When I hear that the American events after George Floyd’s death are labeled quirky and unique, I can’t agree. Last year I saw the same script developing at least on two other occasions — in Chile and Colombia. The three protests are so similar that, watching the news from the United States, I could play bingo.
The most tremendous social outbreak in the recent history of Chile began on October 18, 2019, when dozens of subway stations were damaged and burned overnight. The social tension in Colombia reached a boiling point a month later, on November 21. At that time it was already clear that the scheme was the same.
In this article, I am going to refer only to the Chilean experience. I was in Santiago, I joined protests, I took lots of photos and I followed the agenda, pausing it just for sleeping. In general, everything looks like an excellent topic for a doctoral thesis in social psychology, one that I’ll never write, but perhaps someone else will.
Disclaimer 1: I am against conspiracy theories and I recommend everyone to read Rob Brotherton’s book ‘Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories’ so as not to succumb them.
Disclaimer 2: Warning, below there are some links and images not suitable for impressionable readers.
What do social outbreaks in Chile and the US have in common?
1. Police brutality as the last straw
In Chile, as of October 18, 2019, local actions against the second hike, in a year, on the subway fare lasted for several days already. The sudden escalation came after a chain of severe repression acts by the police force against the protesters, including firing shotgun pellets at the crowd outside the capital’s train terminal. A young student was injured in her lower abdomen area.
In the US, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was trapped against the asphalt during his arrest on May 25, 2020, suspected of paying with a counterfeit banknote. A white police officer kneeled on his neck for almost 9 minutes, ignoring his pleas to reduce the pressure. Floyd lost his consciousness and then passed away.
In both cases, the incidents were recorded by the witnesses in photo and video and quickly spread on social networks.
2. Massive protests across the country
In Chile, a week was enough for a strong wave of protests to happen, moving 3.7 million of its total population of 18 million. The largest protest in the history of the country was held in the center of Santiago on Friday, October 25, bringing together at least 1.2 million participants.
In the US, as of the date of this publication, protests continue for a third week, covering all 50 states and bringing tens of millions of dissidents to the streets.
3. Solidarity of everyone with everyone
The peculiarity of both protests is the open support and participation of unrelated groups: People from different social backgrounds, numerous companies, and public institutions.
In Chile, discontent was generated by students from colleges and universities, who had massively jumped the turnstiles of the subway. After October 18, the representatives of all generations began to protest spontaneously, and the agenda maximally amplified.
In the US, Americans of every skin color go to the protests over the predominantly ‘black’ issue. In many cases, white protesters take the ‘front line,’ defending the others. The television network HBO in solidarity temporarily excluded from its catalog the cult movie ‘Gone with the Wind,’ premiered in 1939, and it ‘will return with a discussion of its historical context.’
4. Lack of a strategic center
As in Chile, in the US there is no formal organization behind the protests. The numerous actions take place spontaneously, with minimal coordination of participants through social media and messaging apps. This complicates the control over the situation for the authorities and makes direct negotiations almost impossible.
Experts share the opinion that the recent Chilean and American social outbreaks are unlike others in national or regional history. This has sparked the emergence of conspiracy theories, sometimes cardinally opposed to each other.
5. Dignity and justice as the drivers
In Chile, discontent over the rise in the price of a subway ticket by 30 pesos (approximately 0,04 USD) grew, in a few days, to a global public discussion about social inequality, the cost of education, the taxes and the pension systems, the minimum wage, the insolvency of the neoliberal economy, and even the need to change the Constitution from the times of Pinochet. The banners ‘There is so much shit, that I don’t know what to write’ became widely popular.
In the US, the issue of police brutality mostly against black citizens was the starting point for discussions on the centuries-old racial discrimination issue, social insecurity, and the violation of civil rights of non-white Americans, almost in every single sphere of both public and private life.
In both countries, the underlying root of the conflict is the broken social contract, as it was convincingly explained by this African American.
In Chile, the quintessence of the protest movement were the words ‘Chile woke up’ and ‘It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’ (it refers to the period after the Pinochet dictatorship).
In the US, aside from ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ the protesters often refer to the harsh heritage of the slave system, saying ‘It’s not ONE case, that’s how it has been for 400 years.’
Also, the recurring motifs in both countries are variations of ‘I am here for my child to have a better life’, ‘No justice, no peace’, and ‘They took everything we have, even fear.’
7. Protests like cosplay festival and performances
In Chile, along with characters like Stopman and Auntie Pikachu, the Sensual and Stupid Spiderman participated in the protests. He became so recognizable for his comic-erotic dances, that the main television channels ran stories about him, and invited him to the studio.
In both countries, protesters participate in performances such as lying down on the street as a reminder of the systemic oppression and killings.
