This January, I wrote an article about the massive protests that erupted while I was studying abroad in Valparaíso, Chile last fall. I had never witnessed social unrest on such a large scale. I had never seen so many people demonstrating together, across an entire country, united by one cause, across party lines and differences of race, class, gender and other identities. I had also never witnessed violent oppression by the state against peaceful protesters.
In my article, I posed the question: “Could this level of unity among the people ever occur here, and what would be the results?” I also noted that:
In the United States, although we certainly see increased policing, mass arrests of protestors and the criminalization of certain social movements (re: mass incarceration that started during the Civil Rights Movement) it is hard to imagine our military patrolling the streets where we live or the government prohibiting us from leaving our houses after a certain hour.
Reading this now, it is glaringly obvious just how naive I was. At the beginning of June, I moved to St. Paul, MN for the summer. There, I went to protests where we were surrounded by the National Guard. I once again found myself living under a curfew. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the uncanny resemblance to the protests in Chile.
There are obvious and important differences between the two movements. One is centered around class inequality, while the other stems from systemic racial oppression. One was sparked by a government spiking a metro fare, the other by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. Although the inequality in Chile is deep-rooted and the people have been calling for action on individual issues for decades, the sense of a broad, cohesive movement was novel. Meanwhile, the official Black Lives Matter movement is not new—it began in 2013. Finally, much of the stratification of wealth in Chilean society is due to the Pinochet dictatorship and its neoliberal economic policies. The dictatorship ended in 1990, so it has been 30 years since the country’s return to democracy. In the United States, however, the structures that oppress, traumatize and kill Black people are hundreds of years old.
That being said, the similarities between the two cases are remarkable. I feel like I could draw a timeline of events for each situation and every stage would match up perfectly—from the “tip of the iceberg” event that sparked the groundswell, to the spread of education about the underlying systemic injustices, to the tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets used on protesters by police, to the installation of a curfew, to the protests spreading across the country and even internationally, to the deployment of auxiliary forces to keep the “order” (in Chile, the military; in the United States, the National Guard).
Politicians, the media and citizens alike have criticized the violence in both scenarios. However, in both cases, people have been peacefully protesting the issues at hand for decades with little to no change. When peaceful protests fall on deaf ears for so long, people have no other choice. Quite frankly, America does not have the right to tell Black people in this country how they can and cannot protest. And in Chile, a government that took years to reckon with a brutal dictatorship that killed, tortured and disappeared thousands, and has only perpetuated inequalities in the aftermath of Pinochet, also has no right to judge the outrage of the Chilean people.
What should be in the spotlight in both countries is the violence against protesters at the hands of the police. In both cases, the police have used tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets—ruthlessly—against largely peaceful protesters. In both cases, the police have arrested and detained people who were simply exercising their right to demonstrate. In both cases, state-sanctioned violence has been used to control, curb and punish those asking for justice—all under the guise of law and order.
In Chile, the massive protests actually led to hope for change: The government agreed to hold a referendum about the possibility of finally rewriting the Chilean constitution. (Originally scheduled for April 26, the referendum was pushed to Oct. 25 due to the pandemic.) The current constitution is handed down from Pinochet, and codifies many of the systems that have produced such stark inequality in Chile, such as the privatization of water. Chileans had been protesting the country’s inequities for 30 years and nothing changed—until they forced the government to listen.
Americans oftentimes see violence or unrest in places like Latin America and say, “That could never happen here.” We believe that our democracy protects us from the political unrest that many other countries experience. Some Americans even look down on countries that have suffered through horrible dictatorships and oppression (that the United States oftentimes supported and even established) and call those countries undemocratic and unstable. We forget that our country has also experienced this level of social unrest and protest and is experiencing it again. It should be obvious that our democracy is, in practice, not very democratic.
Many Americans also often look down on places like Chile, where there is extreme repression of protests, violence against protesters and restrictions on freedom of speech and the freedom to demonstrate, and say “That could never happen here.” We naively believe that the freedoms granted to us in the Constitution will protect us from state-sanctioned violence. And yet we have witnessed violence against protesters this summer again and again, as well as the criminalization of the entire Black Lives Matter movement, exemplified by the prejudicial targeting and arrest of protesters. This should not come as a surprise, as it has happened before. May it serve as a wake-up call to those who have forgotten.
In Chile, a metro fare hike was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was finally time to reckon with 30 years of wealth stratification and with a neoliberal government filled with corrupt politicians who care more about their own wealth than helping the country’s poor. Sound familiar? At least Chile has universal health care. On top of extreme wealth inequality, Americans must also reckon with the deep-rooted racial violence that continues to kill Black people. Let’s take our country off of its pedestal.