The Streets of Santiago, #OccupyWallStreet, Protest Culture and Fear

From the Streets of Santiago to the Streets of New York: Modern Protest Culture (Scares the Shit out of Me)

by Esther on 3 oktober 2011

During the various periods I lived in Santiago de Chile, I’ve learned a thing or two about Chilean protest culture.

There were protests under Allende.

There were protests under Pinochet.

Both were exponents of heavy social tension and led to important social and political change.

If you’re into this kind of stuff, I highly recommend the movie Machuca. It’s about the friendship of two young boys right before September 11, 1973, when Pinochet’s forces overthrew Allende. Protests play an important part in this movie and it does a great job at showing the differences and similarities between left and right in those days.

But I digress.

The Day the Dictator Died

I was in Santiago on December 10, 2006, the day Augusto Pinochet died. While the right lamented his loss at the Military School in one of the richest neighborhoods of the city, the left celebrated in the city center and yelled that Pinochet’s body should be thrown into the river Mapocho, in the same way he had allegedly disposed of many opponents during his 1973-1990 dictatorship.

It was a happy march, full of songs and relief, but I was scared of being near it nonetheless. Scared of being the western-looking tourist, scared of being the odd one out. Scared of saying something wrong or looking at someone the wrong way.

My heart was beating fast with excitement – I knew I was in the middle of an important moment in history. But my fear was bigger as I watched from a distance, smiling, before quickly heading home.

On Paros and Guanacos

Nowadays, the students of Santiago’s major universities regularly go on strike, locally called a paro. They lock themselves into the campus buildings, barricade the doors with chairs and tables to prevent anyone from going in, and protest for better education, a new dean or a cheaper copying service.

The marches sometimes extend to the streets, where the masses are scattered by cops using water cannons known locally as guanacos (a South-American type of llama; the analogy comes from the spitting).

Even watching the photos of the student movement on the internet from the safe distance of my Dutch home still fills my heart with both hope and fear.

The #OccupyWallStreet Movement… and More Fear

Fast forward to September 2011. The hashtag #OccupyWallStreet keeps showing up in my Twitter stream. It takes me a few days to notice and check out what this is about.

Apparently, there are protests going on in New York City and spreading to other places as well. There is barely any news on the movement in the Dutch media, but of course there’s plenty of information on the internet.

Basically, Occupy Wall Street is a protest against inequality and a plead for creating a more sustainable, more equal, more livable planet.

Again, I feel both hope and fear.

I totally understand these demands and I’m all for creating a better world to live in.

It’s the protest culture that scares me. I’m terrified of these large groups of people. I worry for their own safety and the safety of others. Of terrorism from outside and from within. Of things escalating, resulting in conflict, fights, bloodshed.

I know change doesn’t come without a price and protests, like the ones in Egypt earlier this year, may be what it takes to create positive social change. But I am still afraid of ‘the masses on the streets’.

The Masses – That’s a Whole Bunch of Individuals Coming Together

I didn’t know how widespread debt, lack of health care and financial injustice are in the USA until I scrolled through a few of the personal stories of ‘the 99%’.

The masses taking the streets for #OccupyWallStreet consist of people like you and me. I may not know them, but they have families and friends and jobs and smiles and sadness and hobbies and histories and futures. And fears. They have a lot of fears.

The protests made me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I know his view is considered outdated, but it still holds true to an extent: people need a decent foundation to live. A safe environment, food on the table, good health facilities, financial security, respect… these are all basic rights for anyone.

And it’s not just in the Horn of Africa that people lack these basics (though I’ll admit, the problems there are of a different level).

The stories of ‘the 99%’ are stories of people like you and me, simply aiming to live a normal, happy life with their loved ones. A life with dignity.

Algo Está Cambiando

I used to say: “If something’s wrong in Santiago, people go out on the streets and protest. If something’s wrong in The Netherlands, we write a polite letter to the government.” But even here, things are changing.

It’s not just the weather that has become more extreme over the last few years.

And I wonder how long it will be before the Dutch start taking over the streets with their demands and the fear will push me out of my own back yard.

And I hear:

 “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”

“The people united will never be defeated”

And I wonder: “How long to sing this song?”