Santiago’s Silent March

8 Sep

Students don black and light candles in honor of the victims of the Juan Fernández plane crash.

At 7 p.m., in days fading light, thousands of students gathered at the gates of the Universidad de Chile’s architecture faculty in downtown Santiago.

The majority dressed in black and light candles as night set in.

“We wanted to make this peaceful and beautiful in memory of the people who died in Juan Fernández,” explained Priscila Hudson Saravia, education student at the Universidad de Chile,  referring to the plane crash of Friday Sep. 2, in which 21 died.

“They were doing something important,” she said of the victims, which included government workers, entrepreneurs and journalists who were going to oversee and report on reconstruction on the island following last February’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

The march — called for earlier by the student federation of the Universidad de Chile (Fech) —  began at around 7:30 p.m., going down Santiago’s main thoroughfare, Alameda, and winding its way through the capital’s downtown.

There were some banners, occasional chants and even a few horns, but in general the mood was sombre, standing in stark in comparison to the carnival atmosphere that has characterized previous marches.

“We are also commemorating the death of the boy who was killed not long ago by a police officer,” said Priscilla.

The evening she was referring to is August 25, the second day of a nation wide two-day strike, in which 16-year-old high school student Manuel Gutiérrez was killed by a stray bullet fired by Carabineros police officer Miguel Millacura.

Riot police formed barriers at various points that kept the marches to a prescribed route, and although students pointed at them and chanted “They are the ones who kill without reason,” there were no physical confrontations.

Pictures of the March

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In contrast to some earlier marches, the evening passed without any major incidences of violence or vandalism.

“Much of the media only shows the worst images [from student protests]; of encapuchados (masked vandals), of people throwing rocks and causing damage,” said Priscila, “but tonight wasn’t like that.”

Chile’s students have been on strike for nearly four months now, demanding free university and quality education. Despite many peaceful and highly creative protests, violent minorities and confrontations with carabineros have drawn much of the media attention.

Representatives of international human rights organizations were on hand to keep an eye on proceeding. “We’re here to make sure that there is no police repression” said one, who claimed to have witnessed police violence against minors at previous marches.

People of all ages were present at the march, including an elderly couple who each wore a sign that read, “We grandparents support our grandchildren.” The couple received rousing cheers from the crowd.

The march ended at the main campus of the Universidad de Chile at around 8:30 p.m., when students placed hundreds of candles on the facade of the university, illuminating signs that outlined their demands, along with messages of condolence to the victims of Juan Fernández and images of Manuel Gutiérrez.

After half an hour the crowd began to disperse of its own volition, although after 10:00 p.m. — with most of the crowd gone — a police water cannon extinguished a large fire of cardboard boxes and plastic on the courtyard of the university.

Thursday morning also saw student marches in Puerto Montt, Valparaíso, Valdivia and Concepción, many of which were also ‘silent.’

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