During the past two weeks there have been two protests here in Santiago. They are called marchas and are basically a parade full of people that march in protest for some cause. On May 1 there is a march every year for the workers of Chile. Many workers gather with their coworkers, groups of friends, or people from their school and together they march down Alameda (the main street in downtown Santiago) with signs, shouts, and music. We had school off that day so I went to the march just to watch and take some pictures.
The first thing I noticed is how dead downtown was. There was hardly any activity besides the march. All of the stores were closed (probably due to the combination of the march and Labor Day) and the streets were blocked off with no cars. There were not nearly as many people walking on the sidewalks as usual, although there were some. The people were either meeting with their friends and going to the march or were like me and just taking pictures or filming it. There were lots of police officers in various parts of downtown. Some blocked off streets in riot gear, some patrolled the area on motorcycles, and others monitored the march, walking with the protesters in the very front and the very back.
I picked my spot in front of Universidad de Chile, which was about the halfway point of the march. The demonstrators started at metro Los Heroes (right next to my university) and would finish at Plaza Italia. I had no intention of going to Plaza Italia. Many Chileans warned me that there is often violence and problems there because the police and protesters always fight at the end. Most of the people marching wanted more rights for workers, such as pensions, less hours, things like that. A lot of them were communists – most people were wearing red and there were a decent number of communist flags being waved about. I also saw a lot of Mapuche flags (the main indigenous tribe of Chile).
It was cool to see the march but it was not anything mind-blowing. At one point I thought a gas grenade exploded. There was a loud noise and about 100 feet in front of me there was white gas all in the air. I prepared myself to run into the metro and leave, but turns out it was only white powder, and not gas. It dyed the ground white and the march continued on uninterrupted. At the end of the march, there were a group of anarchists marching, mostly young people. This really shocked me. They were dressed in all black and legitimately promote anarchy with the A symbol and everything. I didn’t notice it at the moment, but when I was leaving I saw they had spray painted graffiti on the walls of the buildings with their phrases and symbol. I am almost positive that they are the ones that cause trouble with the police at the end.
Fortunately, mi primera marcha passed without incident. The second one, however, was a different story. The student march happened a week later on this past Thursday. I was not going to go to this one, because the student marches are typically more dangerous and a lot bigger than the workers’ march. In Chile, students are fighting for free and quality education at the university level. The president, Michelle Bachelet, has promised to make college free for students during her second term, which she just began serving in March. Many students, however, do not believe her attempts are sincere and think that her plan is flawed as well. Thus they take to the streets to voice their discontent.
My history classes were canceled for the day. At Universidad Alberto Hurtado, the students of each major vote to see if they will go to the march or not. If the no’s win, they go to class instead of the march. If the yes’s win, they go to the march and send the professor an email telling them that nobody will be going to class. The history students voted yes, so naturally I didn’t have class. The march went well until the end, when some young bandits caused some trouble. These people are similar to the anarchists, they wear all black, have their hoods up, and place bandanas over their faces so only their eyes show. Apparently, they go to some marches just to fight with the police at the end.
At the end, they threw some molotov cocktails at the police, who threw back gas grenades, and the scuffle began. Many police officers were hurt and most of these bandits were detained. By this time, the students had filed into a park for a concert that marked the end of the march, so they were not involved in the fight. The conflict was all over the news and in the newspaper.
Disclaimer: This does not mean Chile is a dangerous country. I have felt extremely safe here and have had little to no problems with my personal safety. The marches typically only have conflict in the end, yet it does not affect the majority of the protesters nor the majority of the police. On Thursday, nobody was seriously injured.
To conclude, it has been very interesting and informative to see these marches. To me, these rarely happen in the U.S., and when they do they definitely don’t have this type of conflict. In Chile, the marches are fairly common. These marches happen at least once a month for various reasons, and in 2011 there were a great number of student marches. Because of this, they are in the news, people talk about them, and las marchas have become another part of Chilean culture.