As I walked out of the tercera comiseria (police station based in the centre of Santiago) on August 4, it hit me what had transpired on this incredible day.
All I could hear were the sounds of the cacerolazo, people beating pots and pans in protest, every street corner occupied by protesters who had erected barricades and lit bonfires.
The echo of an updated song from the time of the Pinochet dictatorship sounding through the streets.
The police, who spent most of the day throwing tear gas canisters and beating the shit out of people, could only look on as the people took control of the streets.
The central store of La Polar, a giant chain of department stores implicated in a huge fraud of investors and customers, had been burnt to the ground.
Everyone over the age of 40 told me the same thing ― “It’s like being back in the eighties”, referring to the epic street battles against the Pinochet dictatorship between 1982 and 1986.
I’ll give you the background.
Since May, the campuses and schools of Chile have been epicenters of revolt and protest. Students are hell bent on overthrowing the neoliberal profit-based education system currently operating in Chile.
At one point, more than 180 schools and university campuses were en toma (under occupation by students). In some cases, students were violently evicted from their tomas by police and security forces only to then go on to reoccupy them.
Every Thursday, tens of thousands of schoolchildren as young as 14 and university students have taken to the streets, facing down the pacos (cops), with their guanacos (water cannons), tear gas and clubs.
The city centre has the semi-permanent smell of tear gas and you can’t go far without seeing a school or university campus en toma.
If you catch a bus, you are likely to see an evangelista, usually a teenager sent by a school en toma, board the bus and explain to the passengers with inspiring eloquence what they are fighting for (a high quality education system for all, free of charge), why it is possible and why it is necessary.
Natalia Alegria, a 14-year-old who had been tear-gassed, beaten by police and arrested (something that is very unexceptional during this conflict) told me: “This generation is not like previous generations, a lot of us are vegetarians, we read and we think”.
From the end of the anti-dictatorship protests in 1986 to the pinguina ― school student ― revolution of 2006, there was a marked downturn in political struggle in Chile. But that period has been buried for the foreseeable future.
The banner outside the Universidad de Chile law faculty says it all “Chile is waking up”.
The movement is diverse in its tactics. These range from a mass kiss-in for education to having the Marea Roja, supporters of the Chilean National Football team, unfurl a huge Chilean flag with “free education” written on it at the recent Copa America football match, to putting up barricades and burning tyres in the middle of Santiago’s major road during morning traffic and fighting with the police.
The main unifying factors are the non-negotiable demand for a high standard education for all, free of charge, and a distrust of all political parties. This includes the Chilean Communist Party, which traditionally dominates student politics.
The students are up against the government of one of Chile’s richest men, Sebastian Pinera, who last year became the first conservative president of Chile since the fall of the dictatorship in 1990.
The student movement has already claimed the head of education minister Joaquin Lavin, who ironically made his fortune as head of the supposedly non-profit Universidad de Desarollo.
He is precisely the sort of person the movement aims to remove from the education sector.
The government, sensing an opportunity to crush the movement, banned the march planned for the August 4.
The Fech (Student Federation of La Universidad de Chile) announced the march would go ahead regardless.
Interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter publicly threatened students the day before the march, declaring that if anyone died or was injured, it would be the fault of Fech President Camila Vallejo.
More than 1000 police were deployed to the streets of Santiago with orders to prevent students from gathering around the planned route of the protest, along the Alameda, the main street of Santiago.
Police even went as far as preventing anyone who looked like a student from taking the subway at key stations, and preventing them from leaving stations close to the route of the march.
Near the Alameda, students were not allowed to pass and in many cases were beaten and arrested.
Many onlookers were also beaten and arrested, in some cases modest workers who just wanted to see what was happening.
But the ever-resourceful students, in groups of less than 10, managed to gather in great numbers around key points of downtown Santiago to face off with the police.
For six hours, students and police fought pitched battles in several locations around the city centre.
Students armed only with rocks held off the police, known colloquially as the “ninja turtles” for the green body armour they wear. Police rained blows on students, threw canister after canister of tear gas.
But by 4pm, they had no choice but to agree to a ceasefire.
The ceasefire lasted until 6.30pm, but by that time the police were too demoralised to fight back effectively.
By 8pm, the police had had to retreat and cede the streets to the students and the large proportion of the population that supported them.
The state had thrown everything it had at the students and lost. It is difficult to overestimate the psychological effect this has had on not just the students but the population at large.
No one can really tell what will happen from here. The government is in crisis.
In July, there was a massive reshuffle of the cabinet. Pinera’s approval rating is down to 26%. The students are feeling confident, and they aren’t the only ones.
For the past month, Starbucks baristas have been on strike. For two weeks, some of them have been on hunger strike.
In late July, a group of commuters, mainly builders and domestic workers, sick and tired of three-hour commutes to work for a wage as low as 160,000 Chilean pesos (US$320) per month, and price hikes by the privately owned but publicly funded public transport network Transantiago, overran important bus stops and took over buses.
Only one thing is certain. In Chile, the laboratory of neoliberalism, the supposed land of prosperity and market solutions, the market is no longer welcome.