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I’m a proud product of public education. From Pre-K to my college diploma, I trusted and took full advantage of the schools and resources my government provided for me. It came as a surprise when I learned that Chileans don’t have that same liberty or, as some may say, that luxury. It came as an even bigger surprise when students took to the streets. Last Thursday marked the biggest, most violent, and perhaps most meaningful of the protests for public education in Chile.

My apartment is located about six blocks from downtown – the epicenter of the protests. The students want to be as visible as possible, which is problematic for the operation of the city, but has also yielded national news coverage. Chile has some public education. For Pre-K to high school, there are several government-run schools whose funding is administered through individual municipalities.

However, the funding for these municipalities is not uniform and incredibly low. The United Nations recommends that governments of “developed nations” should spend at least 7 percent of their GDP on education. Chile spends 4.4 percent. As a result, the public schools are of very low quality. Chileans do anything they can to pay for private education not only to give their child a good opportunity but also to keep them safe. One of my students once told me that child molestation can be a problem in some of the public elementary schools in poor barrios.

Higher education is a different call-to-duty, but it seems to draw the most support, probably because its proponents are of a passionate age. Although Universidad de Chile is a public university, tuition is still very expensive for its students, and the grant and scholarship opportunities that should be available to low-income students simply don’t exist. Students are always eligible for subsidized loans but they still have to repay their debt after graduation.

Students gather and block Alemada, the main thoroughfare in downtown Santiago. All photos of the riot are courtesy of Jennifer Mattern.

Last Thursday, Aug. 4, was an emphatic exclamation point to what has been more than two months of weekly marches and demonstrations. Some of the protests hark back to Chile’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Women would walk in the streets banging spoons on empty pots and pans, because Chile’s poor was going hungry. Thursday, many students hung out of their balcony apartments creating the same clamor. But despite the raw sentiment of the protests – the need for better public education options —many are becoming out of control.

Thursday’s demonstration yielded an estimated 870 people arrested, and more than 90 police officers were injured. Protesters knocked over trashcans and lit their contents on fire. Storefronts without metal protection doors were smashed. Santiago’s beautiful colonial Spanish architecture was vandalized with scribbles of “Educacíon no se vende” and anarchy symbols. Vehicles were damaged by molotov cocktails. And the tear gas was more powerful and pervasive than it has ever been. I’ve learned to stay away from the streets just because of it but it lingers in the air for about 45 minutes, so even innocent passersby are often gassed.

A caribiñero prisoner transport van, equipped with a water cannon, attempts to disuade students from continuing down Alemada.

The protesters carry lemons, a natural tear gas aid, and shove them in their eyes and mouths to stop the burning.  Some of the protesters aren’t even students – they get liquored up before the protest and buy cans of spray paint because it’s a rush. To keep order the retaliation is brutal and, well, frightening. To see a gas -masked caribiñero launch a tear gas “bomb” into a crowd of chaotic protesters feels like watching a scene from a war movie. But it’s not a movie. And if the government doesn’t respond soon, the protests could only get worse, more violent, and more complicated. It feels strange to have an opinion about a government that isn’t yours and I know I am on the naïve side of how to make these decisions.

I have a friend who is a professor at Universidad Católica, the wealthiest and most prestigious University in Chile. “We are very clear about what we don’t like, but we don’t have a procedure yet,” he said. And I think this is very true. I am in awe of the amount of passion and drive these students have to obtain what they need. But destruction and street fires aren’t going to motivate the wealthy government to make a change. Policy and procedure might. Many people say that President Sebastian Piñera and his cabinet don’t care about the lower class, but destruction, rather than conversation, won’t encourage favor.

It’s hard for me to understand. The impediment of upward mobility in society is something I’ve never experienced directly, but being in the middle of it all feels like something worth fighting for.

So, frying pan and wooden spoon in hand: one bang for their right to protest, one bang for their right to a good, safe education, and one bang, extra loud, for a governmental response rather than retaliation.

Chelsea CookChelsea Cook is a journalist from Atlanta who taught English in Santiago, Chile, and author of the series “Our Southern Girl in South America”.