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.