A View from Inside an ‘Occupied’ Chilean School

“For us the differences that might exist are diversity and that is the positive aspect of this movement. Where there are many positions, discussions and the fact that we argue things out, that betters our final positions and requirements,” said  Camila Vallejo.

The city was vibrant – a prosaic lunch break in the bedlam of downtown Santiago. The hustle and bustle scales down as coworkers grab a bite to eat. Nothing was different. The shriveled woman stood in a corner selling grapes and peaches, Peruvian immigrants parked their strolling carts filled with oranges squeezing fresh juice. Policemen pacing around the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, eased their guard to exchange jokes. And the brisk winter wind, a novelty in the capital, blew many already bundled Chileans back indoors. I couldn’t help but wonder how daily life continued when a large building in sight, the main campus of the University of Chile, was under complete siege by students. Did they not notice the looming banner saying ‘The struggle of the entire society. All for Free Education” plastered on the building? Did they merely throw out the thousands of flyers of missing youngsters? And another thousand more of former Presidents Michelle Bachelet, Ricardo Lagos and Jesus saying ‘Where are they?’ Or where these mass student protests seen as another frivolous montage by the ‘young decadent generation’. Little did I know that everyone meandered the hub of student activity waiting for the creative student demonstrations to light up their day – eyes smiled with rapture while entire faces acquired a faint expression of pride.

As I approached the Headquarters of the University of Chile the Andean folkloric music blaring from the university slowed everything down for a little as I was transmuted into another era –an era much like Paris in 1968, where you had the time to think about the world, universities where the bedrock of political activism, and artistic expression was the best form of protest. The zampolla and Victor Jara’s soothing voice turned the entire block of the University of Chile into a space for indigenous and national revival. Cement walls became canvases for freedom of speech, social demands and awareness – “Have you seen Jose Huenante? Victim of the state under democracy”, “We are all Manuel Guiterrez (16 year old boy shot by authorities on August 26th during protests), “Raise your Voice”, “Chile must be Different”, “No more Market Education”, “FOR SALE: Public Education”, “Study and Pay till Death”, “Turn off the TV, Turn on your Mind”, “Today we are Stronger than Ever”, “This triumph is a homage to those who fell in social struggles and gifted with their blood the fertile seed of the Chilean revolution that we are taking on…-Allende”, “To the Streets, Its about Time”, “University in Strike”, “City under Occupation”, and many more.

“A donation?” two boys mumbled at me—an upside down traffic pylon with coins and a few peso bills dangled right in front of me. I took a look up and saw two boys perched up on a ledge comfortable with chairs and desks steel legs jutting out onto the sidewalk. In my bewilderment I soaked in my surroundings and realized the students were asking for a contribution since they were cooking, cleaning and organizing activities with their own money.

Students continue to educate classmates and other Chileans asking trivia questions about Chilean history on a microphone. I continued to circle the vicinity of the university, apprehensive to step foot inside, let alone peer inside, since intimidating students playing the tabla fully coated in paint leaned over windows triumphantly overlooking the wide avenue. A sign at the entrance urged for help: “We Need (education): Sheets, toilet paper, liquid soap, soap dish soap, brooms, paper towels, deodorant, cardboard, any games, and love.”

But as I walked inside students welcomed me with the creativity that defined the student movement. A man dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow with a Jolly Roger flag hanging from his belt holds my chin with the tip of his cutlass humorously asking for identification. Echoes of a behemoth underground pierced at me from all angles. Lost in this dark alley my only reaction was to spin—spin and look at my surroundings, spin in amusement and spin so I could follow the voices. Girls, wearing comfortable slacks, skipped by me, an unshod boy whistling and stroking his guitar sauntering around the halls steered me towards the voices into a sunlit atrium. Enthusiastic schoolgirls sat in a circle in a ‘literature of the dictatorship’ workshop where students partaking in strikes and occupation of schools continued to learn and explore their interests despite the suspension of classes. While all around them others constructed elaborate banners, puppets, and costumes for strikes. The zeal students shared for knowledge was ever-present. Flyers for different kinds of workshops—film, environmental policy, theater, and education itself—were topics students themselves studied and taught each other.

I crept into a coruscated door. A quaint theater was used as their personal space for general assemblies, meetings, and some lectures. The chatter so common to any classroom lingered. The general assembly was a space to debate a large spectrum of issues –from cleaning issues of common areas of the university, to innovative forms of protests, to the general strategy of the student movement. All newcomers are nudged into the limelight of the stage to give a statement of purpose and, if interested in partaking in the occupation of the university, explain what their objectives are. Globetrotters from around the Southern Cone supporting students were the latest newcomers; without a place to stay the students invited them into their household as long as they offered their helping hands. Students most loyal to the occupations resided in the orchestra seating. Overlooking all occurrences and developments during the day and sleeping and safeguarding the campus at nights—with a few board games scattered around. Signs reminded students to keep their space clean, recycle, and share with others: “Rules of the Occupation: 1) Do not smoke, people sleep here, 2) If you eat remember there are others in the room – use trashcans! 3) When you leave fold and organize your sleeping bag and/or sheets, 4) Maximize space, there are more people who want to sleep, 5) If you see your peers sleeping lower your voice, 5) Lets all help keep this space tidy and organized.”

