Chile is a special country. It is remarkably wealthy and surrounded by comparatively poor — and politically unstable — neighbours. In ranking economic freedom, it scores highest in Latin America. By a long shot. It has a stable, sustainable, and fully-funded pension system, as opposed to the “hit-and-run” systems of most Western countries. It’s the poorest member of the OECD aside from Mexico, and for the last two decades or so the richest and most prosperous country in all of Latin America — a region otherwise known for hyperinflation, corruption, and Amazonian deforestation and forest fires.
A grim — and very recent — history of dictatorship, oppression and desaparecidos has imbued in the population a fighting spirit rarely seen elsewhere. A fuerza — personally as well as publicly. The protests that emerged last year before the pandemic swept them under the rug were not unique events; they form part of a long and strong tradition of Chileans publicly making their voices heard. Their hyper-sensitivity to injustices fuel an eagerness to protests.
And Chilenos are pretty good at protesting too. When I lived there in 2013, the topics that gathered masses were disputes over higher education: private vs public universities; poor quality at too-high cost; frauds and corruption; debt, and great difficulties for young people to find themselves a reasonable career. Not unlike some debates over student debt in the U.S., many young Chileans have mountains of debt hanging over them like some fabled sword of Damocles, threatening to blow them up at any moment.
What I found particularly odd in watching these protesters weren’t the topics over which they were — ostensibly — fought, but how the dynamics of a peaceful protest escalated into violence, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets fired. I saw a number of them myself.
A garden-variety protest worked something like this:
- protesters gather at a pre-arranged place and time, at the ready with political banners and horns and whatever else you usually bring to a march. Fully-armed and well-equipped police forces monitor them from a safe distance. So far, so good.
- As the protest gathers pace, the chants of the protesters grows louder, the intensity building, the air thick with anticipation.
- Amidst the crowd of thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, are some people with slightly less pure intentions. In hindsight, you could usually identify them by the remarkably heavy backpacks they carry and the thick scarves they wear around their necks. Otherwise, they blended into the crowd, looking like any other protester popping out on his or her lunch break.
- After a while, some of these disagreeable individuals decide that it is time. They bring out the rocks and pebbles and fireworks and whatever other less-than-peaceful devices they carefully prepared — and start hurling them at the police forces. Anticipating this, the police officers, dressed in full protective gear, raise their shields and field off most attacks. For most police officers, this isn’t their first rodeo; they know what’s coming, and they know it’s a game of patience. Sometimes the protests end and fizzle out before these distasteful individuals have tilted the march into a downward-spiral of no return.
- Sometimes, particularly at the larger and more intense protests, these troublemakers hurl one-too-many stones at some police officer who can’t take it no more. Maybe he had a bad day; maybe he still has bruises from the last protest; maybe he’s a sadistic sod who actually enjoys beating up younglings. He lashes out with the shield— or worse, the baton — at the unfortunate troublemaker who ventured too close to the barricades.
- When dozens of regular protesters standing by see this police brutality against what looks like “one of their own,” their anti-dictatorship instincts kick in. This is what those in power did just a few decades ago: assaulting members of the public with impunity. Sympathy for the troublemaker explodes, rivalled only by the anger against the police officer. As the mob gets in his face, other members of the police rush to his aid, trying to calm the protesters to the best of their abilities. Usually in vain: It is too late. “This is no longer Dictatorship,” the protesters shout, “you cannot treat members of the public like this!” followed by an appropriate amount of curses, slurs, and insults.
- The troublemaker has achieved his purpose, rallying the otherwise friendly masses against the police. Soon enough, more rocks and sticks and metal objects are hurled at the police; fist fights everywhere; batons swishing through the air; screams of pain when one side or the other gets hit; even louder screams of anger when their teammates suffer wounds.
- Soon enough, none of the police’s initial patience remains; it’s all-out war. They mount the water cannons and start emptying their vast containers at the rioting masses — which, of course, proves their point that the police is violent and over-reacting, perpetrating the crimes that their oppressive predecessors committed under Pinochet.
- If water is not enough to scatter the crowd, tear gas is used. The troublemakers, prepared with masks and scarves, are usually the last ones standing, as the rest of the upset-but-otherwise-peaceful protesters have had enough of this nonsense.
And on and on it goes. Next time there’s a protest, both sides know what’s going to happen. The police is more frustrated and less patient than last time; the troublemakers have deeper sympathies and more members joining their ranks: innocently receiving a slash from a baton tends to do that to people.
Welcome to a socially-infected spiral of violence.
What the troublemakers do so well is to hide in a perfectly reasonable crowd. Nobody disputes the general crowd’s motives, or their right to protest. Troublemakers run forth with rocks or metal objects and, before they’re beaten with batons, again seek coverage among the reasonable protesters. What they manage to do is play on the pre-established heart-strings (protect your tribe!) of “fellow” protesters — and turn their (serious) concerns into a farce.
Intellectually, I find this dodge-and-feign tactic in many other areas too, though usually in less violent versions. The tactic itself remains. Some part of a legitimate and reasonable movement — be they feminists, LGBTQ rights activists, BLM propagators, alt-righters, climate catastrophists and other extremists — get out of line, hurl offences at the rest of us, or say things that are blatantly untrue. The world ends in 7 year; the gender pay gap is oppressing women; the Amazon is the lungs of the earth; biology has an endless plethora of sexs and genders, all equally legitimate.
Those of us with less patience for scandalous falsehoods eventually lash out, correcting the worst excesses, and pushing back against the exaggerated story. The larger masses, instead of policing the deviant “followers” in their midst, retaliate against us for refusing to receive our Lord and Saviour. Repeat, until the beliefs of the entire crowd has polarised — or at least the sane voices are silenced or pushed to the side.
And on it goes. Welcome to the world of polarised and infected political discourse.
The flip side is also not so great. I always think of Chilean protest tactics whenever I find myself in agreement with some otherwise disagreeable types. Mr. Donald Trump, an otherwise reliable indicator of falsehoods, has found a way to, Orwellian-style, twist his own past words — and came out recently with a reasonable position:
Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York.
I don’t pay much attention to his unsubstantiated rants, but my understanding is that when he says something there’s a good chance that reality is exactly backwards. Naturally, I can’t discipline the President of the United States: he doesn’t really listen to me, let alone read what I write.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, so perhaps it’s just that. When he says things that I happen to agree with, it still makes me uncomfortable. The few times it has happened in the past, I’ve ignored it.
The uncomfortable bedfellows that the corona pandemic has created are just that — uncomfortable. Do I have a responsibility to police the rest of his mindless rants once he moved out of his accidental accuracy?
Perhaps. But it’s not that easy. On a personal level it might be easier to compartmentalise these lunatics, think of them as something entirely different. I admit that I have a certain responsibility to speak up against — perhaps even police — those who misuse my ideas, or go on to derive conclusions from them that I’m uncomfortable with. I admit that those of us who favour liberty often don’t dispose of quacks and crooks well enough: racists, homophobes, climate deniers. They hide in our midst, spreading their nonsense from within our ranks, diluting and misconstruing the ideology.
The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing
To whomever we wish to attribute the quote (Burke? Mill?), its sentiments still stands.
Let’s just say that I sympathise a little more with the struggles of sane and genuine feminists, LGBTQ rights activists, BLM propagators, conservatives, and climate scientists. The good people in their broad tents aren’t loud enough, and I don’t see them often enough. But I’m sure they’re out there.
It’s not always so easy to police those who exaggerate, misconstrue, or otherwise run with what you fundamentally believe is correct. And it places you in a strange position.