It all happened very fast.
Feng and I parted ways at the Costanera Center, a large shopping mall, after climbing up and down Cerro San Cristóbal. It was around 5 p.m. The guys wanted to get ice cream at the food court, I just needed a can of Coke Zero at the supermarket. We were thirsty and tired from the hike.
“Are you walking back to the centre?”
I shrugged. Of course, I would. I like this one-hour walk down Avenida Providencia, then Plaza Italia, La Alameda and Santa Lucía. These are busy and lively avenues in Santiago, there’s always something to see, something to buy for dinner maybe.
“See you back at the apartment!”
Feng and Mark would take the subway straight down to Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s main square, two blocks from our building.
I paused when I reached Plaza a la Aviación. There was no doubt the protests were still ongoing at Plaza Italia, one kilometre down the avenue. I could follow Avenida Providencia or take Parque Balmaceda, along the avenue.
I decided to take the park. No traffic lights, easy walk, less crowded than Providencia’s sidewalk. I just had to remember to go around Plaza Italia—there’s always police and a crowd of protesters, I try to stay away from the action.
“Traffic is nuts today,” I noted, looking at Providencia. Traffic lights don’t work anymore, so it’s hard for pedestrians to cross the streets and for drivers to navigate the city.
The park was more crowded than usual. I took pictures of Chilean flags on the grass—passersby were invited to add their own political message.
I saw police blocking traffic but I wasn’t worried because I was still very far from Plaza Italia.
Suddenly, carabineros sped by on their motorcycle down Avenida Providencia.
Everyone around me reached for a gas mask into their pocket, bag or backpack as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I understand what was coming. I closed my eyes and tried to cover my face.
Seconds later, we were engulfed in a cloud of tear gas—I coughed but I wasn’t blinded, it was far enough.
I managed to cross from the park to the other side of Avenida Providencia.
Clearly, even though I was far from Plaza Italia, I was too close to it. Never mind, I’d take one of the many side streets perpendicular to Avenida Providencia to bypass the area.
I bumped into the primeros auxilios autogestionados—street medics who provide medical care during protests—right behind Parroquia Santos Angeles Custodios. I chatted with a few of them and took pictures.
“Okay, which way should I go to bypass the protest?” I asked them.
They looked at each other.
Someone yelled “cops!” and we all started running away from Providencia.
Three blocks later, I realized I was in trouble.
There were hundreds of people coming from all directions—quiet side streets, major avenues, subway stations and—walking towards Plaza Italia. I could see clouds of tear gas in the distance and police barricades everywhere.
Priorities, Juliette, priorities: 1) don’t get trapped in a potentially very large crowd of protesters 2) avoid any kettling police tactic (i.e. being cordoned into the area) 3) try to stay away from tear gas, police violence, projectiles (protesters have slingshots), shattered glass, etc.
Good thing I know Santiago very well. I reached the end of Parque Bustamante. My plan was to take Curicó and eventually reach San Isidro, the neighbourhood where I stayed last year.
No way because too many people were coming my way.
I found a subway station. Line 5, three of four stops to Plaza de Armas. Should take me far enough from the protest.
Unfortunately, the subway line runs under Baquedano, the epicentre of the protest. We got tear-gassed in the subway.
I got off at Plaza de Armas half blinded. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting one of the most used riot control agents, this is what it feels like—it stings, burns, makes you cry and cough. It’s hard to breathe. Holy shit, it stings.
But hey, I have previous tear gas experience (…don’t ask…) so I didn’t freak out. I just washed my eyes and waited for the effects to pass.
Okay, so I was back downtown Santiago, way past Plaza Italia. However, all businesses were closing and there was a strong smoke smell in the air. La Alameda was closed to traffic. Paramedics, firefighters and other first responders were rushing towards Plaza Italia.
The guys were okay at the apartment—they had taken the subway back without incident. Feng had a video of a fire he took from the rooftop of the building. Turned out the Centro Arte Alameda, a movie theatre, was burning. This is apparently where the street medics were headquartered for this protest…
I went out again.
Santa Lucía looked safe enough and barrio Lastarria was its usual self, packed with vendors selling second-hand clothes but also political t-shirts, face masks, gas masks, slingshots, marbles and goggles.
I ended up on La Alameda, closed to traffic and packed with people—protesters but also passersby, vendors and zero police. The action was further up, still on Plaza Italia and at the burning theatre. This part of La Alameda was más calma according to general consensus. So “quieter” by Santiago standard means burning barricades and loud bangs as they ignited, explosions in the distance, pavement soaked by water canons and the burning smell of tear gas—good to know.
The three of us went out again for a stroll around 10 p.m. We walked by La Moneda, the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile, guarded by armoured trucks and riot police—they let us through Teatinos, the side street, though.
And this was Friday in Santiago, Chile. Things were quieter earlier this week, probably because of Christmas—I guess the “truce” is over.