I have been in Chile for about a week, and I want to tell you a story about what happened on my very first morning in Santiago.
After arriving very late from Uruguay the night before, I was happy to sleep in a little bit on my first morning here and relax. It was about 10 am when I left the apartment where I am staying. I had no agenda for the day except to find some stories to tell you about this country, the people who live here, and the kind of revolutions that have taken place here that have inspired amazing writing. I left the apartment with a map in my hand, some comfortable boots on my feet, and my journal in my bag. I stopped at the end of the street to take a picture of a heart on a fire hydrant because I thought it was pretty. I looked around wondering what direction I should choose to walk in first.
All of a sudden I heard the roar of a large group of people. It sounded like it came out of nowhere. I looked around but couldn’t see anything but people enjoying café on patios and rushing across streets to work. Nobody seemed bothered by the sounds at all. I had no idea what it was, or where it was, but I immediately felt like I needed to find out.
I started running down a side street and, looking up, I noticed that people were crossing the street at the next intersection. Not just a few people – a lot of people. As I approached the cross street it became clear what I was seeing: the crowds were protest marchers, and they were on their way to the presidential palace.
I don’t know if you know this, but there have been protest in Chile for over a year on a very regular basis. The protesters are students. Very many are high school students. They are angry about the inequality in the education system in Chile. They believe that there is too large of a gap between the public school system and the private school system. They are protesting for one centralized system of education that is run by the government that is fair and accessible to all citizens of the country. The students have organized themselves and they protest often. They have even occupied some of their schools. Currently, students at the University of Santiago are on strike and refuse to pay fees or attend classes until a dialogue starts about access to post secondary education for all people. It’s really intense stuff, and it is happening right now.
It was a student protest that I came across by accident on my first morning here. Knowing about their cause and believing in it, I immediately joined them in solidarity. What they are fighting for is something that I will fight my entire life for as well, and it was really an honor to be able to join with them. There were so many people, and it felt impossible to me that people would not listen to such strength. I felt inspired and grateful to be a part of their cause.
Before I knew what was happening we had turned a corner onto the major street that leads up to the presidential palace. I had been talking with some of the students and wasn’t looking very far ahead of me when I realized that people were screaming and running in the opposite direction. I looked up and saw huge tanks spraying onto the protestors further ahead of me. I started running with the crowd, and we ran until we reached another cross street. Suddenly the crowd in front of me turned and started running the opposite direction again. I had no idea why, so I stood off to the side and watched to see what was going to happen next. I didn’t know what to do. On one side of me were the tanks with the water, creeping closer and closer to me. On the other side of me was a group of people running fast and looking scared. I looked at the people running away and finally saw what they were running from. From around the corner what looked like a huge tank, but much longer and twice as high, turned the corner. It wasn’t spraying anything, but it looked terrifying. Mostly it was the pointy guns at the top that I noticed that made me really scared.
I started running back with the crowd toward the tanks spraying water. I thought that would be better than whatever that big truck/tank was going to do to us, and I followed what the crowd was doing because these students are experienced at this by now. The water tank stopped spraying water and the massive tank just kept driving down the big street. Everybody stopped running and it seemed okay for a second. Then, at regular intervals down the street, I noticed that there were these little packages that looked like they were steaming. They looked like a cup of hot tea on a cold day. What they really were was tear gas, and before I knew it I was breathing it in. By the time I realized that it was tear gas I was coughing and my eyes were watering. I followed a smaller group of people who ran back to the next side street away from the strong gas. Some people had gas masks or held scarves over their mouths, and some people ran, like me, away from the fumes.
On the next street over I leaned against a wall and caught my breath. I could hear screams, cries and sirens from the next street over where I imagined people were being arrested and people were in pain from the gas and the water. Shopkeepers were beginning to close the metal grates on the front of their shops – even this far away from the crowds – and it started to feel deserted. More and more riot police filed past and started to close streets to block the protesters in, and I started walking quickly away from all of it as fast as I could. I walked for a long time until I was on a busy street surrounded by lots of people and open shops. I had no idea where I was or what time it was. I was shaky and in shock. I found a place to sit down and got out my journal and started to write this to you, but it has taken me a few days to figure out how to say it. Words are hard, remember?
As I stared at my blank journal page trying to figure out how to tell you this story I could only think about the fact that I walked, no ran, away from the protest. I was scared, and I left. If everybody did what I did there would be no movement for change in Chile, or anywhere. I like to think that if it was my fight in my city I would have stayed, but I don’t know if that is true. Also, it really is my fight. It is our fight. Equitable public education in any country is a victory for the rest of us, and I hope the students in Chile don’t back down until their dream is realized.
I learned by reading the BBC news that 130 students were arrested that day. We are going to learn all about their fight this this year. You will be able to decide if you think the cause for which the students are fighting is worthy. You will also be able to decide what you think about the way these students are voicing their concerns. I have collected some great writing by the students and by their opponents about what they believe education is, and I can’t wait for you to read it. It is so important that you know about this, and I am going to teach you all about it.
Here are some pictures of the protest. They are not the best, for obvious reasons, but I wanted you to be able to see what it was like. I have a tiny bit of video as well that I will post soon.