The smell of tear gas in the morning

As I write there’s tear gas on the air. There’s an intermittent noise, somewhere between a gun shot and a thunder clap, that’s probably the source of the tear gas. On the street corner outside our hotel window there’s a collection of students, maybe fifty. They’re part of a group that’s set up blockades and lit fires. Every once in a while a defiant chant goes up: “we’re not scared, we’re not scared”. But plainly they are.

They’re running now, scattering in all directions. And here come the police, decked out in riot gear and vastly surpassing the organisation of those they’re pursuing. The group has dissipated now and while there’s probably still another blocked intersection to clear, it looks like this protest might be ending. You can watch the video of the final throes below.

Stumbling on a protest

We first stumbled upon the protest this morning while walking to visit Cochabamba’s most famous landmark, a statue of Christ in the style of Rio de Jenero’s, but six feet taller. I say stumbled  because the easy gate of pedestrians around us heading towards or past the blockade being assembled didn’t signal anything unusual. It took the cracks of a contraption somewhere between a fire cracker and a flare launched into the air to make us notice something was up.

The protestors had set up at a few adjacent intersections in the central city. They had lit fires and brought in rocks to stop traffic. They had the kind of wild look that comes from a combination of adrenalin and political conviction. The bandanas and masks they sported showed that they were expecting the police and the tear gas they would bring to try and disperse them.

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Left: a protestor recovers from tear gas while fanned by his peers. Right: there is no possible reason to own a ski mask in this climate other than to participate in protests.

They were at once brave and jittery. They were courting a confrontation, but their ultimate goal wasn’t readily apparent. They get some points for organisation. There were, after all, some hundreds of protestors putting themselves on the line. But their on the ground organisation was lacking. Cries to get into a group or to go this way or that only went half answered.

It was the early stages of the protest so we could talk to some protestors and ask some questions. They were university students. Their demands fell slightly on the more specific side of Occupy Wall Street’s. Their teachers had been on strike for two weeks and they were frustrated by the lack of classes. But more generally they seemed to claim they weren’t being sufficiently resourced, a complaint apparently documented in thirty eight unanswered petitions. Some peers were on a hunger strike, some were taking to the streets.

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Hotting up

Things escalated as we watched. Somewhere the police arrived and a student from another intersection was evacuated to ours clearly suffering from the effects of tear gas. At this point stage there seemed something punitive about the Police’s tactics. There was just one guy who seemed to have felt the effects of their advance. But later when we saw them in action their strategy became clear. Some well considered coordination, speed and tear gas allowed them to disperse a protest that had gone beyond being a little nuisance.

By the time we were back from our statue visit we had to make a detour to get safely around the protest. Bystanders warned us that the gas was very strong. We only got a taste of it, but we can see why it’s so effective. It gets into your nose and eyes like an incredibly hot chilli. It’s sharp and irritating even in moderation. I tried to take some more pictures but the mood had changed. “We’ll step on your camera” they shouted. We retreated to our hotel.

In the name of what

It’s hard to see that the protest would have got its protagonists any closer to its goal. For one thing we only saw one placard and even its message wasn’t very clear. It would be easy for bystanders to dismiss the whole thing as rabble rousing students. The troublesome, daring and almost violent nature of the endeavor didn’t seem to get much attention either. Street vendors actively sought out the protest to peddle their wares in a way that implies this kind of action is common place. No shock tactics here.

Observing the protest has been a much more absorbing travel experience than visiting any statue, anywhere. The atmosphere was wired. There were times I too wanted to see the mettle of the police, though I’m glad when we did it was from a distance. It’s left me with plenty to think about. One of the big questions I’ll ponder is why the protest culture is so different here to at home. A protest that would seem to be the breakdown of civilisation at home doesn’t even seem to register on news websites here yet.

One thought on “The smell of tear gas in the morning

  1. Crickey! Scary! Such a good description I could almost have been there too. Glad I wasn’t though!
    Take excellent care of each other team. X

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