Below, we present a letter from anarchist participants in la primera línea, the “first line” of the powerful social movements that broke out in Chile in late 2019. Expressing solidarity with the demonstrators responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people, they relate their experiences in the uprising in Chile and discuss the challenges facing movements for social change today. At the end, they include an English translation of a guide from Chile for dealing with tear gas and other threats during demonstrations.
“Estados unidos despertó”
Latin America looks at the United States as the imperial power. Our dictators were installed by the support of US governments. US companies monopolize our economy and collude to raise prices and decrease wages. Meanwhile, Wall Street finances the extractive industries that are poisoning our water, soil, and bodies. Most Chileans only know the US from movies and television—skyscrapers and wealth. On October 18, Chile despertó, [woke up] as Santiago’s metro was shut down, one out of every six of the country’s Walmarts were looted, and protests erupted against an entire political class—both the right and the left—that are merely the middlemen between the population and the wealthiest ones who manage the country’s position in the global economy.
Since the widespread revolt against the police after the killing of George Floyd, the Chilean news has no choice but to show the true character of us poverty, racial inequality, and popular rage. Chilean meme pages created during the October revolt now turn their eyes to the energy and passion in the streets across the US. The view from the south—in the words of the fruit vendor next to my house—is that estados unidos despertó, the United States woke up.
We are a group of friends, writing to all of you in the US about our experience of what such a revolt can look like as it stretches on for months. When the governments declare state of emergency and call on the military and citizens alike in an attempt to force a return to normalcy. They attempt to portray a world of clear divisions—between peaceful protestors and criminal delinquents, between normalcy and crisis, between human rights and national security, between good cops and bad apples. We would like to offer our reflections from the past few months in Chile to suggest that these divisions are far from clear and that the struggle for dignity rests on ignoring them all together.
The first night of citywide rioting was followed by a week of peaceful protests cohabiting the same streets as flaming barricades, looted stores and bands of masked youth throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. In response to widespread unrest, the government declared a state of emergency and called in the military to patrol the streets. The military promptly implemented a nightly curfew, suspending the right to assembly for 90 days.
This was the first time that the military had been called into the streets since the dictatorship. The largest protests in Chilean history took place in response. Chile is considered a democratic country, but ironically, its largest protests were held during a time when protests were illegal. While organizations made fliers announcing demonstrations, these protests erupted independently as people heard crowds gathering and left their homes to join. Peaceful protests were organized throughout the city: people would bring signs, bang pots and pans, and chant in the street. However, these protests were inevitably dispersed by the police with water cannons and tear gas. Social media sites were used for sharing videos of police brutality and human rights violations: police beating people in the streets and accounts of police and military torturing and sexual assaulting detained protestors. Human rights groups conducted daily rallies about human rights violations and the United Nations sent a committee to investigate the police.
In the end, the official complaints and human rights investigations will drag on for years. The only meaningful response to these human rights violations was to maintain conflict with the police. The only protests that could last more than 30 minutes were the ones involving barricades and people willing to prevent the police from crushing the crowd, guaranteeing everyone’s right to free assembly and free speech. Metrocststion baquedano, the station in plaza de la dignidad where police staged crowd control and tortured protesters, was rendered inoperational after protestors barricaded the entrance with stones and rubble. Sites of torture became sites of memory and resistance. In protests during times of normalcy, many people had previously been afraid of encapuchados ( masked protestors); in earlier marches, people would shout them down, complaining that they would attract police violence. But we were no longer living in normal times: the threat of a return to dictatorship meant that freedom itself was at stake—and the only force that could protect everyone’s rights was the people in the streets, the people themselves.
This segment of the protest came to be known as la primera línea, “the first line” of rock-throwing and shield-bearing youth, followed by the second line, from which people used lasers, a third line of protestors with spray bottles and water jugs to treat and neutralize tear gas, and a fourth line of street medics who would carry away injured protestors and provide first aid.
The first line enabled a wide variety of protest culture to emerge in the course of the following months—dancing Pikachus, street performances, new chants and marching bands—gathering every Friday in plaza de la dignidad. Those who had never imagined confronting the police could join the first line, try to hit a cop with a rock, or practice extinguishing tear gas. Years ago, it was unimaginable that the encapuchados—once thought of as being either undercover police or reckless deliquent youth—could ever be the heroes of a social movement. Yet after October 18, countless organizations hosted fundraisers for the legal and medical fees of folks on the first line. Most surprisingly, a group from the first line was invited to present on police brutality at a Latin American human rights conference. Those who came to the plaza to sell empanadas, water, or beer would frequently give free food and drinks to people geared up to participate in the first line.
In the beginning, we were scared and concerned about the widespread looting and arson in which metro stations and office buildings were set ablaze. Rumors proliferated that it was the police attempting to make the protestors look bad in order to justify a military takeover of the country, or that it was criminalized gangs taking advantage of the protests to rob ATMs, pharmacies, and grocery stores. Although months have passed, we still don’t know which actions were carried out by police. But this attempt to suppress the protests by sowing fear of a military takeover or organized criminal activity did not scare people out of the streets—and the heavy-handed military response to destruction of property did not have the intended effect. The military repression of peaceful protests only inspired more self-defense as protestors erected barricades to block military vehicles and used stones and bricks to keep them at a distance. As more stores were looted—not for commercial goods but for material to build barricades—we arrived at a point at which anyone who attends a protest can say in good faith that it is the institution of property itself that represents rampant delinquency.
In this uncertain and scary time, many on all sides hoped that the unrest in Chile would reach a swift conclusion: that the president would resign, a constitutional assembly would form, and we could all create a new “normal” in which we can live with dignity. However, in these times, there is no new normal: the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the pending constitutional referendum to a halt and the same illegitimate government still holds power in the name of managing the current health and economic crises.
It is too soon for anyone to say where the current revolts in the United States will lead. But we suggest that seeking a swift conclusion would be a resignation based on fear, in which millions would continue to pretend that everything is all right, that life is still working for everyone. Between moments of emergency and normalcy, the crisis persists—but only in times of emergency are people no longer afraid to act out their shared indignation and figure out how they actually want to live.
More on proper disposal of active tear gas canisters: