Monday, September 5, 2011

Choreography and caserolazos for change

In case you haven't heard, student protests against the high cost of public university tuition are an ongoing "problem" in Chile, and almost all universities and a large percentage of public high schools have been taken "en toma" or seized by the students for a live-in protest. You can tell which schools have been taken by the chair and table legs that stick menacingly through the fences surrounding them, serving both as a physical barricade and giving a sort of barbed wire look to the property. Huge banners draped along the outside ("affordable, high-quality education for all!") and a few scowling student guards operating blasting subwoofers by the barricaded entrances are equally good indicators. Students have set up whole communities inside these institutions, with infrastructure for cleaning, public service, sleeping and meals (to prove they're responsible and serious), not to mention plenty of practice time and space for their creative protesting techniques.

It is these inventive, peaceful techniques that have won the movement international attention, as well as a sort of awe for the numbers and passion of the youth involved. Their publicity-stunt methods have included mass kiss-ins, large-scale public pillow fights, a nationwide day of marches with plenty of honking, puppets and banners, skits, and even dramatic mass ¨suicides¨where students choose a public area to lay motionless on the ground--"killed" by a neglectful government.

And then there's the dancing. I already posted video of their Thriller protest in an earlier blog, but here's a more recent Lady Gaga approach and an even more recent Party Rock episode that just occured last week in my city, Antofagasta. My tenth floor apartment towers over one of the high schools en toma, so for weeks leading up to the performance I was able to sneak a peek into the courtyard and see them practicing.

Chileans are constantly asking me my opinion of all of this. In general, I support the students, and believe that higher education, like health care, will only strenthen the societies that value it and should therefore be goverment-funded and affordable everywhere. However, when they point to my country as an example, I'm quick to clarify that universities in the United States, while excellent, are also exorbitant, although we at least have a much better system of scholarships and federal aid in place. On the flip side, I'm also fast to point out that the "free" schools that I experienced in France (or closer to home for Chileans, the free system in Argentina) are severely lacking in quality. In other words, I think there's a compromise to be made between the current, expensive system that doesn't make accomodations to cost of living or family income and the free-school-free-food-free-transport dream that the students are demanding, but in any case, change definitely needs to happen.
The Chilean public, which I think at first had more of an "aww, look at the young rebels! so cute!" attitude at the beginning, has become more and more respectful and supportive of the movement. In a country that is still very much living in the shadow of Pinochet's oppressive regime, the movement itself has grown to symbolize much more than just education--it's a demonstration of the power of individuals to affect change, of the political voice of the youth, of nonviolent protest and a good life for all Chileans. Chileans of all regions, ages, genders (the student leader is a girl!), races and backgrounds are banding together to support the students. One popular method being a nightly caserolazo, or pot-banging, where people lean out of their windows or take to the streets to hit empty pots with wooden spoons, creating a metallic chorus of discontent that echos that produced during the dictatorship (with the empty pots then representing the hunger of Chile's starving families). I participated in one of these with my host parents, who were moved and empowered by the parallels to the dark era that marked their early lives.This parallel was driven home in a quote from Camiola Vallejo Dowling, the student leader, who said “For many years our parents’ generation was afraid to demonstrate, to complain, thinking it was better to conform to what was going on. Students are setting an example without the fear our parents had.”

It's difficult to know when the protests will end, since PiƱera's (new and increasingly unpopular) administration doesn't seem poised to appease them any time soon. The tension is escalating, though. At this point, many of the students have been absent from class for so long that they have forfeitted this year and will have no choice but to repeat it--in other words, they have nothing left to lose, and no reason to quit fighting. Protests have also been turning more and more dangerous, with more violence and tear gas on the part of the cops, culminating in public outcry over the accidental death of a 14-year old boy in Santiago last week. My students experienced this violence firsthand when a few of them tried to break into the school early last week to take it en toma, only to be roughly apprehended and taken to the police station to be collected by their parents.

Since my school is semi-private and owned by the Catholic Church and not the governement, it cannot legally be taken en toma--it would be trespassing on private property. My students still got their fair share of the action, however--striking with the teachers' blessings on the national day of "paro" to participate in the Antofagasta march, and then continuing to strike for several days afterward against what they perceived as the school administration's failing to protect them from the aggression of the cops during the failed takeover bid. After three days of sitting in the soccer field and drafting their own set of demands (that they not be punished for the classes they'd missed, that the school allow them to hang banners in solidarity with the cause, that the school agree not to call the police to discipline students in the future) they finally, begrudgingly returned to classes, but I get the feeling that many of the would prefer to join their comrades, because really--what an exciting time to be a Chilean high school student!

And what an exciting time to be volunteering here! First Tunisia, now Chile--I seem to have a knack for picking the most exciting, dynamic political climates to live in!

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