It´s time to move on from writing angry letters to the editor.
When I came in to Santiago by bus this morning and wandered the main strip for a bit I thought it was a bit quiet. And a number of businesses still had their roller shutters down. Maybe I´d set my watch an hour fast again?
No, I hadn´t: I got to the noon showing of "300" just fine.
Blood, slaughter, cool effects, David Wenham with a random accent, Homer-eroticism - it had it all.
Afterwards I recrossed the main Avenida to eat lunch at a restuarant. They were open and had custom but also had their wire rollershutters down.
Hmm, must be something to do with the skirmishes with police i´d seen on TV yesterday when I was in Ancud.
That would explain the lack of traffic, the people standing around gawping down the street and the stream of people who´d just been tear gassed.
I was offered a table nearest the street, non-smoking of course. Excellent! I was first in the line of fire if the fury of the mob descended on La Piccola Italia.
But I´d just seen "300". I knew that a few can stand against many.
I looked around at my fellow diners whom I was about to lead into combat.
Not much chop.
Then I decided to assess the enemy.
Not much chop either. By the looks of it almost all of them were secondary school kids.
This was going to be a great victory for King Harry and the eight legal secretaries!!
I ordered and watched proceedings. This was the first time I´d been offered lemon peices as an accompanyment to a meal to counter the effects of tear gas.
I shit you not.
Judging by the streams of streaming-eyed people passing my window and sheltering in the shuttered building next door a fair bit of gassing was going on out of my line of sight to the left. Some people were quite badly affected: having to stop and put a hand against their eyes to encourage more tears. By now a bit of tear gas was making it´s way into the restuarant and was starting to probe my nasal passages. How inconvenient.
I asked about the protest "Socialistas? Estudentes?" Yes, they were students protesting about something on the street I didn´t have the Spanish to understand.
I finished my meal and as I passed the attractive greeting chica I murmurred "Viva la Revolution". She laughted and we made love for hours. Then I returned to the hotel and transformed into... Your Reporter At The Scene!
Camera in hand, I initially followed the principle of going to where people were coming from, often at the dash. Then I started to study what the police were doing: random movements of wired-up windows 4x4s and wired-up windowed buses. Some cops were directing a small amount of traffic.
Then I spotted a bunch of riot police with clear shields, and went to investigate. there were eight of them and they were all young women about five foot two setting up at an intersection. If I had my armour I could have taken them apart in about five seconds. This is Sparta? No, THIS IS SPARTA!!
After ten minutes as I found the action I worked it out. Ot was the ultimate pupil free day. You take the day off school to play cat and mouse with teargas spewing 4x4s and water cannon trucks.
1) Groups of students carry out random acts of vandalism (eg uprooting street signs and smashing advertising panels) to prompt a police response. Or more commonly simply hurl rocks at the nearest riot vehicle.
2) Pelt the responding vehicle with rocks, bits of wood and stuff you´ve broken.
3) When the teargas 4x4s turn up, run.
4) Taunt the water cannons to "bring it on" so to speak, and similarly run.
5) Try to stay out of the clutches of the snatch squad.
6) Repeat until home time.
I decided to follow the snatch squad because they would obviously head for a hot spot. They changed position a few times. (I later found out the main body of kids were using the metro to rapidly redeploy at the next station or two - thus keeping the street-bound police moving from intersection to intersection.) Teargas was deployed a few times and the water cannons swept over some of the crowd.
It looked like they were trying to contain the protestors in certain blocks and then snatch the ring leaders. Fair enough. (I later found out the students were trying to block traffic on the avenida, so the police were clearing the avenida and the kids happened to be mostly on one side of the avenida, hence my mistake.)
The teargas is deployed out a nozzle in the street-side toprear panel of the 4x4. The 4x4 then screams along near the footpath, forcing pedestrians ahead of the cloud like a bow wave, and sending them scrurrying down side streets. there are two trucks with two water cannon, and one with one. They have a range of about 30metres and do sufficient damage to break apart traffic lights. The kids fall back til just out of range and peg rocks again. when the teargas clears or the cannon truck moves off the kids simply reoccupy the ground. (Check out the above link for some pretty cool photos)
The kids played fair and only threw stuff at the vehicles, not the cops on the ground.
The snatch squad lumbered up the main street like a bunch of badly organised heavies (sword and shield SCA fighters). they were following up an action up a pedestrian precinct spearheaded by a twin cannon truck supported by two teargas 4x4s.
It was great fun.
Note that while this was going on there were hundreds, if not, thousands of spectators (including me) simply wandering around and moving interestedly towards the action. people were strolling in amongst the police vehicles, getting in the way, taking photos - simply where ever they (I) wanted.
I couldn´t help but think how easy it would be to immobilise every riot vehicle with a very small group of organised people. And if you had a counter-snatch-squad, you could truss up a large number of cops very quickly with duct tape. When the reinforcements pour in you all scarper like terrified rabbits, of course, but it would be a wonderful lark!
I´ve got a bunch of exciting shots that I´ll post at a later date from a more reliable machine.
Back at the hotel I heard Aussie accents discussing what was happening, so I joined them. One of them, Andrew from Sydney here teaching conversational English, got gassed rather badly.
Anyway, the reason for this protest was the recent changes to the public transport system and general educational policy malaise. i don´t pretend for a second that this wasn´t just a pretext for kids to act up, but the loss of 3000 buses and the new "blip" cards (chargable cards for the trains and buses that replace conventional tickets) being corruptly managed are the genesis of this demonstration.
Everyone knew it was going to happen beforehand, which is why so many businesses were shut and why the usual fruit stalls and similar were absent.
Andrew and I went to survey the damage just now. There are a few knots of riot police around, but since almost everything is shut including the metro stations there are very few people in the normally bustling city centre.
Missing street grates, uprooted signs, destroyed advertising signage and smashed public phone booths are all obvious. I couldn´t spot any damage to shops or private cars. (Although one of the TranSantiago bendy buses (the ones at the heart of the public transport woes) was torched on San Fransisco street. Elsewhere the cops on the ground were pelted with debris and a number treated for minor injury.) The pavements are littered with lemon and lime rinds. the citrus trick is obviously well known. And, funniest of all, there are a number of enterprising souls selling only lemons and limes. Evidently gassing is regular enough to foster a commercial spirit of it´s own. The smell of the tear gas lingers.
It was the largest number of arrests from one riot in ten years. And was apparently whipped to a frenzy by far leftists wanting to commemorate The Day of Young Combatants to commemorate the day two fifteen year old protestprs were shot by police in the Pinochet era. Still, it was quite fun responding with the gas-masked cameramen to the outbursts of whistling and jeering that heralded another foray by a water truck.
And I swear I heard the faint chant of "Hell no! We won´t go! Robert Pullar says Hello!!"
Walking to find an open net cafe, I saw cops at the interesection of Paris and Londres. They had blocked the top end of Paris to traffic so that a memorial wouldn´t be disturbed.
This was where I saw a larger commemorative concert on the 8th of March.
Tonight, twenty people had gathered with lighted candles, a banner and photos of victims stuck on the relevant wall. 38 Londres St was a "former house of torture and assassination". There were 119 victims.
The bells of the nearby St Fransisco church tolled for the 7:15 service, coinciding with the group´s minute silence.
Then the name of each victim wwas read out to a reply of "Presente" from the group.