Getting Tear Gassed Abroad with Preston Whitt

11 Aug

This post is written by UHPer Preston Whitt, currently studying abroad in Chile.

Although less bloody (read, more boring) than the “revolutions” in the Middle East, the political situation here in Chile is still quite interesting.  The Chilean education system is, by all accounts, regressively unequal, and the students indebted to that system have had enough.  (Disclaimer:  this is not a CNN perspective….Think more MSNBC)

Because I am here during the tumult, I have managed to accomplish the goal of most GW study abroad students–I’ve been tear-gassed by a foreign government.

As of today, the largest university in Chile, Universidad de Chile, in in “paro”, which is basically a student-professor strike. Some buildings and faculties are even in “toma”, which means that students (and a crazy professor or two) have taken them over and pretty much live there.  The paros are spreading, most surprisingly to the historically conservative (as in, military dictatorship conservative) Pontificia Universidad Católica, which is a reflection of the validity of the students’ complaints.

More excitingly, at least once a week the students hold a “paro nacional” where students, professors, and families march in numbers of 50-, 80-, or 100,000.  Inevitably, especially when the government tries to forbid the marches, the situation turns violent. Police officers attack even peaceful groups of protestors with water canons (with acid added) and tear gas.  The students are not blameless–they break shop windows and fight back with sticks, rocks, and fists.  However, in more than one case, undercover police have been discovered instigating violence to try to turn public opinion against the students.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the protests are the cacerolazos. After a day of violence between police and protestors, supportive families take to the streets for about an hour, beating pots, pans, forks, metal signs, and anything else loud and handy.  It really is quite impressive–imagine 20 people on every major street-corner of DC making as much noise as possible in support of their cause.

Constitutionally, Chileans have the right to demonstrate peacefully–but this right is not respected.  What is more, police are forbidden from entering educational campuses without the rector’s permission–yet they have snuck into schools in toma and attacked with tear gas or attempted to forcibly remove the protestors.  Keep in mind, a lot of these are high-school students.

I support the students, even though it means frequently showing up to a class barricaded with desks or, most recently, the threat of entire universities closing. Of course, I cannot legally participate; according to the constitution, if arrested (which they are quick to do in these demonstrations) I would be deported as a foreign terrorist.  And even though I get tear gassed occasionally walking home from school (which, by the way, hurts like words that cannot be written on this blog), I am thrilled to be a part of this crucial moment in Chilean social history.

Really, though, tear gas = only cool once.

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