On the Outskirts of A Protest — Global Scholars 2013 in Chile

Aug 21 2013 - 1:20pm

I am a complacent American.  By reading the daily newspaper and contemporary literature, listening to National Public Radio, and observing the hundreds of people I pass by, I know suffering exists in the United States.  My country is burdened by unemployment, malnutrition, poor education quality, education disparity, unsupportive welfare, natural disasters of increased severity due to climate change, stringent immigration policies, and more.  I could find others who believe in my political views and shout into a megaphone.  I could wear ridiculous costumes and harass pedestrians.  I could stop traffic. 

But I haven't.

In Santiago, a well-publicized labor union protest barred us from accessing the Diego Portales University campus where we attended our lectures as part of the Columbia Global Scholars Program.  The day's events of presentations by my professor Dr. Pablo Pinto about the politics of investment, economic actors, and interest groups, along with a guest lecture by a sociology professor on natural disasters and development, were all cancelled.  The alternative seemed obvious: go to the event that ruined our plans and observe the protest.

After spending the morning nearby at the opulent La Moneda, the Chilean equivalent of the White House, we walked from downtown to the adjacent neighborhood.  Throngs of people were gathering but no one had moved.  Some stood in the empty street, spray painting white bedsheets and carefully applying glitter to cardboard signs.

Drummers began sounding a steady beat, too fast for a march.  A short man in his fifties began hopping to the beat, gesturing emphatically and shouting over the drums.  I approached him to listen to his thoughts on labor rights and minimum wage.  "I am drunk," he was yelling, over and over again.  I laughed and shuffled my feet to the beat.

The crowd grew.  Suddenly, without a signal, everyone began moving out the plaza and up the adjacent boulevard.  The Central Worker's Union merged with streams of students protesting Chile's most contentious topic, free education.  The groups united in their frustration and passion for change.  As the plaza drained of pedestrians, I nervously joined the crowd.  I had a copy of my passport in my bag and I considered myself a decent sprinter.

Here's the thing about protests: they start off boring.  Everyone walks very slowly because no street can support hundreds of people walking comfortably.  The catchy chants blur into a cacophony.  One goal forks into a pandemonium voicing discontent.  No one leads yet everyone follows. 

We soon diverged from the crowd, getting lunch in a local produce market and watching the protest from the television news.  I felt like a fraud.  I hid from the police and ate soup while Chileans fought for higher minimum wage so they could survive.  For Chilean workers, the possibility to change economic policy outweighed their risk of arrest.

From a distance, I watched teenagers smashing traffic lights.  I heard the pops of tear gas canisters.  I smelled the acrid smoke of a public bus that had been lit on fire.  I felt the wind shift as the Chilean police zoomed past on matching green motorcycles to quell the unrest.      

I boarded the metro and the chaos faded.

Chileans not only have a high awareness of their country's socioeconomic problems but also an awareness of its policies and how to implement reforms.  They have concrete ideas for change, rather than just a vague desire for a better future.  Chile's minimum wage is 193,000 pesos and the cost of higher education puts many families into debt.  Protests last year helped pass a bill in the Senate that increased minimum wage by six percent.  The Chileans march in the streets so frequently because their government might listen.

I listened that afternoon.  Had I been able to attend class, I would have listened in lecture.  But at the protest, I really listened. 

And then I left.