8. Violence against peaceful protesters
9. Targeted shooting
In Chile, 2122 protesters were injured during protests due to police shotgun pellets and rubber bullets, 445 of them suffered eye damage. In the capital city center, a university student was completely blinded due to the shooting of pellets in his face at close range. The same month, a woman who was going to work on a night shift lost her sight completely due to a tear gas grenade that hit her head. The events were named the ‘epidemic of blindness’ and were condemned at the UN, meanwhile, Chileans began to go to the protests not only wearing gas masks, but also snowboard helmets, cycling glasses, and welding masks.
In the US, a photojournalist lost an eye to a rubber bullet and a university student to a tear gas grenade. In the videos of the witnesses, a tear gas grenade was shot to the face of a protester, and a rubber bullet hit the face of a homeless person who was in a wheelchair.
10. Dozens of dead
In Chile, at least 34 people died during the riots. Most of them were victims of traffic incidents, projectiles, or fires. It is known about one death from cardiorespiratory arrest in a protest and one from electrocution when falling into an open electrical shaft that got wet from the water cannon.
In Chile, leaving the house at certain hours was prohibited the next day after the riots began. The measure was announced for the first time since 1987, it lasted 7 nights, and it affected a large part of the country. People caught on the street were beaten (one episode got caught live on television), shot, detained, or sent home.
In the US, in the first week of the protests, the curfew was in place in 25 cities in 16 states. In the second week, the measure affected at least 60 million people in 200 cities in 27 states. Detainees risk up to 180 days in jail or fines of up to 1,000 USD, depending on the state.
However, in both countries, the restriction was massively disobeyed both as an expression of a peaceful protest and for looting. In the US, 9,300 people were arrested in the first week. In Chile, they realized that a generation who had never experienced state terror grew up.
12. Military deployment
In the capital of Chile, the army appeared with the proclamation of the state of emergency before the first curfew. The military patrolled the streets and guarded infrastructure. The most dramatic episode with its participation took place when the APCs blocked the way of a peaceful demonstration towards the most affluent part of Santiago. This practically showed where the division between rich and poor crosses the map of the capital.
In the US, as of the date of this publication, the National Guard was mobilized in 31 states and Washington. 74 thousand soldiers were deployed in the cities’ streets, a record number.
13. Aggression against the police and military
In Chile, aggressive protesters on many occasions vandalized police stations and police cars (in this video two points of view appear, from inside and outside). They also attacked the military in hand-to-hand combats and threw a Molotov bomb to a group of policemen. In the main square of the Osorno city, a mob furiously exposed the police and their bus to a rain of stones.
14. Peaceful marches by day, riots by night
In both countries, the events are spiraling, with new participants joining the movement and its tone changing twice a day. The absolute majority of protesters come with peaceful petitions and go home when night falls. The clashes between the police and those who remain on the street radicalize until the morning and are accompanied by numerous fires. You can compare their impact in these aftermath videos from the city of Antofagasta and Minneapolis.
In both countries, the clashes are accompanied by the massive destruction of public and private infrastructure.
In Chile, only 5 of the 52 communes of the capital avoided the riots. At the end of 2019, the losses totaled 2,438 buses destroyed and 25 burned, 12 bus terminals vandalized and 307 junctions with their traffic lights damaged. In the subway, where the protests began, of the 136 stations, 69 were vandalized and 10 burned. 329 heritage monuments were damaged, including a church over 150 years old destroyed by flames.
In Chile, almost all luxury brands are located in a few well-protected districts, which is why the biggest attack was suffered by food and domestic appliance suppliers. During the protests, 452 lootings of supermarkets were documented in the country, 59 of which ended in arson. As a consequence, this caused cuts in the supply chain in some neighborhoods and long queues to supermarkets.
In both countries, witnesses point out that looters often drive expensive cars and seem to have good coordination with each other, while the police do nothing.
17. Plywood and metal reinforcement
In both countries, in response to looting, merchants urgently cover their shop windows. In the US, entire streets appeared covered with thick planks of plywood. In Chile, in addition to this, the facades were protected with metal plates, so many of them ended up looking like bunkers.
In some cases, small business owners leave notes supporting the cause of the protests and with the petition to not harm their only source of family income.
18. АСАВ, 1312 and other graffiti
In both countries, the city walls were quickly covered with the abbreviations ACAB (for the first letters of All Cops Are Bastards) and 1312 (the numbers are the corresponding letters in the alphabet).
However, after the first wave of vandalism, on the streets of the US, began to appear some original artworks by local street artists reflecting on what is happening. The center of Chile’s capital even became an unofficial open-air Museum of Dignity.
19. Destruction of monuments
In Chile, more than 70 monuments were damaged during the protests, most of them dedicated to the Spanish conquerors. One of them was the founder of the Chilean capital, Pedro de Valdivia, whose busts and statues the crowd threw from their pedestals, kicked, dragged through the streets, and painted with graffiti.
In the US, in two weeks, dozens of memorials to the confederates and slavers suffered damage. In 3 cities, the monuments of Christopher Columbus were slammed and beheaded. In support of the American events, protesters in the English city of Bristol threw the statue of a local slaver and philanthropist into a river.
20. Guarding of the presidential palace
In Chile, for the security of the La Moneda palace, located in the center of Santiago, the policemen cordoned off and controlled day and night all the adjacent streets. They protected the residence of President Piñera with such fervor that, in one of the first days, a nurse who walked by lost an eye because of a tear gas grenade shot at her.
In the US, President Trump, known for his love for walls, ordered the installation of a complementary fence around the White House. Its perimeter is equivalent to 3.2 kilometers.
21. Friendly actions of the security forces
In Chile, despite general tension, positive episodes also occurred, such as when protesters played ball with the military or hugged the police. Also, soldiers helped civilians carry their grocery purchases, received small gifts such as cookies and water, and, even once, they protected a crowd from hostile police.
In the US, the main gesture of solidarity of the police towards the protesters is to bend the knee. Its author in this context is a football player in the National Football League, who in 2016 listened to the national anthem this way before games started, to express his disagreement with racial discrimination.
22. Inhabitants clean the cities themselves
In Chile, almost every day groups of volunteers went out to clean the streets after the clashes. Organized on social media, they removed posters, erased graffiti, and tidied sidewalks. However, sometimes the stones were so many that the municipality had to use heavy machinery to remove them.
In the US, many volunteers also participate in the maintenance of the neighborhoods, including Spiderman.
23. Everything on air
In both countries, wide coverage is carried out not only on social networks but also on television. In some cases, this turns quite ridiculous: In Chile, in long broadcasts throughout the country, they showed lootings during curfews, while in the US, the police arrested a black journalist during his conversation with the studio.
24. Support from abroad
In both cases, as an effect of the previous point, the world not only learns instantaneously of what happened but can also express its solidarity.
Chile was supported by demonstrations in front of the country’s consulates in Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, Germany, France, the US, Canada, and Australia. The world’s attention to the protests was also attracted by a Chilean singer, who showed her breasts with the text ‘In Chile they torture, rape and kill’ on the red carpet of the Latin Grammy Awards-2019 in Las Vegas.
The US united the entire Western world around their protests. The protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement were held in most European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
25. The president lives in another universe
In Chile, on the night of October 18, when the riots and arson of the subway stations started, the president was still celebrating his grandson’s birthday in an Italian restaurant, in a wealthy area of the capital. Within 36 hours he claimed that the country was ‘at war with a powerful, unrelenting enemy.’ Then the army general said, referring to himself, that he was ‘a happy man and was not at war with anyone.’ Besides, Piñera was the first president in the democratic history of Chile to instate a curfew and to have the military forces on the streets, not because of a natural disaster, but for political reasons.
In the US, the president repeatedly allowed himself brusque comments and direct threats towards protesters on his Twitter account, and he once received a restriction from the platform for inciting hatred. During the protests in Washington, for his photoshoot with a Bible in front of a church, many peaceful activists were aggressively dispersed, including some Australian reporters. Then the general who gave the order admitted that he shouldn’t do it. Also, Trump hid for a while in the White House bunker, later calling it “an inspection.”
In both countries, as an effect, the two leaders faced low approval ratings like never before. Under Chilean law, Piñera cannot participate in the following presidential elections. Trump, in the experts’ opinion, in November of this year he will lose to the opponent who is solidary with the social movement, Joe Biden.
What distinguishes Chilean events from American ones
- The protests were sparked by social and economic inequality based on social class, not race.
- Immediately the demands for the resignation of the president were spread with the slogan “Piñera Out”.
- 10 days after the social outbreak began, the president fired a part of his cabinet, including the minister of the Interior and Public Security, who is his cousin.
- The police did not forcibly remove people from their cars; instead, protesters stopped drivers, demanding them to dance to pass.
- In the Latin American tradition, protesters banged pots and pans massively and regularly to demonstrate solidarity.
- The population is not allowed to carry firearms.
- And, of course, there was no coronavirus pandemic.
Balance for Chile and forecast for the US
4 weeks after constant confrontations with enormous human and material losses, the Chilean Congress approved a plebiscite to evaluate the change of the Constitution. It was arranged for April 2020, but instead of the expected second wave of the social outbreak due to its possible results, the country was hit by the first wave of the pandemic.
Despite the announcement about the plebiscite and the spontaneous popular celebration, the violence did not leave the streets of the capital until the beginning of the quarantine. Occasionally, even under these conditions, hunger riots occur in some poor communes of Santiago, because nothing has come to replace the neoliberal model that undermined itself.
If the American protests continue to develop according to the Chilean model, they will not end soon and they will radicalize. Peaceful protesters will leave the streets in the short term, leaving them to the most aggressive and looting participants. Also, the aggravating factors for the US can be the historical rise of unemployment, the economic recession, and the health crisis.