Joshua Nguyen

Afternoon with the penguins

The students were rushed by Chilean special forces in riot gear from different directions.  In these moments, I ran with the students, dodging the tear gas canisters, the water cannons and police batons. Running trumped curiosity.

I opted out of a few scheduled meetings to join the first protest of the school season last Thursday, interested to see what the situation was like on the ground.  I’m familiar with the orderly protests in the US, so the devolution of the organized marches in the early morning to violent scrimmages by mid-morning was scary, thrilling and filled with thoughts like “WTF am I doing here” and “what a stupid gringo I am”.  

I was on the margins of the protests. I didn’t see the special units storm the university and I didn’t see the more violent arrests. Throughout the morning, the students tried to take the main avenues around the central Plaza Baquedano by banding together to create groups of marchers. The authorities responded with force and pushed them into the tiny arteries around the Universidad Catolica and the Servicios Centrales Universidad. Their aim was to bust any pockets of kids that could organize into a march.

In one of these moments when the day seemed normal – old women walked to cafes, girls ate at food carts and men sat smoking – it got crazy. A ‘skunk’ – an armored car that sprays tear gas – crawled around the park. The kids, feeling provoked or wanting to provoke, sprinted to the van fistfuls of rocks and debris. Huge rocks the size of Coke cans.  They shouted and jeered. They chased the skunk, peeling off around the corner. We all breathed in relief.

About twenty cops in riot gear – it seemed like fifty in the melee – sprinted into view from the alleys surrounding and park. They appeared like movie special effects and rushed the students, waving their batons, dragging twos and threes by their shirts beyond view and lobbing tear gas canisters at groups of kids running in all directions.  I turned and ran blindly – almost ran into a phalanx of cops behind a wall of smoke until the guy I was with shouted me for me to turn away. Everything was noisy and in slow motion and crazy fast at the same time. It was over in 45 seconds.

The protests were more disorganized than usual, I was told, because the university students, organized around leaders and units, were not yet part of this first protest.  It was the high school kids, the Penguins, that amassed for this initial surge and they were less prone to order.

By the early afternoon, the protests had died out, and I went back to the world of meetings (including one with Giorgio), taxis and hotels. It’s very surreal. A normal day coexisted with smoke and violence.  I’m still processing it.