I Hope That I Can Still Make It To Those Riots That Weekend
This is a story that I wrote in 1998 after I had just returned home from one year abroad in South America backpacking, teaching English as a second language, and playing on a Chilean men’s rugby team. The weekend described in the story was near the end of my year abroad, and I was at the time living Santiago, Chile, living in an apartment with a couple of Chilean guys, playing rugby in the evenings and weekends, and teaching English a couple of hours a day Mon-Fri to pay the rent. I have not reposted it in 17 years.
— and now back to 1998…
These are the words I uttered to my Aussie friend, Joseph- “I hope that I can make it to those riots that weekend.” Instantly, I realized what I had just said and brought it to Joe’s attention. We laughed at the oddness of the statement. Joe had just asked me if I was still interested in taking a weekend trip to the beach about an hour outside of Santiago, Chile. By no coincidence, a group of Chilean friends our age, mid-twenties, were renting a beach house for the weekend of September 11 this past summer. Traditionally, that date is one of remembrance and a bit of chaos in Chile. 1998 happened to be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the military coup in Chile, which ended in the death of the then elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973.
There is much speculation that the CIA was involved in Allende’s death, a possible assassination but I am not here to speculate. I am here to get to the riots. Really, how many people who grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco get a chance to experience a very foreign country’s history and witness first hand the ritual of an annual day of rioting by Communists. I should probably explain what the hell I was doing in Santiago, Chile in the first place. I had been travelling with my good friend, TJ, across South America for nearly six months. When the planned time to return home came I decided to stay and head for a big city to teach English for a few months. But enough boring stuff.
I had agreed to join the group of Chileans and Aussie Joe at the beach for the weekend. They were anxious to avoid the riotous weekend in the city and relax by the sea. I had not visited the beach and to be honest, was a bit scared of getting caught in riots. I was living in an apartment in the city’s center, no more than three blocks from possible marching lanes. For the few previous weeks I had been hearing stories about the upcoming weekend from locals and Ex-Pats who had been there the previous year. Basically, I was informed that thousands of Chilean Socialists gathered in the city near the river and marched to the cemetery where Allende is buried. Once at the cemetery, the police- in riot gear, wielding tear gas guns- would prevent the visiting of the grave and hell would break loose, pitting enraged, passionate citizens against armed, padded, psychological-analysis-lacking troopers.
It is difficult to simply describe what I experienced when I joined the activities without giving a bit of my limited historical perspective on the situation. Well, for nearly twenty years after the military take-over in 1973, Chile was a dictatorship and thousands of people disappeared, were tortured and killed for dissidence. This is a hot topic recently because the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet is under arrest in Britain for his crimes against humanity. With a turn toward a free market economy in the Nineties, there are still many dissidents and just plain bitter people.
“I hope that I can still make it to those riots that weekend.” This was my concern when I realized that beach weekend was the same weekend as the annual riots. What you might want to understand is that sometimes I lack an ability to calculate into my wants a certain concern for my personal safety and/or respect for others’ situations. On that note, I continue. It was decided in my head that I would stay in the city Thursday night, while everybody else headed to the beach, and take a bus alone to join them the next night, Friday. That way, when the riots went off on Friday morning I could catch the main event.
I got up at about ten o’clock. I had planned on getting outside earlier before the streets in the center were blockaded but I had been working a lot and was tired. But enough about me. I went out on the street and had already been blockaded out of the main five block center of Santiago.
My street, as it turned out, was just on the ‘outside’ of the border which the police lined with mobile fences. I walked half a mile along the barricade, which was guarded at every corner by at least a couple cops. They wouldn’t let anybody, not on official business, inside. And it was difficult to fake any business because all shops and businesses within the center were closed that Friday. I walked back and forth, up and down the fence, testing its extreme limits and they were all covered and continuous.
I got frustrated and was going to retreat to my apartment for further thought when I noticed that a small shopping center tunnel on my street had not been sealed off. I entered the tunnel and it led me to within No Man Land. Once inside I just acted like I belonged there and realized that there were a shitload of people on these streets going about whatever activities they were doing. There was nothing open, save the main supermarket. This proved to be very convenient because I was hungry, and lacking a refrigerator in my apartment, needed to buy some food. A big bag of fake Oreos was the perfect mid-morning meal; sugar for energy and I think I bought a Diet Coke for a caffeine booster. I had succeeded in infiltrating the day’s events but still had maybe two hours until they began. Hell, I didn’t even know where the cemetery was. I had no further plan but I had my ten dollar piece of shit camera I bought on the street in Bolivia to replace my broken Canon, and I had a day to kill. I went where I saw people going and came across a city street-wide line of Communists and sympathizers marching toward the plaza which contained the supermarket where I purchased my fake Oreo and my Diet Coke.
The procession had to be a few blocks long, thousands of people, many carrying demonstrating material- flags, spray-painted sheets with messages and such. There were many youths with bandanas or various pieces of cloth covering their faces
just like a bandit in the old west of the Cowboys and Indians days.
