Molotov O’Clock: Photos of a Campus Tradition
Campus Juan Gómez Millas, Universidad de Chile.
Wednesday, May 18th, 2016.
12:00pm — Third block begins. I shuffle into 19th Century History of Latin America, surprised to find the professor cueing up a movie. Normally he lectures the whole hour-and-a-half. Rarely does a man who loves the sound of his own voice willingly step down from a podium. I figure the film must be important.
1:00pm — I was wrong. It’s an Argentinian period piece heavy on cliché romance and light on historical insight. Class gets out early because the professor must get going. I head straight to the study room.
1:30pm — I’m deep into an article on education reform when I realize I forgot to set a place for my 3:00pm meeting with my research partners Camilo and Valentina. Since I can’t connect to the university Wi-Fi , I stuff my notebooks back into my backpack and set off for the nearest place with free internet — McDonald’s.
1:45pm — A proud sponsor of police repression, McDonald’s always has one guanaco stationed at the drive-through, but today there is an extra one. (Guanacos are water-spraying military tanks named after the llama-like animal that spits with surprising force.)
I check my WhatsApp messages: Camilo said we’d have to reschedule due to cosas políticas. Political things? I book it back to campus.
1:50pm — Security guards check my credentials at the gate. They don’t usually do that. I weave through students carrying their lunch trays from the Humanities Department cafeteria to the other side of campus like a salmon swimming upstream.
1:55pm — As I stop to watch a particularly fierce ping-pong rally outside the Science Department, a biology freshman recognizes me from an education politics forum and hands me a flyer. It’s an invitation to participate in a popular assembly for a new constitution — the “mother of all battles” — at 6:00pm. I shake his hand, pocket the flyer and continue on toward toward the Humanities Department.
1:58pm — By the Pedagogy Department two-person teams are filling crates with rocks. They’re the perfect size to throw.
1:59pm — I see smoke. Or is it gas? No, it’s definitely smoke. But then why is everyone tying their scarves like that?
Fleeing tear gas, I retrace my steps toward the Science Department. It’s funny how casual and routine it all seems. The same ping-pong game is going on as if nothing happened. Some kick a soccer ball around as trash burns nearby. Others practice batucada drums.
I keep running into people I know. Francisca continues selling vegan sandwiches out of a cooler even while wiping away tears. Ignacio stands stoically, wondering out loud why the gas is green today, knowing it would blow over by three o’clock just the same. Sebastián, my former research advisor, is surprised to see me and asks why I haven’t contacted him this semester. I mumble an excuse that makes no sense, but, in my defense, neither does anything else.
By now all the encapuchados (hooded ones) are out of molotov cocktails and the fires are put out. The show is over. The encapuchados shout the names of their anarchist collectives, taking credit for whatever happened here. Their fellow students parade back to cafeterias libraries and lounges chanting, “La educación chilena no se vende — se defiende.” Chilean education is not for sale — defend it.
3:00pm — With no meeting to go to now, I decide to take a lap around campus to photograph the aftermath.
The usually packed bus stop is now empty, save for two students wearing earbuds. They know the pacos (cops) have the post-protest clean-up down to a science, meaning they’ll only have to wait fifteen minutes for the blockade to be lifted.
On a whim I buy a sopaipilla outside the mall next door and don’t skimp on the ají. My hypothesis is correct: Spicy food can mask the taste of lingering tear gas. I wonder if the other onlookers have learned learned the same thing.
“There are ten thousand ways to protest,” the owner of a nearby lamp store says. “This is just destruction. It allows the government to say that university can’t be free because they spend too much on repairs.”
His employee shakes her head. “This is an expression of discontent. It’s valid.”
A man further up the sidewalk kneels down to inspect the debris. “Weones,” he said. “These are from my Department. This book is from the 1800s.”
I stroll back into campus. An administrator loudly laments how today was supposed to be a jornada reflexiva, a day of reflection. Two students explain that the problem isn’t a lack of reflection but a lack of representation. Direct action is necessary when the youth are denied their right to education and politicians won’t listen.
3:30pm — I sit down in the same chair as two hours ago, download my photos and open a blank Word document. What to say? That the revolution has begun? That this happens every week? I could call it “clockwork anarchy” or some other oxymoron, but that doesn’t seem fair. I think the students are right to protest, but I can’t shake the sense of absurdity. Maybe images tell more truth than these captions.
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