So yesterday, in between bites of homemade Mexican food, I learned that there was going to be a protest that night, the latest in a series of public action sparked by the killing of a young Mapuche man by a police officer. The Mapuche are the biggest indigenous group in the country, and have been at odds with the government over mistreatment and a lack of legal protection, among other things.
Awesome, I thought. A protest! I’ve covered protests, because after all, I did go to school at UC Santa Cruz, right?
Santa Cruz, you could learn something from these folks, because they know how to protest.
We arrived at the Los Heroes metro station around 7 pm, the time that we had been told it would be starting, and we started looking around a bit for it. I was there with a pad and pen, and had basically emptied my pockets of all valuables. My host mom and sister had been very insistent on the danger of these protests, and I dumped everything I didn’t need, including my wallet. The only things I had on me were my phone, my iPhone to take pictures, my ID, and a couple lucas in cash, all of which I hid in various secret compartments of my pants and jacket. I was there with Kendal, a photographer from the Santiago Times, and together we set out toward the sounds of protest.
Note, all photos taken are from my iPhone, which is low quality and has no flash. The final article will be filled with pics from Kendal, who is a significantly more capable photographer than I am.
About thirty seconds later we were buffered by a group of people running past us, away from the powerful blasts of a fire hose that was cruising the street we were walking toward. We quickly doubled back and, running in and around various groups, managed to see what was going on.
Mayhem. This was not a demonstration, this was a full-out protest. There was no discourse, no outlining of disagreements, no. This was a group of people very angry with the government, demonstrating their anger in every way they could. They threw rocks, bottles, everything they could find at police and police vehicles, assaulted buses, spraypainted walls, knocked over signs, and anything else you can think of.
The police, for their part, were equally heavy-handed. The Carabineros, the Chilean police force, was out in large numbers, as well as the Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces). The cops were decked out in body armor, including thick pads on their arms and legs, a 2-inch thick bulletproof vest, and helmets.
The police had an arsenal as well, particularly dark, ominous vehicles trolling the streets that periodically fired the fire hose or tear gas at groups of protestors, causing most of the protestors to run in circles around the street, avoiding the gas and the hose.
Tear gas really really sucks. Kendal and I ran through several clouds of it, as the police used it fairly carelessly, and it was more than enough to leave us coughing, sneezing and red-eyed. It also lingers, which is the worst part, as my face was burning for the rest of the night. I went and washed my face several hours later, and it got significantly worse, almost as though there was a large amount of tear gas residue on my skin that permeated after I rubbed my face enough to let it in. My advice: leave it alone. You’ll feel better after a time, and there’s really very little you can do proactively to shorten that time period.
But I digress. We ran around for several hours, talking to people and tracking what was going on, trying to avoid smoke and water as much as the protesters. There seemed to be a pretty good solidarity among journalists, which was pretty cool, and every arrest was mobbed by dozens of cameras watching every move. A couple of the journalists were wearing gas masks and helmets with “PRENSA” (PRESS) written on the side, which in hindsight might be a worthy investment for the future.
Oddly enough, it didn’t really feel dangerous, at least for myself, personally. I was clearly not the target of the protesters, and though the police herded me away like anyone else, I wasn’t their target either. It almost felt safer, as we were joking later, as though everyone was too busy with their own stuff to think about stealing our stuff. It was exhilarating, to be sure, and I’ve been working all day on an article that can accurately capture what was going on.
I’d say the most shocking part of it for me was near the end, when I was walking behind a group of police. A girl yelled at the cops, and a few other them turned and chased her down. They grabbed her and dragged her to a nearby police van, dumped her inside, and kept on their way. Her friend, who I talked with afterward, was shocked by this, naturally, and spent the rest of the night trying to track her down.
I’ve always been somewhat sympathetic to the police, at least on the individual level, simply because I feel like I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in certain cases. I recognize that I can’t understand the feeling of being a police officer, being in a dangerous situation, not knowing where the next attack or danger is going to come from. This just seemed inexcusable, as she only yelled at them. The age we live in.
The night ended around 9 pm, as pretty much everything seemed to have quieted down, and I decided to run over to a group of police before we headed home. It turned out that one of them was a lieutenant in the Special Forces, spoke English, and was more than willing to answer questions. He seemed to express serious sadness at what had happened, and that such police force had been necessary to quell the potential destruction, and talked about the police officers in his unit who had ended up with injuries to their faces or broken arms from the violence. He also said that the vast majority of the people they had detained, including this girl, would be home in a few hours with a slap on the wrist, with only the people who had been truly dangerous (he mentioned Molotov cocktails) would face serious consequences.
All in all, it was a really exciting night, and one of the more amazing things I’ve been a part of (particularly now that my face and respiratory system has stopped burning). I was impressed by the passion of the protesters and, I hate to say it, the compassion of the police at times. Small things, like watching a few police officers kick rocks and bottles out of the street for approaching cars, really touched me as a harsh contrast from the at-times brutal techniques they used. On another interestingly cool note, I found La Casa de los Espíritus, by Isabel Allende, on the ground. Score.
The other thing that really struck me was the way the area seemed to return to normal almost immediately. The street seemed to fill almost immediately with Chileans chatting calmly, walking to and from the area, as though there hadn’t been a mass, violent protest just 20-minutes earlier. Maybe that’s a testament to their resilience as a people, or just that they’re used to this sort of thing happening on a fairly regular basis, particularly as compared to my reaction to it.
Maybe this is what journalism is supposed to feel like.