{15.9.14} Political Ponderings en la Primavera

Wow. Ok. It’s been a month. Many apologies. Much has happened in that month, which means that there weren’t many blog-post-friendly Saturday mornings with sun, a half-liter of tea and a distinct lack of exhaustion. I guess we’ve gotten to the point where a Monday evening will have to suffice. Now that I have a really solid headcold (as a result of aforementioned craziness), I’m kind of stuck in the house anyways. So here goes.

Slow progress
Shortly after my last post, I experienced my first full-blown political protest. They canceled classes during the hour of the march, so I was at home catching up on readings when I heard the music. A truck with enough huge speakers to sink a battleship was blaring Illapu (super popular Andean/modern fusion music group originating in the ‘70s with lots of political songs) as students representing the politically-active departments of all the universities in Valparaíso marched past, chanting and cheering, halting often for photo ops. Here’s what it looked like:


Context: The march in Valpo was one of many in all the major cities of Chile. The student movement is currently demanding free state-run university education. The private universities of Chile are a lot like the for-profit private ones of the US, I think: kind of a racket and a rip-off education-wise that are easy to get into, expensive and give a diploma that doesn’t necessarily represent that much knowledge. Their goal is to up enrollment and make more money. My understanding is that state-run schools have to use their reputation, not ease of admission, to get students in the door, and so are significantly better academically, harder to get into and cheaper. Students nowadays are following in the footsteps of the origins of the current student movement in 2011 when students camped out in their universities for about 6 months, sleeping on the floors, shutting things down, a strike, to demand I think basically the same thing. In the 3 years since then, a lot of changes have been made, though none enormous, but I think the movement has fragmented somewhat as people use their newfound political voice to challenge other issues (like abortion rights, which are completely nonexistent) or have become disillusioned by the lack of substantive change. One of the girls in my acrobatics class and I had a long conversation about political activism. She was all gung-ho in 2011, camping out in her university, but has since become convinced that Chile is too corrupt to change and the only way she can actually affect change is on the personal and small community level. Marches and strikes are all well and good for bringing issues into the spotlight and starting conversations on a national level, which the student movement has done quite successfully, but to counteract the tide of the conservative oligarchy, something else is needed, a need that the students have not met with a change in tactics. 
all closed up
Anyways, while leaning out my 7th story window snapping pictures, I saw a friend helping to carry a banner and ran down to join in and get the street perspective. The atmosphere was festive. It was not distinctly difficult to catch a whiff of pot. I walked with the throng for the three blocks between my house and the plaza where the march ended with a couple of short speeches. People milled about, mostly not really paying attention. One guy practiced juggling. People hugged their friends, and I found another classmate. Meanwhile, the two of them narrated what the next half hour or so would bring.
As the speeches rambled, rabble rousers would begin to taunt the carabineros (Chilean police), holding line at the barricade, throwing rocks and starting a fire in the street. Upon such provocation, the carabineros would move in with their crowd control tanks, spraying water. Block by block they would take back the street. On each block, people nearest to them would start to run and panic would set in with everyone. People would sprint half a block, then slow to a walk once the block was taken, then sprint again. Eventually, the carabineros would begin arresting people, mostly the ones who were running too fast, looking suspicious being their main offense. Perhaps, if the groups of people were large enough and rambunctious enough, they’d start throwing teargas.
on the street:
you gotta bring your own pot, adrenaline high is complimentary
Things unfolded exactly according to the script. I wasn’t too worried because I live just three blocks from where the protest ended, so with my chilean guides narrating and house keys in hand, we retreated through the electric air teetering between cavorting and panicked. We managed to slip into the building just as they were locking the gates and I watched, first from the ground floor and then my bedroom window, as the shop owners all finished pulling down their iron shutters onto the normally bustling street now only party to protesting 20-somethings and their green-clad shepherds. They pushed forward, bruising the paving tiles with tall shining black boots beneath green tailored legs bearing riot shields and helmets, swarmily detaining the runners, cornering them against the wall and hustling them into paddy wagons. Things settled down as carabineros worked their way forward, my friends left and I kept watching as life returned to the streets. Microbuses apparated and a trickle of populace began to filter onto the street. The only protester left was a fat black lab barking incessantly at the remaining police vehicles, angular and dull green juxtaposed now against the pleasantly rounded and colorful buses, the most visible evidence of the skirmish now the frosting of flour powdering the water spraying tank. 
last protester left on the street as the others are hustled away


political guardian angels (flanking old guy in pink pants)
I think what struck me most about the march was how scripted it all seemed. Everyone had their role to fill. Normal politically-active students marching and chanting, the DJ with his music truck pumping everyone up and making them feel like part of a legacy of activism, the speakers talking about change and unity, the agitators without political affiliation but with a lot of pent-up rage at a dysfunctional system, the carabineros and their power of number and metal on wheels, the shop owners with their iron gates covering glass display windows. Maybe I’m just too much of a Wellesley good girl, but it doesn’t seem that productive to let things get so violent. It gives me chills to think of that scene from the movie Ghandi when the army on horses is galloping towards the throngs of indian people walking to the sea for salt and instead of running they all lie down so that the horses will balk, because horses trained for battle are trained not to trample a prostrate injured soldier. Peace is just so powerful. But on the evening news, there was a little about the cause the students were fighting for, some talk of numbers, and a lot of focus on the results of the mayhem that resulted. I kept on asking my friends why the activists were letting the agitators start a fight, and nobody’s been able to tell me. 
It’s too easy to judge other people’s activism and not my own, I’ll give you that. And maybe my upbringing has something to do with how I am judging. What I’ve seen in the US is a lot of talking and not a ton of action. Here, I don’t see very productive talk and a lot of chaotic and not necessarily well-focused action. I went to a political meeting of the group that has representatives from all of the active departments of my university, and from what I could see it was not very well-run and people left looking frustrated about the decisions made. On the other hand, these kids are DOING something. They decide on a march day, and there are marches all over the country. They’re in negotiations with the president, which may not actually be productive for them (and was the topic of said political meeting), but they’ve got a lot of legitimacy. Heck, they deserve it for shutting down tons of universities at a time for over 6 months. We’ll see what happens with the environmental justice movement (keep your eyes on the People’s Climate March in Washington coming up later in September), but I haven’t seen that kind of unity or organization from students in the US yet. Maybe we have something to learn from the Chilean chaos. 
in the flour of its youth
some speeches
oh, the excitement in the air!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. From what I've seen, one of the biggest challenges for the student movement is that it is just that: a student movement. The civil rights movement organized through intergenerational platforms more, like churches, as well as university students, so organizers could draw on experience, community connections and organizing knowledge/legacies when crafting strategies and actually executing them. Here, I haven't seen a lot of organizing theory or participation outside of students in the movement, and I think that definitely has something to do with it. It's not necessarily the students' fault that they aren't as mature (at least by my count) on that front as the civil rights movement. I mean, the issue is also more niche, as university costs certainly don't affect everyone. Basically, strategic capacity for the movement seems low to me in comparison to US civil rights movement. I think they could use some organizing consultants or more classes on political organizing.


  2. Soren Hauge says:

    Thanks for the inside story on the protest. Amazing that the end of it was so predictable. Did more cohesive organization and principled strategy that prevented such chaotic violence help to broaden support for the U.S. civil rights movement? I hope you get over your cold soon, with some rest from all the activity.


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