May Day is International Worker’s day. In Santiago, tens of thousands of people came out to celebrate. And a few, to graffiti, throw rocks, and do battle with the police.
El primero de mayo (the first of May) has long been a pro-workers celebration holiday. In Chile, continual struggles on the part of the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), a workers’ movement, to raise the minimum wage to approximately $500 US per month have failed. When Arturo Martínez, the president of the group, got on stage this year, he was booed and whistled at.
The march started at around 11AM and proceeded peacefully for ten blocks until around 12:20, when a group of encapuchados (hooded protesters) started pulling back barricades, uprooting street signs, and throwing rocks at the police. The march was called off, but a small group eventually made their way to Plaza Brasil, where a stage had been set up to read letters to the government detailing workers’ demands.
Some people wonder how much of the encapuchados' activity is for them, and how much of it is to feed the media machine. Photographers often count among their gear a helmet to keep them safe from rocks, chunks of concrete, and paint bombs that the encapuchados throw.
Young workers against neoliberalism
The word neoliberalism is used to describe the economy as it currently stands, which was developed by a group of politicians who studied economics at University of Chicago.
MST (Socialist Workers Movement)
Red is a color often associated with May Day, due to its communist connotations. Black is also often used, and in Chile, flags are waved on long pieces of semirigid blue PVC pipe, which makes them more visible as they fill with wind and move across the horizon.
The May Day march, as many marches and protests in Chile, becomes a platform for many different social groups, such as proposals of retirement fund changes, health care reform, and anti-hydroelectric dam (Hidroaysén) movements.
Groups of people convened near the Universidad de Santiago (USACH) campus, and moved east along the Alameda (main street in Santiago, the name of which is actually Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins) up towards Avenida Brasil, where a stage was erected for music and speeches.
Vendor and videographer
While some items (like the pins and books, below), are more political, the Chilean flag is used at pretty much every protest. There's also an abundance of photographers and videographers who share their photos and footage afterwards on social media sites, such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter. Chile is very active in social media, and the information fairly flies across the lines the day of an event.
Vendors take every opportunity to sell their wares in Chile, where the informal economy is very strong. The protest featured the usual flag sellers, along with politicized materials, from books to pins, keychains, and mugs.
Without audio, you'd have no way of knowing that some groups of people were shouting offensive, accusatory slogans at the police and in general. With a very vocal student protest movement still afoot, people (especially those active in the student movement) take any march to air their grievances.
Chapas, or pins, are worn on jackets and backpacks, mainly by school-age kids in what seems like more throwbacks to the '80s. You can bring your design to a shop and have them press the pins for you at a fairly low price.
There are people who believe that if Allende's government had not been toppled, Chile would have continued to move along in a more socialist vein, and that many of the protests taking place now would be unnecessary.
For many people, the ideal president was Salvador Allende, the socialist president whose government was taken down by the September 11, 1973 coup, in which Augusto Pinochet came to power. This impersonator shows up at many left-leaning events and is always a huge hit among spectators.
It's fairly common to see some representation of folklore or dance at marches and protests, with the dancers accompanied by a band that follows them. When the march pauses, they dance, and spectators crane to get a better look and take photos. This dance group appears to be dancing in a style from the far north of Chile.
Baby wearing is relatively new in the big cities, but, especially among people who take public transportation or walk, it has become quite popular in the downtown area. Mostly moms, but also dads can be seen wearing their babies in cloth slings and (more commonly) backpacks and front-packs.
The Mapuche are an indigenous people from the close-south of Chile and Argentina. They represent a strong political force, and they are involved in land conflicts in parts of the south that some refer to as a civil war. Chileans are fairly divided on what they consider to be the "Mapuche issue," and a recent call was made for the 2012 census (which is in process) for everyone to claim to be part Mapuche, so that their rights will be recognized.
Child with gas mask
People in Chile bring their children everywhere, and most kids have a pretty good grasp of what's going on politically. I have heard many parents explain to their children what people are marching or protesting for when they come across a march on the street.
The police in Chile are insultingly referred to as "pacos," which is a derogatory slang term. When they're holding their shields and dressed in riot gear, they are often referred to as the "tortugas ninja" (ninja turtles), from the old comic book. This is also an insult.
The encapuchados (masked protesters) are at every march, for ecological, educational, or in this case, workers' rights. They pull down signs and use them to start barricades, which they then surround with trash and light on fire. Last year my street went several months without a street sign because the encapuchados had pulled it down.
These barriers are used for crowd control, wired together by a subcontractor, who comes through later with trucks to unwire them, stack them against a wall, and later cart them away. Often as not, they will have to first untangle them from a pile where they've been toppled over and tossed all over the street.
Waiting for backup
Seeing a plume of thick black smoke might cause panic in some places, but Santiaguinos are fairly used to the disturbances at this point, and it's well known that if you're a couple of blocks away, you'll be fine. Minutes later, a police vehicle came through and the police advanced towards the conflict zone.
The police in riot gear are always present at marches, expecting the (seemingly inevitable) rock and paint-bomb throwing. Here they are flanked by a water cannon, which is called a guanaco, for the llama-like animal present in the north and south of Chile, and which typically spits when it feels threatened.
After the hooded protesters (encapuchados) start to throw rocks and paint bombs, the police vehicles swoop in, usually with an alarm and the sound of a shot, spraying water and shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd. Spectators and peaceful participants usually use this as a cue to run away, but some will stay to confront police, or to take photos.
The riot-gear wearing police is almost always all male. I was surprised to see this female officer out on the street with a visor on.
A fire burns in the distance near Barrio Universitario, a neighborhood just south of the Alameda, where much of the destruction often takes place after protests and marches. It is a neighborhood filled with universities and technical schools, and the main street, República, is lined with some of the loveliest mansions in the city. The destruction generally does not touch these, but centers on commercial installations on the Alameda such as this protest's victim, an Itaú bank.
These colorful splatters mark the street, the police vehicles, the occasional photographer, and even the police's riot gear. They are generally glass juice bottles, which are filled with paint, lidded, and then thrown out into the crowd towards the police. They break on impact, filling the street with broken glass and colorful stains that will last through a few rains, at least.
After the march, there was an "acto," a kind of read-aloud manifesto of workers' demands. Meanwhile, a few steps away, people lined up to shop from a minimarket that was risking a fine for being open on a mandatory workers' holiday. Owners may work, but may not obligate their employees to do so.
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Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.