Looking around I saw many eyes roll, necks crank and knuckles crack. I was witnessing the first splinter dividing the student movement: some wanted to continue mobilizing and occupying schools while others wanted to hand over the educational conflict to leaders who would negotiate with the government. One student openly expressed her distrust of student leaders saying, “the CONFECH [Federation of Student from the University of Chile] is led by political parties and attempts to fix this problem by pleasing other political parties, while schools on the periphery are mobilizing and acting with absolutely no voice or vote in these decisions.” Leaders like the President of the student union of the University of Chile (FECH), Camila Vallejo, the President of the student union of the Catholic University (FEL), Girogio Jackson, and Patricio Contreras the President of the University of Los Lagos, were succumb by the reality that they had to stop mobilizing on the streets and start negotiating with the government, especially since violent outbreaks, many instigated by masked demonstrators, where a source of criticism. They thought they should stop occupying schools, to finish the school year and stop demonstrating to negotiate with the government for concrete results. Reaching the hardest stage of all, leaders now realized it was easier to mobilize and energize crowds to fill the streets with creativity and culture, but motivating them to continue following legislative processes was a challenge. Giorgio Jackson reiterates the disappointment with negotiations saying, “There is a very different power balance once we have to face a round table. There is a certain degree of vulnerability that generates a risk and skepticism of the results.” The sit-down negotiations were, by default, an immediate surrender, but with leaders vehement to bring the movement to its fruition expectations had dwindled. In one camp stood students who wanted to push forward with larger demonstrations, counting on the support from the CUT (Chile’s largest Workers Union), the Transantiago (Bus Driver Union), and CONFUSAM (National Confederation of Municipal Health); on the other hand, leaders saw the recent murder of a student in the demonstration as a harbinger of more violence to come, thus leading them to begin negotiations with the government and the Commission of Education. Their differences were palpable. The disillusioned, and more radical students insulted leaders calling them ‘sell-outs’ who were being manipulated by political parties. Meanwhile the leaders trying to find a solution were disillusioned with government negotiations since in a bureaucratic battlefield the government had the upper hand.

Although they were all separated into little niches—they worked for their community to stay together. They alternated groups to cook meals for all the students, they recycled all the material they used, they shared air mattresses, sleeping bags, sheets, pillows—and ideas. A group of students coated in paint were preparing to run around the Presidential Palace and parallel streets reminding lunch dwellers that despite the CONFECH sitting down with the government for negotiations, students continue to demonstrate and mobilize families. Interrupting people whilst they eat and catching their attention through window panes, the support from waiters, workers, and corner store owners was tremendous. Women encouraged students clapping as they chanted, ‘Lo que el pueblo necesita es education gratiuita, porque el pueblo esta cansado de las leyes del estado” (“What the people need is free education, because the people are tired of the laws of the state’), and albeit store fronts closing and locking hinges to avoid looting, owners cheered students on.

Corner kiosks, highly susceptible to stealing, cover candy as student demonstrations pass by, but as I lagged behind to buy some newspapers the owner sold me papers at half the price merely because I was following students. The owner, as a father of four, chiming with students, “Yes, I have struggled very much to put my kids through school.”

Students rejoiced in their cause changing the monochrome hues of Santiago daily life, but like Chile’s history idealism is crushed by authority’s crude baton. Police presence triggered immediate hostility with thousands chanting, “Asesinos” and “Alla estan, ellos son. Los que matan sin razon”. The mere presence of Carabineros resurfaced historical antagonisms. Once demonstrators came back to the University of Chile, Alameda Avenue transformed into a literal battlefield –students sauntered around, caught up with old friends, stopped to share a cigarette where disturbed by the stagnant frontline of armored authorities in open confrontation. After an hour of serenity, students, tormented by the presence of the authorities, begin to approach the front-line, asking policemen why they insist on being there. One student said, “Maybe if you took off your shin guards, kneecaps, and baton we wouldn’t call you Fascists. What we need are firefighters to put out fires, not you guys. But you insist on coming out here and aggravate us.” Yet attempts to reach out to individual policemen turned out to be a damp squib resulting in authorities dispersing crowds with teargas and water canons.

But the repressive tactics used by authorities are nothing new to the student movement that has been rocking Chile for the past two months. Amidst violence breaking out between students and authorities the cohesive student movement, suffering from the common divisions between leftist parties, reached a fork in the road dividing students between those who settle for negotiations with the government and those who stand for more anti-system characteristics. At the demonstration students asked on loud speaker, “Where are the leaders of the CONFECH now. I ask myself. Where is Camilla Vallejo? Where is Giorgio Jackson?” Students losing a whole year’s tuition and credits are opting for a solution now satisfied with more state funding towards public education and an end to profit-making educational institutions. On the other hand, students with a more radical agenda tell the press that the student movement is no longer about obtaining specific demands but is inherently a ‘political and ideological movement’.

Javier Fano, the President of the Federation of Students of the University of Talca, arose as the first dissident within the Student Federation stating that, “we lit a fire and now have no way of putting it out’ referring to a student movement which he believes is manipulated by the ‘antisystemic left.” Although partaking in the student movement’s initial glory, Fano now initiated a rupture at a national level saying, “We pushed for an education reform that is not disrupted by seeking institutional breakdown. Here we mark a difference,” and said this is not the right route.

As I walked out of the University saying goodbye to the same maniacal grin on Jack Sparrows face it dawned on me that the Chilean student movement revived the left in the country and, like history warns us, submits it to the same divisions that can stifle it. While students continue to engage in negotiations with the government, many schools resume classes. Yet Camila Vallejo insists that these differences make their movement stronger: “For us the differences that might exist are diversity and that is the positive aspect of this movement. Where there are many positions, discussions and the fact that we argue things out, that betters our final positions and requirements.” But like every party that lasts too long, the three-month party of occupied school campuses in Chile breaks off into different niches to begin a party elsewhere.

Shalini Adnani is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile.