A university in lock down as the students go on strike.

Crossing the bridge on the way to my writing job, I noticed that there was a heavy police presence on the streets. The Carabineros were out in force. One of their green and white vans was parked by the side of the road not far from the office and the sound of a not-too-distant siren filled the air. Standing on the corner were three officers, kitted out in helmets, flak jackets and shin pads. Full riot gear. Their faces were fixed in stern concentration and their muscles were tense. They were on full alert, like a boxer in the ring before a title fight. I was careful to avoid making eye contact as I walked past them.


“Why are there so many ‘pacos’ on the street?” I asked as I settled into my desk. Despite working in the same office as Chile’s main English newspaper, I rarely pay close attention to the daily news cycle.

“The students are protesting,” the editor of the Santiago Times replied from the other side of the room.


Of course. I gave a knowing nod. I may not have been completely in the loop but I wasn’t living under a rock either. For close to two months, many of the country’s secondary and tertiary students had been on strike. Concerned that Chile’s education system was being jeopardised by profit seeking and economic rationalism they had been filling the streets with their noisy demonstrations and covering buildings and buses with their graffitti.


The milder messages said things like: “Education is our right.” The more extreme ones promoted anarchism.


Throughout the country, students had taken over schools and universities, locking out teachers and administrators and barricading the gates with chairs and tables. In these places, education had ground to a complete halt. A high school student I met last weekend at a birthday party, told me he had been at home for more than a month and he was starting to worry that he would have to repeat this year of his studies.


After attempting to play hard ball, the hopelessly unpopular government had refused to budge. But as the strike ground on, it became clear that they had to do something. Appearing live on national television, the president and the education minister unveiled a new education package filled with rhetoric and promises. The students didn’t buy it. Dismissing the announcement as little more than spin, they kept up their protests and the schools and unis remained in lock down. In a cabinet reshuffle the following week, the floundering education minister was bundled out and an unlucky colleague was handed the poisoned chalice.


“The protest is illegal,” the ST editor continued. “For some reason the police refused to authorise it so they are going to respond to anything from the students with force. It’s going to get interesting.”


I nodded knowingly again and settled into my work. It was a bizarre situation. Here I was spinning positive yarns about Chile for foreigners who were thinking about visiting or doing busines here, while outside, police and students were preparing for a messy showdown. The centre of the planned demonstration was Plaza Italia, about half a kilometre from the office. Things certianly were going to get interesting.


For the first hour, things were fairly quiet. Through the big window next to the desk, I could see the ‘pacos’ standing there, still waiting. From time to time they would swing their long, black batons or slap them up against their shin pads. But there were no students to be seen. The police were simply passing time. Or practising.


The first sighting of studnets occurred around 11am. A group of about 20 high school kids walked past the window, chanting slogans and pumping their fists in the air. Some of them had their faces painted in school colours with the word ‘NO’ written across their foreheads. Most of them were smiling and a few even laughed. They were enjoying their episode of civil disobedience.


Inside the office, we all turned to the window, eager to see what would happen. The police nearest to us held their positions but on the other side of the Mapocho River, the situation was a little different. There, the procession of students was much larger and although they were mostly sticking to the footpath, some of them were carrying banners. They moved along in small clusters, waving their arms and making offensive hand signals at the police, as they spread out from Plaza Italia.


Then, for no apparent reason, they panicked and started running, tripping over each other as they went. But the mystery didn’t last long. Looking more carefully, we saw white plumes of tear gas escaping from the three or four cannisters being tossed by the Carabineros tailing the long procession of students. Their plan was crude but effective. The procession was broken up and and the students were fleeing from their illegal activities, covering their faces with their hands.


Smaller groups of 20-50 students continued to trickle past our window throughout the morning as they continued marching from Plaza Italia. They seemed a little more cautious now but they kept coming anyway The flow of police vehicles was in the opposite direction. There were green and white motorbikes, standard squad cars, paddy vans and ‘guanacos’, the sinister dark green, metal-plated buses, equipped with rooftop water cannons. Some slunk along, like lions stalking prey, but the rest rushed in the direction of the plaza with flashing lights and sirens blazing. Most of the larger police vehicles had been splattered with paint bombs.


Every now and then, things would flare up outside and we would pause from our work to watch the unfolding action through the window. Halfway through my article about the Valle Nevado ski resort the mountains near Santiago, I looked up from the computer screen and saw what looked like a thig fog that had descended on Parque Forestal across the river.


“Is that tear gas in the park over there?” I asked pointing out the window.


“Yep. I think so,” one of my colleagues replied.


“There’s heaps of it. I mean, that must be a lot of tear gas,” I continued, stating the obvious.


“Yeah, it is a lot,” my colleague replied again. “Probably excessive.”


Around lunch time, things heated up again. On the other side of the river, I saw some students pushing over a street sign across the road from the Fine Arts Museum. It swung backwards and forwards like a see-saw before bending right over. The students were fired up. Less than a minute later, a couple of high school buys picked up rocks and started lobbing them at three Carabineros, standing on the bridge. For a moment, it looked like they were winning, as the police officers backed away in apparent submission. But soon enough, another round of tear gas cannisters was lobbed in the students’ direction. The stone throwing stopped and they scampered away, rubbing their eyes and noses. Once again the police had put an end to the defiance.


I looked down at my watch and then out the window. In just over an hour, I was planning to cross that same bridge where rocks and tear gas cannisters had just been flying, to catch a train. I hoped things were calming down. Turning my attention back to the computer screen, I tried not to think about it. The ski resort seemed like a good option.


Not long after the rock throwing incident, a Santiago Times photographer who had been following the protests returned to the office. Around Plaza Italia and in some of the busier streets, there had been bigger confrontations and a lot more tear gas. We milled around the computer screen as he uploaded photos and videos; the images were raw and the sounds were shrill. I was glad that I had been in the office but I couldn’t stay there all day.


At two o’clock, I said goodby and headed for the Fine Arts metro station. The three police officers were still there but there weren’t many students. I crossed the bridge and walked the remaining two blocks to the station without incident. As I passed the didgeridoo playing busker on the stairs leading down to the ticket barriers, I breathed a sigh of relief. Things were back to normal.


* * *


That night as I made my way home from my teaching job on the bus, we came across a strange disturbance on the main street not far from my stop. Standing on the road blocking off the west bound lanes was a group of about 40 people, holding pots and pans that they were banging with labels and large spoons. They weren’t saying anything but the sound from the pots and pans was surprisingly noisy and the bus was held up for over a minute as it waited for a break in the oncoming traffic to skirt around the protestors. Some drivers were obviously frustrated but others tooted their horns in support. People were clearly unhappy.


At the next set of lights, I hopped off the bus and started walking home. On the next corner, I saw another group of protestors who had also raided their kitchen cupboards. This group, however, was standing on the footpath and as a result, even more drivers were honking in approval. As well as students, there were middle aged couples and a couple of young professionals dressed in suits. And in this group, there was someone holding a piece of paper with a message, I slowed down as I passed her to read what it said: “Education without profit”.