Notes from: Santiago

Protest, Politics, and Tear Gas

It is the apocalypse. Grey sky blurs with the thick mist erupting from water cannons. Sirens drown out panicked shouts. I am surrounded by bodies, crushing, pressing bodies. A canister of tear gas explodes nearby. My throat burns and my eyes water.

I have wanted to participate in a political protest since I was fourteen and first saw news coverage of South African laborers swarming the streets to demand fair wages. From the confines of neighboring Swaziland, one of the only remaining monarchies on the African continent, I watched this democratic protest with a burning envy.

The streets of Santiago, Chile, where I studied abroad in the fall of 2013, were filled perpetually with students demanding free, quality, public education. Their passion was exhilarating. I desperately wanted to attend a march, participate—even as an outsider—in a movement for social justice. Unfortunately, however, my study abroad program strictly forbade us from attending any of the protests. They warned of arrest and deportation if the Chilean police caught us at a march. Outwardly, I scoffed at this rule but, because I was new to the city, I heeded their advice (grudgingly).

I am sitting at lunch with a group of Chilean friends. Sun illuminates the courtyard and the air is filled with a thick film of cigarette smoke. “There’s a march this Thursday,” Cami announces as she stubs out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. This generates a murmur of excitement around our table. Javiera turns to me, “You should come with us,” she says. A minute passes. “Ok,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant. “I think I will.”

A grey Thursday. The city’s main thoroughfare is filled with students, teachers, and workers. A group of musicians bang on their drums, student leaders hold megaphones in their hands, and banners fill the air with bold statements. Excitement pulses through the crowd. We walk. I am elated. Cami teaches me the chants and, soon, I am lending my halting Spanish to the passionate cries. The mood is exuberant and it almost feels  more like a festival than a political protest. But the policemen standing by in their riot gear, their faces hidden behind gas masks and plastic shields, are a reminder of the omnipresent possibility of violent repression.

The march ends in a large plaza. Musicians play folk songs. Students, union leaders, and politicians give impassioned speeches. We have been there for twenty minutes when Javiera grabs my arm; “Time to go before things get crazy,” she says. “Let’s stay a bit longer,” I plead, wanting to draw this day out as long as possible. Then, suddenly—as if on cue—a scuffle breaks out between a small group of protestors and four policemen. The water tanks arrive. Upheaval courses through the crowd. People run for the subway, clutching their banners and megaphones. I lose sight of my friends. Thoughts of arrest flash through my mind. A young mother whirls past me with her child in her arms. I am knocked off balance. Utterly disoriented. Panicked.

Minutes drag by slowly. I can barely see through the violent deluge released by the water cannons. I rub my hand across my eyes. A terrible idea; the pepper spray burns burns burns. It is unbearable. But, finally, miraculously, I spot the subway sign. I rush down the stairs, underground, away from the shouts, chaos, and violence. My heart pounds, my mouth is dry. I wring out my soaked t-shirt and take deep breaths. You’re completely fine. I repeat these words to myself until the train arrives.

I emerge into my quiet neighborhood, where the wide sidewalks and large houses exude a domestic calm, oblivious to the chaos unfolding downtown. Arriving home, I dash into my bedroom before my host mom can see me. “How was your day?” she calls from the living room, where she lies supine on the couch enthralled by a Chilean soap opera. “It was fine,” I reply “pretty average.” My words are laced with the faint taste of tear gas.