Rain loomed above in the ominous skies and drizzle was continuous. This crowd flooded into the main open plaza next to the river and, well, demonstrated. Now, I am no chameleon. I stick out like a sore thumb almost anywhere. In South America, where the general population is that number of people which keep the average height of all people from being higher than it is, I, being six feet, two inches tall and two hundred pounds, pale, with earrings and a 49ers baseball hat, was hardly making an attempt to conceal my origin. Like I said, I had no plan. I did not think ahead to the fact that many people would be wielding Soviet hammer and sickle flags. My spanish was not nearly at a comprehensible level and I was pretty left out of anything that the guy with the microphone on the bed of his flatbed truck was saying but there is a lot to understand without words. Everybody was angry. Big banners with Allende’s (pronounced ‘a-yen-day) name and image waved or dangled in the still air. Anti-military and I assume pro-socialist slogans were chanted. “Allende. Allende. para siempre!” Allende forever, this meant, was repeated over and over and printed all over the place.
Naïve and perhaps a bit clueless, I began to feel that maybe I should be somewhere else but I endured as a silent observer and took pictures conservatively. You have to keep in mind that my understanding of the whole situation was limited and much of the reasoning I explain now, I did not have while I was in that crowd. I estimate that a few thousand supporters came at that point. The speaker continued his uneventful exercises in public speech and perhaps motivation.
However, there were still many of the young Chileans, mostly males, with the bandanas to hide their faces and they were becoming agitated if not impatient with these calm proceedings. All of a sudden a United States flag was raised on a stick in the center of the crowd. I was confused and then, two or three men began putting fire to it. Lighter, torch, I am not sure what the instrument used was but the flag was not catching fire easily.
There was a growing vocal support for the burning of the symbol, through groaning approvals. A more flammable material, some kind of paper was lit under the hanging flag and it slowly began to burn itself up. The men were praised with cheers and I watched my home signature being incinerated. Now, I am not some passionate nut who even felt any type of impulse to protest the event. I realized where I was and kept quiet. I felt threatened and the inside of my chest and/or stomach twisted a bit at the site. All of a sudden, it wasn’t such a not to miss event for me and I felt somewhat foolish and small. I was there, though, and not leaving such a potentially unique and interesting experience.
The rallying continued but a splinter of the crowd began to cross the bridge over the river, to the cemetery, I assumed. Banners flew, and the streets ahead were bare except for the beginning flow of people. The march was headed into a part of the city with which I was not very familiar; poorer and less built up than the tall banks buildings and institutions we just left. Along the way, I began to see vendors.
These vendors weren’t the already numerous fried goods and candy vendors which patrolled the perimeter of the in need of nourishment Communists and all-around troublemakers. These vendors were stocked with lemons by the wheel barrow-full- three for the equivalent of twenty-five cents. I figured that the lemons were for throwing at cops when the inevitable confrontations began. I didn’t want to buy any for fear of getting questioned by police while carrying any objects for hurling.
Teenagers were spraypainting messages along closed shop walls and closed newspaper stands. Phone booths were unlucky for the fact that they had glass sides that were easily smashed. I skirted the sidewalk and continued along at the crowds’ pace. We passed a gas station which was blocked off by the police riot fences. The owner and cops obviously did not want gasoline available and stood guard by the building, a good distance behind the fence. Three to five of the bandits with the masks began hurling rocks over at the cops, maybe trying to break windows on the store or of the cars in the lot. The majority of the crowd yelled “NO! NO! Stop! Not now!” This I could understand in Spanish. The cemetery was a hell of a walk and every time we passed police-either behind fences or on hills or behind a line of armored vehicles- nearly everybody, down to the older women gave the bird and yelled any number of wonderful obscenities. I recognized only a handful of them, but I like to think I that I learned something there that day.
The cemetery was reached. Across the street in an alley were the riot suppressants. Waiting for the necessity to act were several armored transport-type vehicles with water cannons on top and pointed metal rakes on the front.
From what I had heard, I didn’t think that I would be able to enter the cemetery at all. People were going in, though. Included in the entrants were older couples, who obviously wanted no confrontation but wanted to pay homage. I followed, and after a long walk past some of the more bizarre mausoleums I have ever seen, I reached Salvador Allende’s grave. I have to admit, it was beautiful, made of several large granite pillars. The grave was the centerpiece of that walkway, and surrounded by tombs. Roses had been placed on the platform, the center of the gravesite. People took turns speaking. Being an ignorant mono-linguist I had trouble following the emotional Spanish expressions. But, the gathering was very tranquil and I had seen enough to be satisfied. I walked back toward the exit.
