has begun to lead to destructive side effects that are slowly wearing on the Chilean body and psyche.

Two important points need to be made here. First, the police and government response to the marches bears just as much, if not more blame for the current situation. And second, the perpetrators of these violent irruptions make up a minuscule portion of the people fighting for education reform.

To the first point: the aggressive tactics (tear gassing, water cannons, etc.) utilized by the police special forces unit since the early days of the protests have, far from restoring order, served only to escalate tension and engender more violent reaction. The police want to do their jobs: enforce the law, maintain order and keep the streets safe for ordinary citizens. Fair enough. But the events of the past half-year show that these tactics are having just the opposite effect. At first, the violence was unexpected. Now it seems inevitable. It’s almost as if the troublemakers are taking to the streets because they are expecting to clash with the police forces.

The street confrontations play out like an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Police trucks rumble up and down the streets, spraying water and tear gas at delighted protesters who duck for cover and then emerge again, a few moments later, chucking stones back at their pursuers. After getting riled up into a frenzy, the protesters retreat, and that’s when the real destruction begins.

During the Oct. 6 protests, generally agreed to be one of the most violent days of the education movement, police vehicles chased students down the streets. As they retreated, groups of people would swarm around streets signs and park benches, using their collective force to turn them out of their concrete foundations. Of course, there is no justification for this type of vandalism, but the police response certainly didn’t help. If anything, it created the hysterical, fear-laden atmosphere that made those acts possible.

To the second, and perhaps most essential point: the vandals, encapuchados and whoever else is taking advantage of the strange, uncertain environment brought on by the marches, represent a tiny portion of the protesters, the great majority of whom conduct themselves peacefully and with great dignity. On Oct. 19, the second day of the two-day national strike, nearly 200,000 people came out to march in Santiago. They marched peacefully and without incident for most of the afternoon, until a small percentage of troublemakers broke off from the group and started causing problems. But this is what people were talking about the next day.

And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy brought on by specter of continuous violence; it dominates the conversation and saps urgency from the student cause. When I went out to observe the Oct. 19 march, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd and the air of passion and positivity that ran through this mass of people. Protesters came out in costume and groups of musicians and dancers performed in small pockets of space. People, young and old, marched together. They laughed and joked with each other, but there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. It was a culture event, a parade of discontent but also an expression of joy, creativity and possibility.

The process of reform – lasting and systemic – can be messy and slow, full of setbacks and frustrations. But the art of change, something we are seeing not just in Chile but all over the world, from Wall Street to Tunisia, can be a beautiful, collaborative process that shows humanity at its best. Ultimately, violence is not a means to anything but more violence- a distraction that obscures the true potential of people searching for a better path.

Titus Levy

 

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A Foreign Fight?


SANTIAGO, CHILE —The early excitement and enthusiasm that infused the marches that day had deteriorated into violence and confusion as police clashed with protesters throughout the city. As I walked home to my apartment, I saw flaming barricades glowing in the streets. Groups of people hurried back to their homes, a napkin or lemon pressed against their noses to subdue the choking effects of the tear gas drifting through the air. The ground was littered with discarded, crescent-shaped yellow peels.

There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, I saw a group of about five young Chileans clad in the gray pants and blue sweater uniform of colegio students. They explained to me that their professor had told them to come stay at our apartment for the night since it was too dangerous to make the trip home in such an unpredictable environment. I let them into the apartment, and a few minutes later my roommate came through the door followed by another small group of students. Many were coughing violently and taking long, labored gasps of air.

We set about distributing water and lemon slices dappled with salt. One of my roommate’s friends helped me prepare a large bowl of mashed up avocado, which we handed out with slices of toast and as much pasta as we could boil. Someone had wheeled our television into the living room to put on the news, which broadcast aerial images of the still smoldering streets of Santiago.

The students, scattered across the couches, chairs and floor, were whispering excitedly to each other. They let out large groans and sharp catcalls at any reference to the government or police response. They frequently broke out into nervous giggles, enthralled by the unlikelihood of their current situation. Occasionally, they tore their eyes away from the television screen to throw a quick, curious glance in my direction. I’m sure they were wondering about what I was doing here and what my involvement was in their own, very personal fight. It’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out for myself since these protests began.

It seems like everyone these days is, to some extent, supporting the push for education reform. Large protests lumber down Alameda, students march back and forth across intersections waving homemade flags and asking for donations and, up until a couple of weeks ago, the sound of the cacerolazos could be heard at least a few times a week. From street-level to the top floors of apartment complexes, their tinny echoes would ring well into the night. The movement has gained broad popular support and widespread attention, even making its way into international headlines.

Any foreigner living or traveling through Chile is well aware of this seething political issue that has torn at the fabric of Chilean civil society for months. But for those of us who are living and working abroad here in Chile, who have built strong personal connections and who support education reform, the desire to show solidarity with the student-led movement raises a complex set of questions.

To what extent can or should a foreigner, living in another country on a temporary basis become involved in a domestic or national political issue? Does that person have a moral obligation to support the cause if they think it is just? Is strong, sustained involvement worth the risk of deportation?

To be honest, although I had kept an eye on the issue as it developed, I had not seriously considered my own position until the nationwide two-day strikes on Aug. 24 and 25. As I was leaving my apartment to go to work on the first day of the protests, my roommate casually suggested that I stay home and go on strike with her. At the time, I chuckled at the idea. But as I rode the uncharacteristically empty metro during morning rush hour, I found myself lingering on her proposal. Why not join the strikes? I believed in the student cause, and of course I wanted to support my friend, and all the other Chileans I had met who argued so passionately for reform.

As the day wore on, the idea became more and more plausible, especially as I witnessed students confronting police trucks firing water cannons and spewing tear gas along Alameda. I briefly felt the thrill of civil disobedience, at least by proximity, as I ducked behind vacated newsstands to avoid getting sprayed by the arcing jets of filthy water spewing from the tops of roving police vehicles. Why not get off the sidelines and invest something more than curiosity in this most important of issues?

On the other hand, the idea of calling my boss and telling her I would be going on strike seemed preposterous. Worse, I was afraid that my impulse to help was really just an excuse to jump on the bandwagon of a fashionable social movement. After all, education reform is a major issue in the United States as well, but I had never so much as signed a petition in support of any initiative to improve the system. How much of my interest was based on the cool, cosmopolitan idea of joining a social movement in a foreign country? These concerns weighed on me to the point of paralysis, and in the end I decided to continue working.

But with the early momentum and enthusiasm that drove the protests beginning to stall, and the real work at the negotiating table just getting set to begin, it is now more important than ever that the students and their allies muster every last scrap of support in order to achieve their objectives. At this point in the process, the participation of foreigners both inside and outside of the country could play an important role in drawing more international attention to the issue, putting increased pressure on the government to craft a legitimate response, and sustaining the level of urgency that has driven this latest push for education reform in Chile.

At the end of that long, strange night back in July, I came into the living room one last time to say goodnight to our unexpected guests. It was well past midnight, but they were still wide-awake, laying across the pillows and blankets we had set on the floor in a small pow-wow-like circle, as they talked animatedly about the day’s events. They paused their group reverie for a moment to blurt out a brief “thank you” before turning back to more important matters. Although I was standing outside their circle I felt, at least for one night, like I was a part of something exciting, essential and absolutely worth fighting for.

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