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Chile at the Barricades

I arrived in Santiago in early March to a city transformed. In my previous trips to the Chilean capital, Santiago had always seemed relatively orderly and safe, but now all that had changed. What had begun, the previous October, as civil disobedience against a metro-ticket price hike had escalated to encompass decades’ worth of political, economic, and social grievances, and the impact was everywhere. Plaza Italia, the city’s traditional meeting place for political rallies and championship celebrations, had become known colloquially as Plaza Dignidad, or Dignity Plaza. The scarred blocks surrounding it, which until recently had been a lively upper-middle-class neighborhood dotted with bars, restaurants, hotels, and theatres, were mostly shuttered now, or else burned and abandoned. The area was being referred to as Zona Cero—or Ground Zero—and had the weary, blighted look of an urban battleground, with broken street lights, boarded-up windows, and sidewalk cement cracked into pieces conveniently sized for throwing at police. One morning, a friend and I walked through the burned and looted remains of an old Italianate building, a casona that had been the central office of a private university. Little was left, except the building’s crumbling husk of white, graffiti-covered walls. A few homeless men tended to a small trash fire in the courtyard.

More than a dozen metro stations across the capital were closed, including Baquedano, whose circular entrance in Plaza Dignidad had been transformed into an open-air art gallery, a swirl of colorful, intricate murals celebrating the protests and denouncing the police, demanding the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera, and calling for a new constitution. A short walk from the plaza, streams of blood-red paint dripped down the cheeks of the bronze statues that stood in front of the National Museum of Fine Arts—a reference to the more than four hundred protesters who had suffered eye injuries at the hands of Chilean police. Although the violence had waned since November 15th, when Congress agreed to hold a referendum to decide whether the majority of citizens favored the creation of a new constitution, it certainly had not stopped. Day after day, I came across an improvised march down the center of a busy avenue, a skirmish between students and police officers at the entrance to a metro station, or the shards of a smashed window glinting on the pavement, the acrid smell of tear gas wafting across an intersection.

To walk the streets of Santiago was to read a collective, anonymous scroll of inchoate rage: Abort the police, Die Piñera, ACABBankers to the gallows. The graffiti was on seemingly every wall and sidewalk in the central districts of the city. “Anti-everything,” I read one day, a phrase that lodged in my brain and served as a kind of shorthand for understanding many of the conversations I had in Santiago. Scores of medical brigades had sprung up to tend to the wounded protesters who fought police every night. Their shields, made of corrugated metal or modified oil drums, had become, for many, a symbol of heroic resistance. La primera línea, the front-line protesters, who risked nightly beatings, arrest, tear gas, and rubber bullets in order to hold the Plaza Dignidad, were the subject of awe and worried conjecture: who were they, where did they come from, why did they seem to have so little to lose?

And still, somehow, life continued. One night, I saw a police truck scatter protesters who had set fire to a small barricade; as the street filled with tear gas, I hurried around the corner, and found myself at a storefront dance studio that was hosting tango lessons. Another evening, I was eating dinner at a sidewalk café when a police van rolled by, its blue lights flashing. In an instant, all the diners at the restaurant and at the one next door had put down their forks and knives and beers and napkins to yell vulgarities at the cops. It happened so quickly, a reflexive, automatic response—“¡Fuera paco culiao! ” “Fuck off, you fucking cops!”—and a moment later they all fell back into their conversations, as if nothing had happened.

Read entire article at The New Yorker