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Tale of Two Avenues: the student movements of Berkeley and Santiago

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JULY 20, 2017

A hooded videographer brushes past to get a view. Compañero; move.

I’m in Plaza Italia. Tonight, the demonstration leaders are protesting gender-based violence and abuse, particularly against women. The movement is called “Ni Una Menos,” or Not One Less. A dense crowd of students, reporters and their flash cameras surround two ladies who stand together, holding a banner: “Mujeres Sobrevivientes, Siempre Resistentes,” or “Surviving Women, Always Resistant.”

There will be no violence at the plaza tonight. Yet, armor-clad carabineros – Chile’s police – wait by the street. Batons are held, guns are holstered, but the police force is easily visible to the plaza’s bystanders and protesters by their sullen, green uniformity.

But the carabineros let the demonstration continue, the rally only a single instance condemning and protesting a culture of hypermasculinity, femicide and misogyny. Hundreds of student demonstrators are expected to participate in other rallies throughout Chile.

In a valley of seven million, Santiago’s students, shopkeepers and minimum-wage workers serve as an undying force in protesting issues in the status quo. Wide avenues are overtaken monthly by these students; chants are recited, banners are held, demonstrations are televised, and the President’s administration is soon forced to consider the demands.

Just as students do in Santiago, student groups in Berkeley share a certain solidarity over a diverse array of issues, choosing various methods of civic duty to challenge and object to societal issues.

Our cities’ histories do starkly contrast, however. And while most demonstrations in both cities begin in some plaza, they often end differently: Berkeley gains national attention, but not necessarily for all the right reasons.

I spent seven weeks in Chile learning of an abrasive history, between cities where leftist parties formed and the working class was once supported. A 17 year military regime bred a state of terror for citizens, workers and students, and especially for any civilian with socialist and communist ideologies. Thousands were kidnapped and tortured. More than 2,000 were executed.

There was no free speech. The people of Santiago were dictated and ruled entirely by fear.

But in 2006, and later in 2011, these students began protesting. And after three decades of repression, the students were marching in the avenues, fearless again. Million-person mass mobilizations demanded free, universal quality education, a central focuses in reforming the dictatorship-era institutions.

Occasionally, protests led to police detainment, water cannons and tear gas were dispersed, but the movement highlighted the power of solidarity, something lost in past authoritarian rule.

We share similar styles of protesting: student-led building occupations, marches through city streets, organization via social media, stimulus of unionizing, and confrontations with police.

Yet in Berkeley, even with numerous students who seek to fight for equitable notions and better opportunities, on Sproul Plaza and down Telegraph Avenue, national news has lately played a large role in designating legitimacy in social movements, giving viewers and users an opportunity to judge and condemn incidents on campus and in our community.

Even so, while organized demonstrations in Berkeley can attract ardent activists, political movements can also attract baneful ideology groups from both ends of the political spectrum. Zealous radicals, who are impassioned to travel and sometimes destroy, are often represented in national media.

So when our social movements gain strength, are we reconnected with our past?

For example, the nature of Santiago’s protesting is reminiscent of the early 1970s socialist government, who placed institutional reforms that valued the working class and students.

In Berkeley, the 1960s Free Speech Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations defined student activism in the United States, even receiving criticism from then-president Richard Nixon. Liberalism borderlined with radicalism, as news media has since declared about Berkeley.

Movements aren’t always peaceful, sometimes gathering national attention. Violence is questioned useful tactic or unnecessary force?

In 2017, our campus activism’s legitimacy was questioned by news outlets, critics, talk show hosts and President of the United States, Donald Trump, such as when conservative speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter came to speak the events were soon canceled.

These critics and the media were comparing our current campus climate to that of the 1960s, equating issues with free speech, when it was only a blossoming idea.

But, times have changed. The right to protest hate speech on campus is part of the values established by the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. A new awareness of social inequities deeply rooted in marginalized communities has allowed for greater representation in modern mobilizations, in part by greater attention given from mass media and increased online sharing.

Students today continue to reconstruct their social identity in civic participation on Berkeley’s campus and in Santiago, but the idea of collective action has undoubtedly changed over the course of history, with the evolution of mass media shaping political discourse for millions of users, activists and citizens.

Contact Robert Patrick Van Tooke at [email protected].

JULY 20, 2017