The cemetery was large and I had forgotten the way back to my entrance. I walked in a few circles and somehow ended up at the gate on the opposite side of where I had entered. I got to this gate and was disappointed because it was farther from the areas of the city with which I was familiar. I re-entered and began back toward Allende’s grave. I planned on retracing my steps. On my re-entry I noticed that there were many people making their ways out of the grounds, and in a bit of a hurry, I might add. I got back to the grave and started back to where I came in. I only got so far and people of all ages were going the other way really fast and the path ahead was nearly deserted. I got up to a point where I joined some of the bandits with masks. They were stopped on the path. Some were breaking pieces of concrete by smashing it on the concrete path. Others were hurling the sizeable chunks over the tombs which lined the path. Throwing rocks at the cops, I assumed. Bricks, rocks, walkway- anything hard with some mass was being heaved.
It was at this point that my eyes began to burn. My nose began running and burning like crazy…..bandanas…..ohhhh. I pulled my collar up over my nose and mouth, which now felt like somebody ran a wire brush down my throat. I heard the sound of some type of explosive, or gun. Everybody yelled to watch out. A stream of smoke fell through the trees and onto the path. A tear gas cannister; and those damn cops were accurate. I was at this point observing from a much greater distance down the path, my face still igniting from the inside because of the gas. People were sucking on lemons. Lemons, dammit. They weren’t for throwing. As it turned out, if you suck on lemons it cuts down the effects of the tear gas. Boy, was I happy that I didn’t buy any lemons and waste that twenty-five cents. I should have taken a hint when a few people in the march had been carrying gas masks.
I don’t know exactly what kind of defensive position the police were holding on the other side of those tombs, but the bandit youths
didn’t feel like they were penetrating it enough. As some of the
bandits continued to hurl stone, most began rounding up together and
darting in between the tombs- toward the police! Several more tear gas
canisters had been landed and I was overwhelmed. I retreated toward the
far gate and out. The tear gas was effective on me, although I wasn’t
technically causing trouble. I don’t know what came of the bandits who
were in so close to the police. I did watch the news later and saw the
cemetery gate I originally entered. At the point the news camera began
coverage, the gate had been blocked off. There were hundreds of rioters
outside and the giant police truck was hosing everybody down with the
high pressure water cannon.
I don’t know why or at what point the event changed from an homage
to a confrontation but all over the city the police were suppressing
outbursts. It was a no-win situation. Once out of the cemetery I
walked in the general direction I figured would lead me home. After
passing through many very low-income residential neighborhoods, I
somehow ended up back on the bridge avenue where the march had begun.
There were not really any people on the street anymore. It was as if a
tornado had swept straight down the street recently and now I was
looking at the aftermath. A three-story scaffold had been tipped over
and was leaning into some power lines. Several of the phone booths were
smashed to hell. Graffiti, garbage, broken windows here and there. I
had had enough. As it turned out later, many rioters had broken into
ATM machine rooms and tried to smash the machines and extract the money inside. The machines were too tough and the effort was given up. It was a bizarre day I had witnessed. Many people felt so
passionately about their history of suppression and did not want to let
it go unremembered. Many others, I imagine simply wanted to tear up the
city, lacking many actual difficult memories. From the beach house
after I finally arrived, I saw news coverage of more outbreaks the
entire weekend from all over the country. It appeared to be a
proportionately small amount of demonstrators overall. For most, such
as my friends with whom I spent the weekend at the beach, it was a
solemn weekend. It was a weekend to avoid the craziness. The following
weekend would be ‘The’ national holiday. September 18 is the Chilean
version of Canada Day or The Fourth of July in the USA. The week I
celebrated those holidays is a whole nother story I can’t get into right
now for space constraint. But everybody generally was waiting to have a
positive, get-together-with-your-family celebration the next weekend. The weekend of the anniversary of the death of the Chilean
Socialist government and its leader Salvador Allende is not a weekend
that can be avoided in Chile. The majority let is pass as quietly as
possible. It fell on a Friday, and the day was taken as a national
holiday. It appeared that even those who disagreed with the uproarious
activities had a respect for the expressions of those involved. I had a
great time at the beach. My company of Chileans were in a good spirit
all weekend and politics was a light issue. We barbecued, ate, drank,
danced, walked on the boardwalk. My Aussie buddy, Joe and I had a fun
go of it, crossing the Spanish language barrier as best we could.
Basically, that meant we did the dishes every time we felt like they
thought us gringos weren’t pulling our weight around the house. It also
meant teaching our new friends how to say god-awful phrases and to cuss
in another language; and vice-versa. There are different places in our world. Different events go on.
Things that happen somewhere else and are relatively normal, I figure,
have evolved to that state, while yours and mine and whoever else’s
normal surroundings tell different stories.
Being a foreigner in a foreign land the significance of such events to another county’s people nearly passed me. Until I got first hand involvement (and there were very, very few foreign spectators) I might as well have been watching CNN and thinking, “Oh, when are these little countries going to
civilize.” Once I saw it up close and felt the events I could see more
clearly how complex the workings of entire peoples is no light matter.